Summer was great. What happens next?
Steve Lloyd, Matt James and Tom Freeman are all golf course managers
We gathered a trio of turf managers to ask them how they coped with this summer’s drought and to ask them hat goes on behind the scenes at a golf club?
Golfers have had an amazing summer, but what challenges has that hot weather brought for you as greenkeepers?
Matthew James, head greenkeeper at Cumberwell Park: It just highlights how much the weather influences what we do out on the course. One minute we are talking about the course being too wet, then it’s too cold and now we are talking about it being too dry.
Tom Freeman, course manager at High Post: I can only extract 4,500 cubic metres of water in a whole season. At the start of the year I thought that would be fine and then we ran into the summer we had and it was a real struggle. We had to contact the water board and managed to get a deduction if we hand watered.
So everything we put on with the hand hose, we could deduct from our main licence. That’s a lot more difficult to handle than just flicking on the irrigation system.
Steve Lloyd, course manager at The Worcestershire: It took us from maintaining a nice playing surface to trying to just keep things alive and surviving because it was so extreme. The priorities were the greens and everything else went to the side a little bit because of how extreme and how long a period it had been. We struggled with tees, because we didn’t have a system on them, so they were allowed to go a bit. It has bounced back quite well and wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
You’re preparing your winter projects now. Will there be any legacy from this summer?
MJ: We’ll be doing some hollow coring into November. The dry weather has affected it because we will be putting an overseeding operation in place where we lost a small amount of grass on greens. The other side is the project work. We’re slightly different. We’ve got a big site, and two people dedicated to doing projects – chiefly bunker renewals and pathways and irrigation.
We try and plan that 12 months ahead so, through the summer, they have been working on bunkers when the weather has been suitable and in the winter they switch more to the paths.
SL: A project can change in the 12 months leading up to that winter. If you’ve had a wet summer, suddenly drainage becomes a priority. In a dry summer like we’ve had, I’m sure lots of people will be scratching round looking at irrigation to improve that for next year. We try to do it from November until the end of March, and we are always trying to make improvements. If it’s irrigation, can we upgrade it? What can we afford to do?
If we have a hard winter like last year’s, how will that affect the work you do?
SL: It’s dependent on each golf course and what type of ground you are on. The Worcestershire is on heavy clay but the water runs off it quite naturally. We’ve got quite a lot of pathways that are accessible to equipment so we can still get on in the winter. But it is prioritising – the drainage jobs, digging holes and moving materials around.
You want to get those jobs done early in the winter when the ground is still fairly firm. You don’t want to be doing that in January and February. Your finishing work tends to follow up after Christmas. For most people the target is the end of March so, if you can get your winter projects tied up by then, you’ve got a good month to grow before the golf season really kicks off in May.
TF: We are on chalk and flint so we’re lucky we are free draining. We can carry out projects right through the winter unless we are covered in snow. A lot of guys are on clay and struggle to get vehicles round the course. We just keep going.
MJ: The weather hugely influences what projects we do. We’ve got quite a diverse landscape – 25 acres of mature woodland and huge areas of grassland and newly planted trees – so the attention can switch to that and maintaining those areas. There are things we can work on when the ground is frozen or covered in snow.
What is your biggest challenge as course managers?
TF: Recruiting good staff.
MJ: I would probably say the same.
SL: It’s becoming more and more difficult – the more people you speak to – to try and find staff. It’s an outdoor job and the weather is not always great. It’s early starts, it can be long days through the summer and there is an element that people don’t want to do that type of work any more. That is difficult.
TF: You’ve got to want to do it. You’ve got to want to be a greenkeeper.
SL: When you get a good member of staff it is about keeping them. A good greenkeeper is always going to be in demand and there will be some good opportunities for them. Elsewhere, the communication with members and golfers is always difficult. If I could sit down and spend an hour with every member of the golf club I’d get my message across better.
Are you understaffed? How can we golfers be better educated to see the job the way you do?
MJ: The business supports me to recruit people and I’ve got enough. We take on six summer people and that’s a challenge in itself. Some of those are people who have returned from the year before, so there’s a bit of continuity there. Each year we have three or four new guys and, quite often, they may never have done greenkeeping work before. They may never have been on a golf course before.
It is getting golfers to realise there are people out there who might not necessarily know their way round. They may not know where to set the tee markers, where to put the hole. Although they have been trained, it all takes time to bed in. Then you get such a mixture of people. You get the committed ones that you want to look after – the ones you want to keep – and it’s always difficult to see where the next group of people are going to come from and where to advertise.
TF: It’s a clichéd thing to say but times change and maybe people aren’t as hard working as they used to be. Just getting people to commit and work hard seems to be quite a challenge. I don’t know how we can change that. It isn’t just a greenkeeping industry thing, it goes across different jobs.
SL: At my last two courses I’ve had quite a few apprentices and they’ve come out of junior golf. They were keen golfers and realised they were not going to turn into the next tour pro – but they wanted to be involved.
It is difficult. It’s a small pool of people. If someone is an hour away they are not necessarily going to come for a summer job because the cost is too much. Personally, I think it is a fantastic job. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t and, generally, people that get into it, and enjoy it, do it for life. MJ: You’re never really sure, of the people you do employ, how they are they going to be until they’ve been here for a few weeks.
TF: At least you’ve got that constant influx of staff coming in every year and every now and again you are going to find a gem. That’s how I got into it. I was a seasonal – started raking bunkers – and got a full-time job out of it. SL: I think there’s still an element who think you are basically driving around on a mower cutting grass.
But there’s the technical side of the job and there are many avenues you can go down once you get into greenkeeping. I’ve got a couple of apprentices looking at becoming irrigation or spray technicians. I don’t know if they want to be a course manager but they love their job and if they specialise there are areas they can go into.
What goes on behind the scenes to making the job a success?
MJ: Planning is a huge part of making sure everything runs smoothly on the course. We talk about the weather influencing what we do but we need to plan certain operations. Some of these things might happen months in advance but I also plan a week ahead. So on a Friday, I’ll plan out what’s on the following week. I’ll know what guys I have got in and I also plan jobs day-to-day.
SL: I don’t think golfers realise how much a golf course costs to run. We have machines on our fleet that cost more than your BMW.
Most golf courses have got a couple of hundred or £300,000 of equipment. It’s expensive to maintain and look after to a good standard.
TF: There is so much paperwork. This is my first year as a course manager and you’re not really prepared for how much extra there is to do outside of greenkeeping – planning, organising, budgets, costing, communicating with members. It’s a massive learning curve.
It has been a challenge but a challenge I have enjoyed.
This article was first published in Your Course, the twice-yearly magazine from the British & International Golf Greenkeepers Association that aims to inform golfers about what goes in to the maintenance of a modern golf course and the greenkeepers whose job it is to produce the surfaces.