Glasgow 2014 – Obsessed by the greens!
One commentator compared the cityscape setting of Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre for the 2014 Commonwealth Games to that of Horse Guards Parade where beach volleyball reigned at the 2012 London Olympics. With the gothic architecture of Glasgow University on the horizon and the world renowned Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in the foreground, it was certainly the Games' most dramatic looking venue
For one leading Scottish company, the bowling surfaces at Kelvingrove had been the culmination of nearly four years hard work. The Fairways Group has three businesses all operating in the sport amenity sector. Fairways Sportsgrounds, the construction arm, won the contract in 2010 to reconstruct the greens, whilst sister companies, Wiedenmann UK and Fairways GM played their role in fulfilling the contract by providing maintenance machinery. In this Q&A session, we talk to Fairways Sportsgrounds' greenkeeper, Craig Collins.
So, how did the Commonwealth Games play out for you?
Really well! In the run up I was definitely nervous, I take pride in what I do and I wanted everything to be absolutely perfect. Keeping everyone happy is a juggling act and there were so many external factors to worry about.
For nineteen days straight we had incredibly early starts and, whilst some might have found that hard going, it just wasn't a problem. Once underway, we got into a flow and you felt as if you were buzzing all the time, so much so, that I actually dreaded it coming to an end.
Personally, it was what the players, coaches and umpires thought about the surface that mattered most to me. Everyone seemed very pleased with both the venue and the greens and that's what I wanted.
The Commonwealth bowling press fraternity reckoned the greens were better than any in the last thirty years of the competition, even better than the 2006 Games at Darebin, Melbourne, home to 'barefoot bowling', so I'll take that.
How did it feel to be so uniquely involved?
It felt brilliant! I've been greenkeeping for eleven years now and was lucky enough to work in the US on a championship golf course for a year, so you could say I was uniquely involved there, but nothing comparable to here. I joined Fairways Sportsgrounds in May 2012 and was immediately given the chance to get on and deliver the greens for the Games, and I really appreciate the faith they had in me, but the credit has to be shared with those who built them.
If my colleagues hadn't done such a good job, or laid the irrigation system and the concrete ditch channels so precisely, then the finger would have been pointed at meâ€¦ I just kept everything to the same standard they created.
And the media attention?
I'm quite glad I was too busy obsessing about the greens and making sure there were no leaves in the ditches to have given too much thought to being interviewed live on national TV and radio.
On the morning of the first day, BBC Radio 5 Live's Breakfast programme came from Kelvingrove to capture the atmosphere of the official bowling launch at 8.45am. At 7.30am, all our equipment had to be off limits and, even at that early hour, upwards of 500 people, albeit mostly security, Police and Clydesiders, had arrived and the weather was almost tropical. Presenters Nicky Campbell and George Riley just cornered me and I had no idea that I'd been on live for about seven minutes!
The following week, I was on BBC TV Breakfast being interviewed by Chris Hollins and pretty much the same thing happened. I was given about two minutes' notice and then, on air, I had to correct him about how to measure the speed of a bowling green. That sort of sums up how surreal it all became.
How chaotic was the run up?
Mostly at Kelvingrove for the last two years I've been on my own with just staff from Glasgow Life - Glasgow City Council's leisure arm, who give the public access to play on the greens free of charge - plus, of course, the members of the public. I worked to a fairly tight programme which was signed off by the relevant Games' committees.
At the start of the year, we undertook a double verti-cut of all greens, corner to corner, which helped the run of the bowls. Four tonnes of topdressing sand per green was used to fill in the holes from the previous year's coring. For four months, we returned to our normal routine of cutting the greens, fertilising and applying fungicide and then, obviously, monitoring everything closely.
Come May, we carried out another very light double verti-cut all over, spreading a final sand topdressing to get the playing surface as flat and smooth as possible.
In June, there was probably a four week period whilst the venue was transformed. Tiered seating, extra fencing, security gates, two huge electronic scoreboards and a network of ramps and Portacabins, public toilets were all put in place. Essentially, they built a real village on the roads immediately adjacent to the greens, with a shop, a cafÃ© and a medical centre. Easily, there must have been eighty people on site when it was all being erected, and sometimes it got a bit annoying having to take the long way round with the mowers just to get the greens cut, as there was security and 'Heras' type fencing everywhere.
What a lot of people didn't realise was that, whilst the lawn bowls events proper began on 24th July, from around 14th July we virtually had to have everything to championship standard for the launch of practice time. Some of the teams taking part not only had to acclimatise to our weather but weren't used to such a lush surface. I'm thinking of the Antipodeans, the Malaysians and the African teams in particular.
The Australians are used to having very fast, almost burnt out greens, favouring Bermuda grasses like tiff dwarf as opposed to cool season grasses like fescue found in the UK. The Committee overseeing the bowls event had set a target for a green speed of between 11 and 12 seconds throughout the tournament, so that's what all the competitors had expected and based their preparations. On the day of the final, they were running just marginally under 13 seconds.
Were you worried when you had three days of fabulous sunshine at the start?
If it had stayed like that the whole tournament I'd have been very concerned, both because of the amount of play on the greens and at cutting them down to 3mm, which would have taken its toll very quickly. By then, approximately 300 practice games had already taken place, so it was on our minds.
But enough rain did fall, so I didn't have the nightmare of bringing out hoses, as the irrigation system would have watered all the TV cameras and cabling.
At the end, we counted back that there were 426 competition matches and 256 players from twenty-five nations. Plus all those practice games. So lots of games.
So, what happened when the Games were over and how did they endure?
The greens themselves weren't actually that bad considering how much play had taken place. As these are greens that the general public has access to, albeit with supervision by Glasgow Life staff, sometimes when I come in on a Monday after a weekend of play, I've seen much, much worse. Frequently, the public don't know how to deliver the bowl correctly and get mixed up with ten pin bowling! Obviously, the pro bowlers were very respectful and the only issue was tired grass.
There was wear on the rinks where you play up and down all day, every day, but the greens have four settings on them and you change them every day, either north to south on white or yellow setting, or east to west yellow or white setting. Because Greens 1 and 2 were the televised greens, rinks 1 and 6 on both greens had to be played north to south pretty much the whole tournament, apart from two days. So, all things considered, the greens held up magnificently.
Almost immediately after the Games, the fixtures and fittings had to start coming down - stands, tents, scoreboard etc. so, for that to be done safely, we shut the facility for two weeks which gave the turf a much needed rest. I let them grow for a few days and raised the height of cut from 3mm to 4mm. It doesn't sound like much, but that additional 1mm really helps the plant not to be under stress. I applied a Growing Solutions liquid feed, the same one we have been using since the greens were laid, plus a granular fertiliser which I've been using a couple of times a year.
So, within about a week, the greens looked first rate. However, the perimeter surroundings, where the stands, tents and paths had been, have taken considerable more effort and time to come back to life and be repaired.
Which machine really worked for you?
Well, my pride and joy is my Jacobsen PGM 22 and that didn't change over the course of the tournament. It's my main piece of kit which I use every day, and our sister company, Fairways GM, who are the Ransomes Jacobsen supplier in Scotland, made sure we had four for the Games and spares on standby. You can always rely upon it and, for a some reason, I feel it gives me the straightest lines and I really wanted laser lines when everyone was watching.
And in the coming months?
Greens have closed now to the general public until April 2015, so we are officially into our winter programme. Cutting has fallen to a weekly task as growth decreases. Shortly, we are going to solid core using one of our Wiedenmann Terra Spike deep tine aerators.
I have access to the whole Terra Spike fleet courtesy of our other sister company, Wiedenmann UK, so I think I'll choose the GXi 8HD as, with its new technology, balanced crankshaft, precise tine control and perfect weight distribution, it is the kindest ever to fine turf like new laid greens. I'm going to go for a 50mm square hole pattern using 12mm tines and probably down to about 100-120mm, so we let as much air and water circulate.
Glasgow City Council is still firming up its plans for the coming year, looking towards the legacy of the Games and attracting new players. Play is 'free', so income generation isn't a factor but, ideally, they want to widen the audience. During the summer, everyone from across the world was talking about 'barefoot bowling', a concept which has fewer rules, no uniforms and is really laid back. Whatever happens, the bowling greens at Kelvingrove will always hold special memories for me.
So, what is barefoot bowls?
Think of lawn bowls, and you will probably imagine elderly men and women in white, competing in sombre silence. But, in Australia, the game is being taken over by the young and the hip - who want to have fun and walk barefoot on the grass.
They are tanned, they are twenty-something and they are drinking beer, with the vast South Pacific Ocean stretching off into the distance.
This is the scene at Clovelly Bowling Club in Sydney, one of 2,000 bowling clubs in the country where the game is undergoing a youthful transformation.
There are no dress codes, no rigid regulations and no shoes - think swimming trunks rather than starched whites.
Barefoot bowls, as players lovingly call the new game, has been growing for more than a decade, possibly driven by two Australian pop culture phenomena - a low-budget comedy film called Crackerjack released in 2002, and a Melbourne-based TV show called The Secret Life of Us which aired from 2001 - 2005.
Both featured young people playing lawn bowls, albeit somewhat ironically, and that - says Tony Sherwill of Bowls Australia - started changing the image of the sport. "For a lot of people, the stereotype was that bowls was played by retirees and it was stiff, but those two shows busted the stereotypes that people had," he says.
Mick Malloy who wrote, produced and starred as the title character Jack in Crackerjack, says he's glad the film seems to have had this unintended effect. "Even though there's a bowls club in pretty much every town, I think young people kind of just walked past them and felt it was 'secret old people's business'," he says.
Bruce Hockey, 61, a competitive bowler at the Clovelly Bowling club, says it was close to closing a few years ago, but the influx of new players turned things around. "At one stage, it was going pretty bad, but we get 200 bare footers every weekend and it's really big money."
These casual players generally don't become registered members of the clubs they frequent, opting to pay by the hour to play instead. They also spend a lot more at the bar than the older generation.
Are the younger players ruining it for the older ones? The general consensus is that, without the money casual players are putting into the local clubs, they might go out of existence.