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Mair Sand

There’s a big push in the UK golf scene to get back to basics and to return golf to a simpler, more relaxed and enjoyable game played on tight, firm and fine turf.

In a recent article on the Fine Golf website the author tackled the subject of Organic Matter in golf greens and the distinction that quite often isn’t understood between Organic Matter and Organic Material.

For some reason the site isn’t accepting comments or replies but I sent an email to thank the author for an informative and encouraging article. I’ll copy it here as although the article was about golf, my reply highlighted the similar situation being wrestled with in bowls.

Mair Sand

Congratulations on your article “Organic Matter v’s Organic Material”. It’s a nice summation of the turf industry’s long running obsession with adding “mair sand”, as Tom Morris might have put it.

I’ve been pushing against the traffic on this issue for many years, but the feedback now is starting to be very positive and hopefully growing, spurred on by the publication of articles such as this. The industry, including the curricula at many colleges promotes the act of top-dressing with sand as a universal fix for firmness, smoothness, levelling and my personal favourite “diluting thatch”, but the hard evidence is completely contrary to the claims made for it.

I help a lot of bowling clubs and bowls greenkeepers with these issues. They have caught the bug from their golf counterparts who are usually considered to have more experience, education and general clout when it comes to greenkeeping. Bowling greens have the same need of firm, true and smooth surfaces as golf, but a very large number of the greens in the UK are suffering at the hands of the mair sand brigade. Greens (or certainly the uppermost 4 inches) are inert in many cases and suffer as a result from a multitude of problems including hydrophobic soil, excessive thatch and poor levels. The poor levels and unpredictable playing performance are caused almost exclusively by an excess of recently deposited and un-processed Organic Material in the form of thatch. Thatch can alter the surface performance in terms of trueness, smoothness, hollows, bumps and of course speed, yet top-dressing is still rolled out as the answer. In relation to the sheer scale of say, a heel print on soft turf, what chance has top-dressing to correct this on an ever changing playing surface?

Bowling clubs are susceptible to any expert who comes along claiming to have a quick fix, usually in the form of a product that claims to eat thatch or cure dry patch and of course it is never as simple as that. However, these small, under resourced clubs will often choose the seemingly fast track solution over the reality of the hard slog to physically reduce thatch and start to bring life back to the soil over a longer period. As part of this, the annual ritual of top-dressing, with its rather dramatic appearance including lots of hands on deck,  big bags of stuff to man-handle and the general drama of the event for a small bowling club, engenders the belief that this “surely must be doing a lot of good?” In this way, top-dressing has become a tradition at most clubs, almost a talisman, an offering to the great god of the greens to ensure good performance next year. When the good performance is short lived or even absent, the blame is always laid somewhere else, never with the top-dressing. This inevitably results in the greenkeeper being fired and the next expert being wheeled in to scatter his magic dust.

The real solution of course requires clubs (golf and bowls) to take a step back and think for a minute and hopefully take a bit of advice from someone who has actually looked at the clear and objective evidence. The club can then start on a program that recognises that the green is a living eco-system and not merely a series of problems and symptoms to be killed or manipulated. With this type of objective and evidence based greenkeeping, greens can quite quickly be turned around to provide consistently high performance surfaces that are firm, true and level (in the case of bowls). The bonus, at least for bowls clubs, is that the major expense of top-dressing can be dispensed with as the greens are in most cases so full of sand that no further application is required and a long period of restoration of humus (through natural processes) must begin.

Misunderstanding the USGA Specification

One possible reason for the march towards mair sand is a fundamental misunderstanding of the USGA and similar specifications for green construction. Although well thought out and easily replicable sets of rules for creating high performance greens, the USGA specification, at its heart merely aims to make it easy to reproduce the inherent performance and mechanical characteristics of the natural seaside soils that have provided perfectly smooth, fast and true surfaces for golf and bowls for centuries. Although the USGA specification includes guidance on creating and maintaining the perfect rootzone, due to its apparent (mis-understood) complexity, lots of people take what they know about it (it seems to be very sandy) and apply that to their green situation. This has resulted in the demise of many golf and bowling greens in the UK, as mair and mair sand is applied to try to copy the USGA spec.

The USGA Spec and the Natural Seaside Links soils it reproduces are not all about sand. They provide the ideal growing conditions for the fine grasses that produce the best golf and bowling surfaces possible. They do this by providing the ideal balance of soil moisture, nutrition (reliant on fines and stable organic matter) and drainage, and not simply by being very sandy.

The Tom Morris Contradiction

The apparent contradiction with Tom Morris? No contradiction. Tom Morris wasn’t buying in kiln dried sand to apply to the hallowed turf. He was applying an exact copy (the local dune sand/soil) of his existing rootzone material in terms of Particle Size Distribution, so adding mair sand didn’t alter the texture of his greens rootzone one iota.

I’m encouraged by your article, hopefully the tide is turning.

The original article this replies to here.

The photo at the top of this article is of Tom Morris snr. in 1905. The most famous of all greenkeepers, Open Champion golfer and keeper of the hallowed greens at St Andrews

More on Tom Morris here.


  1. derek carter says:

    hi john , have sent in numerous letters to the club committee,in regard to dry patch and thatch fungus [or it could be fairy ring] uncertain. spoke to the greensman . he said he will aerate with solid tines . i replied by saying he should use wetting agent as well, got rebuffed. at a wits end . can you please help.

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