Header photo by Jason Livy, courtesy of Royal St. George’s Golf Club
At the 2011 Open Championship, the last one held at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, a handful of players had harsh words for the R&A after it failed to anticipate a wicked storm ahead of the third round and prepare the course accordingly. But the majority of competitors praised that week’s setup. The course’s fairways, often criticized for being too lumpy and unpredictable, were sufficiently wide; the rough sensible; the pins positioned appropriately; and the heavily contoured greens rolling at a suitable pace. The setup allowed Phil Mickelson to mount a final-round charge that included four birdies and an eagle in the first 10 holes before he stalled out with four late bogeys. And it saw Darren Clarke win with a 72-hole total of 275—about right for a major championship, all things considered.
The event seemed a success in most respects, but one man was left with a few reservations about how it had gone. Paul Larsen, the club’s assistant greenkeeper, wasn’t convinced that the turf was all it could have been. “Don’t get me wrong, 2011 was good,” he says. “But I just wanted the course to play a little more like a true links. It had got a bit soft, too target golf.”
Larsen estimates that roughly 70% of the turf on the greens that year was made up of Yorkshire Fog (a softly hairy perennial grass), poa, and ryegrass. “We regard them as weedgrasses,” he says, “not the true, fine, running grasses a links should have. There’s no place for rye on a links course.”
The weedgrasses had proliferated, Larsen adds, because of over-intensive maintenance that had become the trend: excessive watering and chemical use, and shaving the grass too low in the name of speed. “That put it under a lot of stress,” he says. “And we were feeding the greens so much. It wasn’t good for the long-term health of the grass.”
Most superintendents, course managers, directors of agronomy, and keepers of the green have curious backstories, but Paul Larsen’s is truly something else. For a start, his father is from the Seychelle Islands, his mother’s Irish, and he speaks with the sort of blue-collar London accent you probably don’t hear a lot at a club like Royal St George’s.
A devoted fan of Robert Smith (lead singer of The Cure, a British band he’s seen live about 20 times), Larsen has an occupational timeline as wild as some of his haircuts. After leaving school at 18, he became a groundsman in London, “mowing footballs pitches for a pittance,” he says. After two years of that, he wanted something a little steadier, so he became a postman. Five years later, he took redundancy and traveled the world, at one point helping build a roller coaster in Australia.
The head greenkeeper at Royal St. George's is my new favorite person in golf pic.twitter.com/obN9gjT4OW
— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) July 14, 2021
On his return to England, Larsen took a job in a solicitor’s office, but after growing bored of that, he applied for an assistant greenkeeping position at Sene Valley GC in Folkestone, about half an hour south along the Kent coast from Royal St. George’s. “I’d loved golf since I was a kid,” he says, “so thought a golf job would be good. But the pay was terrible again, so I bought a van and did a lot of landscaping stuff on the side.”
The no-turf education/mailman/backpacker/roller coaster-builder/office-temp route into the turf industry is far from standard, but Larsen made it work. He’s too modest to mention it, but he obviously learned quickly at Sene Valley, as he was offered an assistant’s position at Royal St. George’s just a few years after starting. In 2007, Larsen moved to Holland, where he was made head greenkeeper at Zoetermeer GC, and he returned to Royal St. George’s to become first assistant a few months before the 2011 Open.
Less than a year after Clarke’s emotional victory, Paul Larsen was promoted to the top job at Sandwich and began the lengthy, challenging process of firming up the course’s playing surfaces. With the blessing of a supportive green-committee chairman (“I had two, actually, and I couldn’t have done it without them”), Larsen began spraying the course with a weed-killer called Rescue. This got rid of the unwanted grasses but left bare patches that revealed just how poor the surfaces had been.
“We didn’t have much grass left on the greens, to be honest,” Larsen remembers. “The club secretary would ask, ‘What the hell have you done now?’ and some of the members did come at me a bit.”
Intensive burning, spraying, reseeding, and top-dressing slowly had the desired effect, however. By 2017, when Royal St. George’s hosted its 14th Amateur Championship, the course was playing much as Larsen had wished. But in 2018, the country suffered its worst joint heatwave and drought since records began. You’ll remember how baked Carnoustie was for that year’s Open. Well, Royal St George’s may have had it worse. “I lost 60% of my grass coverage,” says Larsen. “The course was burnt brown, basically.”
The only turfgrasses that survived were the native Highland bent on the greens and the drought-tolerant sheep’s fescue (festuca ovina) in the rough. “So I drilled in a lot of sheep’s fescue,” says Larsen, “and we had to work quickly to get the fine fescue on the greens back. It was really a race against the clock because, at the time, we thought we had two years to get ready for the Open. It definitely looked a little dicey for a while.”
Despite the flamboyant hairstyle, drainpipe trousers, and unlaced Converse, Larsen is a typically restrained, phlegmatic Brit, but the slight pause he takes before describing the efforts of his team during this period betrays a deep satisfaction. “It was bloody hard work,” he says. “There was a lot of seeding and top-dressing by hand, and there were a lot of long days. You can talk about your staff and say they make you proud, but when I look at the work they’ve done I’ve got to be thankful. They bought in to what I was saying and they did it.”
As for last year’s Covid-prompted cancellation of the Open Championship, Larsen says it was both a help and a hindrance. Yes, it gave the turf extra time to grow in and become firmly-established, but it also caused concerns over a few of the bunkers. “We began a four-year bunker program in 2016,” says Larsen. “So they were ready to go last summer. Now I feel a couple of them are sort of hanging on.”
Regardless of the rescheduled championship, Larsen’s program has had two profound effects on this year’s Open venue. First, the amount of inputs the course receives has dropped significantly. Larsen now uses little more than 30 kilos of nitrogen-based fertilizer a year—about the same, he says, as you might use in the center circle of a soccer pitch. “If you look in the chemical cabinets of some American courses, they’re the size of my whole facility,” he told CNN’s Tom Pilcher in March. “They’re probably 20×20 meters. My cabinet is 1×1, two bottles.”
The second, of course, is the return of running golf. English commentator Lorne Smith, who has played Royal St. George’s “dozens of times” and who writes a popular newsletter called Fine Golf, refers to Larsen’s approach as “conservation greenkeeping over chemical greenkeeping.”
“We shouldn’t just celebrate the Champion Golfer of the Year,” says Smith, “but also a very special greenkeeper. Paul’s appointment back in 2012 was an inspired decision. It couldn’t have been easy because a number of club members live around London and are also members at the top heathland clubs, where the current fashion is to judge the quality of greens by how receptive and quick they are. That encourages the opposite to the best golf agronomy.” Perhaps, says Smith, the members change their expectations when they leave the capital for the coast. “Nevertheless,” he adds, “the club’s leadership did well to dismiss inevitable short-term criticism of the necessary conservationist agronomic change and establish a long-term vision that is seeing a return to firm, true, running conditions all year round.”
Larsen will cut his fescue and bent fairways at 11 millimeters (.43”) and his fescue and bent greens (different cultivars) at 5 mm (.2”). The greens can go down to 3.75 mm (.15”), should the R&A feel the need for speed. The pictures he has posted on Twitter recently suggest the course is in superb condition.
— Paul larsen (@PaulLarsenRSG) July 11, 2021
Yet for all his efforts, Larsen says Royal St. George’s isn’t quite where he wants it to be going into the Open. “Because of all the rain we had in May, the rough is a bit lusher than what I would have wanted,” he says. “I’d prefer it to be a bit wispier so you don’t have to hack the ball out. And there’s still a little too much moisture in the greens for perfection. These players will be able to pitch their ball on the putting surface and stop it near the flag instead of running the ball on, which is what I’d like to see. So I’m hoping we get a few dry days of wind and sunshine now.”
The rest of us should hope so, too. Paul Larsen has earned it.