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Are synthetic courses the way forward?

Might the shape of things to come in golf have begun in what was once an orchard in Luxembourg?

Opening mid-May at the Kikuoka Golf and Country club is a six-hole compact course. Nothing unusual about that. But there is a tradition-breaking difference. The contoured greens are made entirely of plastic.

And the revolutionary project in the small but prosperous Grand Duchy (400 banks) that has never had a revolution, could well have repercussions throughout the golf industry.

By dispensing with natural grass, architect Steve Marnoch has opened up a new approach to course construction. If similar projects are adopted it cannot be ruled out that synthetic courses could appear and that would have an appeal in countries afflicted by a chronic water shortage.

Already golfmarnoch Ltd have had inquries from Greece and Cyprus.

Up until now golf has been played on turf. Artificial surfaces have been restricted to winter mats and driving ranges.

Anything other than grass will be regarded as heresy and yet what is about to be unvieled in Luxembourg is not quite unique. A similar experiment has been undertaken at a course in Madrid but Marnoch's lay-out differs insofar that the greens look and behave like any normal putting surface and are not flat.

Plastic has been used for football and cricket but until now nobody has employed it for golf greens in the way that Marnoch and his team have come up with. One important aspect is that it saves money and that alone could be a major selling factor.

Steve Marnoch, a 47 year-old senior member of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects based at Bakewell, Derbyshire, was not the originator of the idea.

Credit must go to Richard Barnes, course manager at Kikuoka when he, club manager John Pickford and Marnoch were discussing the creation of a compact six holes to increase facilities at the complex near the city airport.

Explained Barnes: "We started off thinking in terms of a completely natural course. Then I suggested using synthetic tees to avoid wear and tear. It then struck me that, in order to save money, why not include the greens. Everybody at first was dead against it. We had seen flat greens in Holland and elsewhere but not contured."

Finally the three thought it was worth trying. Marnoch takes up the story: "John, Richard and I go back a long way and we decided to do some research on the best suppliers. So they went to America and back home looking for the product to best suit the purpose.

"We settled on materials from Duragrass Companies Inc. in the States with Supatee, a UK firm, supplying what we wanted for the tees. Work began on August 1, 2007 and the whole construction was finished in eight weeks.

"From the original plan the area was reduced from 300 square metres to 180. Had grass been used the process would have been much longer in completion."

Richard Barnes is in no doubt that the finished article is as good as grass greens. "There is a constant surface and I think it will catch on in hotter climates where water is a big problem. Also, councils that have low budgets are always looking to save on maintenance."

What has started in Luxembourg cannot be written off as a madcap scheme. Steve Marnoch and Richard Barnes have long experience of golf architecture. Marnoch, whose father was head greenkeeper at Coventry Hearsall, qualified as a landscape architect and is currently engaged on projects in Belgium, Portugal and Bulgaria after working extensively elsewhere in Europe.

A former greenkeeper at East Sussex National, Barnes has been at Kikuoka from the start in 1991 when it was Japanese-owned and a regular host to the European PGA Challenge Tour. Now the complex is in the hands of local backers.

John Pickford, who is also the head PGA professional, used to be an assistant to ex-Ryder Cup player Ralph Moffitt at Coventry Hearsall.

Says Marnoch: "John and Richard took what can only be considered as a bold decision to create the course in the way agreed. Even the American firm had never installed their surfaces on totally shaped sand-filled greens before.

"The brief I had from John was to create a compact course to be played on as a short course for members, visitors and also act as an additional practice facility for the team of resident pros.

"With this in mind the hazards and shaping was formed to offer the full range of shots which we would expect when playing anywhere. Most of the holes play through the former orchard so there are trees to contend with.

"The greens are contoured offering four or five good fixed pin positions and fashioned in the same way as natural grass greens in order to provide a completely realistic playing environment.

"The contouring has been carefully monitored to make sure that the greens are not too fast. I recommend nothing above ten on the stimp meter. As to cost it worked out at 115 euros per square metre compared to 65 euros on the USGA specification.

"While using synthetic is dearer initially there is a big saving on maintenance and water. On a full course that would be a significant reduction. Yes, it is possible to produce a complete synthetic course.

"Our experience is that with synthetic you would think you are on natural greens. They look like it and feel like it."

Will plastic catch on? "I think it is something that should not be ignored. I was sceptical to begin with, but my eyes have been opened.

"You ask me if this would mean the end of greenkeepers? I think not. Although maintenance is low, the greens are not maintenance free and there is, of course, still the normal maintenance and natural upkeep to the natural grass areas.

"I would be interested in producing a fully contoured, totally synthetic course and that would include bunkers now that I have an excellent team with the understanding of the specifications and methods for installation, it would be an exciting and progressive project.

"I think the idea might appeal for inner city courses as well as those where water supply is a problem and there have been inquiries from Greece and Cyprus. I have heard nothing yet from Australia where there is the worst drought for many years.

"I understand a full sized artificial putting green has been put in at the Centenary Park club near Melbourne. With this project of ours in Luxembourg who knows where the future lies. There are so many possibilities."

One, that Marnoch did not mention was that on an all-synthetic course replacing divots would be a thing of the past for which greenkeepers would be heartily grateful.

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