TurfPro editor, Laurence Gale writes . . .
The Covid-19 crisis has decimated our sports turf industry in more ways than one. Not only have we had a total stoppage of all forms of sport, many clubs and sports clubs have had to lay off or furlough many of their maintenance staff to save money and cooperate with social distancing measures.
It will be interesting to see how the government’s plan, summarised last night by the Prime Minister, will allow facilities to reopen and which sports will come back online first? I expect that some professional sports such as horse racing, football and golf, possibly behind closed doors, will be allowed to resume first - with others to follow.
As for more general public sports facilities, I can again easily see golf, cricket and bowls clubs being some of the first clubs to reopen mainly due to the fact social distancing measures can be adhered to more easily.
In fact, I have been speaking to a number of greenkeepers and course managers and they were equally confident that golf would be one of the first sports to reopen – as we have seen confirmed today. This was in line with discussions being held by the golf sporting bodies and organisations.
I thought it would be good to talk to a few Midlands course managers to find out how they had been coping and whether they would be ready for reopening?
Over the last ten to twelve years we have seen an exodus of talented greenkeepers from the prestigious Belfry Hotel and Golf Resort to 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 with a number of these guys and see how they got on with their careers and how they coping with the current crisis.
I first contacted Mark Smith at Olton Golf Club Near Solihull Birmingham who was keen to put pen to paper and talk about his career and the lifelong friends he started his career with at the Belfry.
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 at Enville GC, Jamie Brookes, course manager at Walmley GC and Chris Bromley at Stratford GC.
Over the course of the next few issues of TurfPro, we will be publishing articles from all of these guys and I am hoping to go and make visits, when it’s safe to do so, to compile a more in-depth article about the management and maintenance of these established Midlands golf courses.
Mark readily keeps in contact with Luke, Andy, Jamie and Chris and they often go and visit one another’s courses when they find the time.
Mark takes up the story:
The Lads: L-R Ben Wiggins, Trevor Ward, Chris Low (deputy CM), Mark Smith (CM), Jack Timms, Mark Coppage.
My greenkeeping career started at The Belfry in 1998 when I was given a 3-week trial to earn a full-time contract. Luke Dennis’ late father Mick got me the trial when he worked as assistant head mechanic. I never really planned this as my chosen career path but liked the idea of working outdoors and Luke had said how much he was enjoying it there. After a week I had impressed the gaffers (back then Bevan Tattersall & Dave Sammels) and was given a permanent position on the greens team.
We had a really great team back then who were all hungry to improve and work towards any qualifications or training that was on offer. I was based on the Brabazon course for the duration of my 13 years there and slowly worked my way up the ladder.
In my time we had hosted 3 PGA senior events, 3 PGA tour events (Benson & Hedges), 3 British Masters and the 2002 Ryder cup. My best experience had to be the Ryder Cup in 2002, it was huge! Really gruelling long hours, working closely with the European Tour and being amongst all the players during practice rounds was awesome.
I became Deputy Head on the Brabazon in 2008 working under Kenny Mckay and Neil Smith. The Course Manager position for Olton was advertised in 2010 and I just felt that after 13-year stint at The Belfry the time was right for a new challenge.
November 2020 will be my 10 years at the helm of Olton GC and it has been very rewarding leading the team and watching the course develop during my time here.
I’d like to think my past experiences, high profile tournaments and training have all been put to good use at Olton GC.
My first two years were testing at times - dealing with committees wasn’t something I was used to. Coming from The Belfry which was very corporate, to a private members club in Solihull took a bit of time for me to adjust. Like many of my colleagues would agree, the greenkeeping aspect can be fairly straight forward most of the time but when you throw members’ views, different greens committees, reports and hectic competition schedules into the mix it gives us Course Managers plenty to think about.
I am thoroughly enjoying my time at OGC and we have a club to be proud of. We have a healthy membership, a forward thinking committee and a great friendly social aspect. I have always felt very welcome here and backed by the club who have also invested heavily in the course, staff and machinery fleet over the years.
My team are a good bunch. They all bring something to the table and are willing to give any task a go or carry out what I expect from them. Each winter we carry out IN-HOUSE project work which has varied from drainage, tee construction, green adjustments, and some irrigation installation work.
Our last 5 years have mainly been focused on installing rubber crumb liner to all 60 of our bunkers. The bunkers have been re-modelled, some re-positioned and then rubber lined to overcome our past drainage issues. Many bunkers were of poor design with different sand and contamination issues, so this was going to be a massive improvement long term. We made some minor mistakes early in the program but learnt and improved quite quickly adapting certain methods which lead to better end results.
During my time we have massively improved on the machinery fleet which Is now predominately Toro equipment along with a new irrigation controller, Lynx software and Grundfos pumps.
My maintenance programs have been fairly similar most years, but any planning must be adapted or tweaked to suit climate/erratic weather patterns, staffing levels, busy competition schedules and budget restrictions. I tend to use products I am familiar with but am also not afraid to try new things if I feel confident in them or they will benefit us going forward.
After such a wet winter, where rain was a common occurrence most days from October through to Feb, 2020 had so far proved a real struggle with the ground so saturated.
Project work was stop-start and any basic mowing or maintenance tasks were difficult to carry out. To then move into such a dry March/April where we couldn’t keep some areas of the course wet enough at times, it meant some newly turfed areas were actually drying out fast. It’s almost laughable in some respects.
Covid-19 has affected golf clubs all over the world. With golf being such a sociable game, I think things will be very different for the foreseeable future. Members, players and staff safety is paramount and so the way clubs operate going forward will be under constant review in the coming weeks ahead.
In terms of the course being empty we have been able to be productive in certain areas such as the mowing tasks with no interference. Although with half the team being furloughed and heading into prime growing season it is starting to prove difficult to keep on top.
I do get down about falling behind on certain tasks on the course but we are all in the same boat and we can only keep working within the guidelines set and do our best under these strange and difficult circumstances.
We like other courses are constantly looking at ways to keep players safe upon their return, be it cup lifters, flag clips, anti-bac dispensers. Removal of benches, bins and ballwashers will also limit any risk.
Pests, namely corvids have been down in their masses during Covid-19 and with the course empty (other than myself and two staff) over the 96 acres we have suffered extensive damage to the surfaces. A steady flow of golf traffic would normally be the deterrent, but it is proving difficult to keep such pests from attacking the turf with leatherjackets being the prime target. Crows and magpies in large numbers can cause some serious disruption and gives us another challenge to face.
Golf will be different for a while that is for sure. Strict tee times, intervals, no groups, minimal course furniture and ways we present and keep the course to stay ahead and within guidelines will all be in place in some form or another.
It’s not quite how I envisioned the 2020 golf season but players and staff safety are paramount so we must do whatever is necessary.