Preparing Royal Portrush for Rory, Tiger and the Open
This week Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and the best golfers in the world will be heading to Royal Portrush for the Open as the golfing season's fourth and final major takes place.
Responsible for preparing the Dunluce course for the event is St Andrews native Graeme Beatt and his team.
Graeme has been greenkeeping since 1995, when he spent the summer working at Scotscraig. His career has taken him to Kingsbarns, Royal Melbourne, Castle Dargan and County Sligo, before joining Royal Portrush as course manager in 2015, just a few months before the club was announced as the host of the 2019 championship.
This will be the first major championship Graeme has hosted as a course manager and Greenkeeper International spoke to him about whether the nerves have kicked in just yet...
GI: There’s a lot of pressure in hosting a major tournament, often requiring you to work incredibly long hours. This can be difficult for anyone with a young family, as you have. Have they got used to seeing daddy less as the tournament gets closer?
Graeme: My wife did say last week that she was seeing less and less of me. But it’s not been too bad. I feel like we’re on top of things so I don’t have to stay very late at night. We’re quite well organised and on top of everything.
This is your first major championship. Are you still as calm as you were when GI spoke to you two years ago?
Yeah, I think so. If we are panicking at the last minute, then we’ve done something wrong. It’s quite comforting really, because we’re getting visits from the different departments of the R&A, and they’re all happy with what we’ve achieved.
Our volunteer team is also in place. In addition to our team of 30, including part timers, we’re going to have 24 volunteers, with three or four more for the morning set up.
Each morning we will need to have 13 people cutting greens and 10 mowing fairways. By the time you’ve done that, you’ve lost a huge chunk of your staff, which is why the volunteers are so vital to us.
You said you’re calm now but I remember you saying that for your job interview you were prepared, as you are now, but you were sweating the entire time. Do you think you’ll be the same ahead of The Open?
No, I hope not! And the board room was very warm that day!
Removing sand from bunkers to make them deeper and trickier for the Open
You like to give a lot of responsibility to your greenkeeping team. Have they embraced that opportunity?
The standard of work over the last 18 months has really improved. Everything they’re doing, they’re thinking about what’s coming up. Individual tasks are taking longer than they normally would have done before, but the end result is better, so I can’t complain with that.
For a lot of us there’s a little bit of the unknown with The Open. Some of the guys have experienced an Open Championship before as a volunteer and we have hosted other events, but this is just on a different scale.
You had the Boys Championship last year. Did you treat that as a dress rehearsal?
We did to a point. We were mowing fairways every day and double cutting greens, but obviously we did that just with our own staff, without volunteers. The course presented really well but I suppose with The Open, the tee off time is so early that we have to be in and set up within two hours. For championship days and practice days we’ll be in by 4am and we hope to be off the course by 7am.
Our mechanic has got some assistance from Toro, so we can have everything set up as part of the evening duties. We’ll have all the mowers back on the trailers, ready to go out the door in the morning.
The horseshoe granstand on the 18th hole will no doubt witness some drama over the weekend
Some of the grandstands will have been up for three months before The Open takes place. Does that have any potential impact on the course condition, which you will need to keep an eye on?
There’s a potential issue around the edges, but we have a good coverage of turf so I’m not overly concerned. Airflow could be a problem, especially around the likes of the 18th green, where the horseshoe grandstand is. We’ll keep an eye on the moisture levels and reduce the input of water on that green because it will probably dry down slower than the others, so you’re more likely to get disease. We may even put a fungicide application down, which is something we wouldn’t normally do.
With the R&A being very keen to promote sustainability, has that impacted any of the practices you have been able to do on the course?
We wouldn’t generally be a big user of pesticide anyway and on the older, established greens we’ve made one fungicide application in three years, so that means there hasn’t been much of a change.
We’ve heard people in the past say they don’t spray chemicals, but to counter that, others say maybe that’s because they accept a higher level of damage. You obviously don’t do that, so how do you keep the grass healthy without applying chemicals?
We would use seaweeds in all our tank mixes as it’s quite good for reducing turf stress. We also do a fair bit of topdressing through the season so the profile of the plant’s always quite dry. We’ve started using phosphite over the winter, which has been quite good for us. And we’re predominantly fescue, so we don’t generally get much disease anyway.
We get a little bit of anthracnose on any annual meadow grass we have and in a normal season we wouldn’t mind that too much as you can just manage it with a little nitrogen. I suppose the most noticeable disease we’ve had in the last couple of years is dollar spot, towards the tail end of the summer, but it’s not a massive issue for us.
A large amount of construction work has taken place at the club
You have a tight sward on the greens and the quality is incredible. What’s the key to getting that density of turf?
You have to provide a habitat that your preferred turf enjoys. We’ve been doing a lot of topdressing over the last few years so the profile’s a lot drier and that’s helped, along with regular light feeding. We would topdress every two weeks throughout the season and then we’ve done quite a bit of overseeding over the years. We use a slender creeping and chewings fescue mix and we have put a lot of seed into the greens. The sand we’ve applied has diluted our surface thatch, creating an even drier surface.
What height are you cutting at?
At the moment we’re at 5.5mm with the hand mowers and 5mm with the Triplex. Our Triplex is a tri‑flex so the cutting units are floating heads and there’s no ground pressure, whereas our hand mowers are a fixed head and » there’s a bit more pressure, so you generally get a slightly tighter cut with them.
We’re not down to our full summer height yet, which is about 4.5mm. I suppose we’ll only go lower if the weather conditions mean we need to get a bit more speed. If it stays dry in the build‑up and through the championship, we probably won’t go any lower. But if it’s warm and wet and there’s a lot of growth, then we’ll drop them down a little bit.
Where does your water come from?
We have six boreholes around the site that we use. We drilled and commissioned two extra ones last April, so the timing was quite good ahead of the drought. That gave us an extra 300m3 each day, so it worked out well.
You’ve got the fewest bunkers on The Open rota with 58, including a 20‑foot high reconstruction of the ‘Big Nelly’ bunker, guarding the 7th fairway…
Among ourselves we’re calling it ‘Wee Nellie’ as it’s ever‑so‑slightly smaller than the other one, but still huge. Hopefully there won’t be a massive amount of raking in that one – we’ll probably just rake the bottom!
We rebuilt all 58 bunkers over the last two years just to freshen them up, with some of the bunker surrounds reshaped the winter before last.
We’ve also been taking a lot of sand out of the bunkers to make them deeper for the players. They were fine for our members, but we wanted to make them a bit more of a challenge for the best players in the world, who may have found them a little easy.
No one will find Wee Nellie easy – have you played out of it yourself?
I have, yes. I didn’t get it very far though!
What does the last month before the tournament look like for your team?
Just final polishing on the course and little bits of tidying up on the outer areas. We’ll be pulling up any weeds that may have been picked up on the cameras and feathering the rough around bunkers.
We’ll be continuing our normal mowing programmes and just doing a little rolling on the greens. We’ll also give the fairways a brush a few weeks before The Open, just to pick up any lateral growth.
As the surfaces are at the moment, they’re OK and don’t need a massive amount of work, just that final polish to get everything to Open standard.
What does your day look like on the opening day of the tournament? Where will you be when the first tee shot is hit?
I’m going to make sure that I see the first tee shot. Course set up comes first and then hopefully I can drift off to see the first tee shot, along with the other greenkeepers. It will be a proud moment for everyone and I just hope the weather holds for us so we get some decent weather. We want just a bit of breeze to add to the challenge, but so long as it’s not torrential rain, I’ll be happy.
Will you bring your family down to the event?
They’ll be down every day and my parents are coming. My eldest daughter will be nine on the Monday after the championship so she’s talking about a big party, but I think I’ll be like a zombie by then!
Through the rest of the tournament, will you be in your office hoping the phone doesn’t ring?
I think I’ll be out, around the site most of the time and I can’t see me spending much time in the office. There’s always going to be little bits and pieces to do. Last year at Carnoustie was quite good and I spent a bit of time with Craig and Sandy. I got a good insight into what I’ll be doing.
At the conclusion of the tournament your team forms a guard of honour. You stand on the 18th green as the trophy’s being presented and you get acknowledged for all your efforts. But what will be going through your head at that point?
Probably embarrassment and a lot of relief! As long as everything goes well and the weather plays ball then I’ll be happy. A good winner would be nice, but I just hope for a good tournament and the weather not being too bad.
This article first appeared in Greenkeeper International, the monthly journal of the British & International Golf Greenkeepers Association.