Laurence Gale, editor TurfPro, writes
Over the last twelve years we have seen an exodus of talented greenkeepers from the prestigious Belfry Hotel and Golf Resort go on to become successful course managers in their own right at a number of Midlands golf courses. I thought it would be nice to catch up a number of these guys and see how they got on with their careers and how they coping with the current Covid-19 Crisis.
I first contacted Mark Smith at Olton Golf Club Near Solihull Birmingham who was keen to put pen to paper and talk about is career and the lifelong friends he started his career with at the Belfry. You can read his article from last week here.
During his time at the Belfry he had the pleasure of working with the following guys Luke Dennis, now course manager at The Robin Hood GC , Andy Wood, course manager Enville GC , Jamie Brookes, course manager Walmley GC, Chris Bromley, Stratford GC.
TurfPro is publishing articles from all of these guys and I am hoping to make visits when it’s safe to do so, to put together a more in depth article about the management and maintenance of these established courses.
This week it is the turn of Luke Dennis, course manager at Robin Hood Golf Course to give an account of his career and experiences in greenkeeping. Luke takes up the story . . .
I started my career in the golf industry aged just 17. It was only a few hours per week at the Belfry doing front of house duties. This was just for pocket money as I was a full-time athlete then. I didn’t play golf and wasn’t aware of greenkeeping as an actual profession. I would chat to and wave at the green staff feeling jealous of the comradery and fun they had while maintaining the course.
The head greenkeeper at the time, Bevan Tattersall, would drive past regularly and offer me a job and eventually the lure of earning some money and wanting a car made me accept. During my 13 year term at The Belfry I gained my qualifications through Myerscough College, worked my way up through the ranks and was fortunate to work on all three of the courses there and also help in the workshop during busy times.
The team around me were amazing and the competition for promotion was always healthy! Off the top of my head from the team that worked the 2002 Ryder cup, twelve or so have gone on to be course managers, all of whom I keep in touch with still. With the Belfry hosting so many top tournaments I quickly gained a passion for the tournament setup part of greenkeeping. I love getting the playing surfaces reacting well and tournament ready.
In 2000 I worked with the European tour over in Sweden for the Scandinavian Masters in preparation for hosting the upcoming Ryder Cup. Cutting the 18th green in front of a packed Ryder Cup grandstand is one of my most treasured greenkeeping memories.
I left the Belfry as deputy head greenkeeper back in 2009 to join Robin Hood Golf Club under course manager Andy Wood who I had worked with previously on the Brabazon. The methods, work practices and high presentation installed in me, like many others, were then taken into to my next role. The long-term vison was to shadow Andy and help redevelop Robin Hood, learning the very different workings of a members’ golf club in the process. I also managed the workshop and maintained a fleet of machinery which I sharpened in-house with our own Bernard Grinders.
Adapting from corporate style golf to a members’ environment was challenging, relaying information and communicating being a key. The other main factor for me was prioritising work as I had only ever worked in a very large team with almost unlimited resources. I had an irrigation tech, spray tech and a handful of mechanics on the end of radio and then suddenly you must be all three! Though some methods and work practices never change, accepting that all the little jobs cannot be done is very hard.
As planned, I became Andy Wood`s successor in 2017. With extensive new greens drainage complete, a new carry drain system installed and ten holes redeveloped I was given the opportunity to carry on cementing Robin Hood Golf Club as a top quality golf course. My first challenge was to be a host venue for the TP Tour. With my predecessor having a reputation for firm, lightning-fast greens the pressure was on but with some excellent work from the team we had a great event, even in the rain.
In winter of 2018 we remodelled the 13th and 17th (see pics) a project that we shared with Pro-Fusion which worked out brilliantly and kept us within budget. Last year I negotiated my first 5 year machinery deal. Eventually I got my wish list through some clever brainstorming from Big Jon my Toro salesman. I part purchased, part leased all my cutting equipment with Toro and purchased all my utility vehicles and sprayer through John Deere and Jacob Shellis. This new fleet of machines is vital to achieve the high level of presentation that now is expected here at Robin Hood.
As the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK I had just started my green renovations which included scarification, a small hollow tine, top dressing followed by a large solid tine and finally a series of sand dressings. Initially the clubhouse closed and we introduced a no touch method of entry and play until the complete closure was enforced.
This meant I finished the back end of the renovations on an empty golf course and with a reduced team. It has been a very difficult few weeks. I personally have worked long hours in solitude which I’ve found tough. It’s been hard on the team’s morale too. I suppose you get used to the interaction and banter amongst the team which is the reason I entered into the profession in the first place.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been mainly cutting and keeping up with the wetting agent, fungicide and nutrient programs on the all surfaces with a team of four. My team have been working safely in solitude using their car as a base to have breaks and store their PPE. Hand sanitiser was issued and stations setup - plus of course, we practiced strict social distancing at all times. I issued all the jobs via text with nearly all communication also done via phone.
I think it is a case of doing everything you can to keep the team safe and feel comfortable in the workplace. These measures will be in for a long while.
Wednesday the 13th of May saw Robin Hood welcome the return of our members via a booked tee time system. It was lovely to see the excitement in their faces as they walked towards the first tee. I was fortunate enough to be able to recall my furloughed staff, so I am now back up to a full strength team of seven.
The course is in great shape and we’ve had some amazing feedback. The aim is to present the best course possible so the membership realises what they’ve missed and how big golf is in their lives. Hopefully this will mean member retention will be high and we may attract some new members to the club in the future.
Post-pandemic life will be very different and finances will be a lot tighter for everyone. I hope people can continue to support their passion, the place they come to unwind and have fun. The last couple of days I have been out chatting to members from a safe distance and they are simply thrilled to be golfing again.
Many have commented following their round that being back on the course gave them a sense of normality - which must be good in such uncertain times. I really hope that member-based golf clubs survive this crisis, and not only that but the club ideology and spirit survives too.