Royal Porthcawl uses recycled tyres on its soil
Royal Porthcawl Golf Club is one of the best-known golf clubs in the world. Rated number one in Wales, number 26 for the UK and 96 in the world by www.top100golfcourses.co.uk, The Daily Telegraph once said the magnificent links course ‘epitomises all that is best about the game as it once was’, while Keith Lloyd, chief executive of the Golf Club Managers’ Association, said it is his favourite course in the whole of Britain. ‘‘What this course may possibly lack in length is more than made up for by fast, true greens, challenging undulations, the influence of the wind in accordance with tidal changes and its clever bunkering,” he said.
But what is less known about the course is that one of the secrets of its success was down to the club topdressing its grass with rubber crumb derived from thousands of used tyres, which has improved the wear resistance of natural turf playing surfaces on its walkways. The concept has been known for several years, but was only relatively recently seriously exploited. Unlike many other uses of rubber crumb in sward husbandry, benefit can be derived from merely topdressing without the need for incorporation with the soil.
“The club has used the material on its paths and walkways in recent years. This practice has resulted in a marked improvement in the quality of the turf. The greenkeepers treated the course with one tonne of rubber crumb at the beginning and end of each golfing season,” said a spokesman for the Waste Recycling Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP).
Royal Porthcawl’s 18-hole course is 163 hectares (1.63 square kilometres) in size and was initially founded in 1891, gaining its Royal status in 1909, and has since hosted numerous major events.
Being a links course, the soil at the club is predominantly sandy, which allows rapid drainage of the turf, but the damage caused to the turf is gradual and is from wear caused by excessive foot traffic over several months.
These high-wear areas were typically along the major thoroughfares and around large obstacles on the fairways such as sand bunkers. Traditionally, the high-wear areas were re-turfed at the end of the season: a difficult and time consuming process. “To avoid this process, Royal Porthcawl Golf Club uses rubber crumb to protect the sward,” said the WRAP spokesman.
The usual recommended process for treating turf with rubber crumb involves initial verti-draining of the turf followed by spreading the rubber crumb into the holes and reseeding with grass seed. This leads to improved aeration of the soil, better drainage of surface water and a higher root density of the grass. On golf courses, good root density and surface stability prevents the turf from being macerated due to degradation of the turf on a golf course from the general wear of the surface caused by golfers walking between holes.
However, the greenkeepers at Royal Porthcawl found that the drainage through the sandy soil was sufficient and that the rubber could be spread over the surface of the turf without the added step of verti-draining. This was done by simply spreading the crumb by hand.
The main advantage the rubber imparts to the turf on a golf links is the protection of the grass plant’s crown; grass grows from the crown at the base of the plant, so normal damage to the grass blades does not usually kill the plant, whereas significant damage to the crown can result in its death and cause exposure of the soil (or – on links courses – sand). It is believed that the rubber crumb, applied to the surface of the turf, falls in and around the crown of the grass, which cushions the grass from long term wear from golfers’ footsteps.
The club started to use rubber crumb to protect the high-wear areas in 1998. Initially, four to six tonnes of rubber crumb (1-3mm mesh size) was spread over selected areas of high foot traffic. After this initial treatment, the affected areas were treated biannually, at the beginning of the golfing season in spring and at the close of the season in autumn. Each treatment has consumed about one tonne of rubber crumb.
It is believed that topdressing grass with rubber crumb not only protects the grass crowns, but may also help retain moisture and nutrients that will help promote growth. Furthermore, since the rubber crumb is black, it absorbs sunlight that will warm the turf and soil, thus extending the growing season. This early promotion of growth out of season allows the grass to recover more rapidly from the previous season’s play. This extended growth also reduces the amount of treatment, either chemical or re-turfing, required out of season.
“Treatment is expected to last three years, although a further treatment of half a dressing is recommended into the fourth season. Over the same period a club might have expected to re-turf twice,” said the WRAP spokesman. “Although the cost of the rubber crumb is higher than a corresponding area of turf, the overall costs are generally lower. Applying the rubber crumb is much easier than returfing, as it merely requires the rubber crumb to be spread by hand on the affected area. Protecting the turf of the golf course with rubber crumb results in the grass being healthier for longer, therefore requiring less day-to-day maintenance.
“The use of rubber crumb as a topdressing also benefits the players, as they can enjoy a course that retains its good playing conditions for a longer period during the season, as it provides them with a more consistent and playable course that also retains its aesthetic characteristics. Consequently the players enjoy better value for money.”
The rubber crumb, he said, does not stimulate new growth, but only protects the grass from damage; consequently, the crumb has only been used where turf was damaged and not destroyed: where the course was bare, the turf would need replacing.
Royal Porthcawl is regarded as an environmentally friendly club by WRAP, because it supports composting, uses on-site water treatment and adopts projects to encourage wildlife. “The use of rubber crumb made from used tyres adds to this ethos. This treatment also reduces the number of other – mechanical and chemical – treatments required to keep the turf in good condition. Prior to treatment with rubber crumb, areas of the golf course would need to be re-turfed yearly, which is now rarely required,” stated the WRAP spokesman.
“In recent years concern has been expressed in some quarters about the health hazards associated with the use of rubber tyre crumb in sports fields and arenas. This concern originated from some press releases in the Italian media that suggested tyre rubber crumb could cause cancer, especially in the bladder and lungs. Extensive studies have been conducted on the release of harmful substances such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the rubber crumb. One of the most extensive studies concludes that there is minimal or no likelihood of any harmful exposure. Furthermore, both FIFA and UEFA have concluded there to be no risk to participants in football games being exposed to harmful substances derived from the use of rubber tyre crumb being used on pitches.
“It can therefore be concluded that the use of rubber tyre crumb does not represent a potential health hazard when the material is used as a soil and grass ameliorator or as a component in artificial turfs.”
There is little evidence, other than the quality of turf, that the rubber crumb affects the way the surface plays, but nevertheless the greenkeepers at the club have been reluctant to use rubber crumb across the entire golf course. “The conservative attitude reflects the attitude of the players to the quality and ‘playability’ of the course and this is especially apparent at prestigious clubs such as Royal Porthcawl,” said the WRAP spokesman. “Due to the precise nature of golf play, and the reliance of golfers on the correct physical attributes of the course, any variation from a ‘normal’ playing surface is unacceptable. This is despite the generation of a potentially more consistent playing surface on the Royal Porthcawl course, as the natural effects of wear and tear are reduced by the application of the rubber crumb.
“The pressure to ensure that the course is in pristine condition, as well as playing in a predictable fashion, encourages the greenkeepers to act cautiously. For this reason, the treatment has largely been restricted to the main thoroughfares and high wear areas around bunkers. Large obstacles on the course fairways, such as bunkers, funnel people into narrow walkways. This causes excessive wear on the grass in these areas. Although the areas around bunkers are still part of the playing area, there are few alternatives which could keep these areas in acceptable condition while allowing golf to be played throughout the year. The issues of using rubber around the bunkers are lessened because the majority of the problem areas are on steep gradients. Therefore, issues with the bounce and run of the ball are minimised because the ball is less likely to fall and lie in these areas.”