With an ongoing schedule of high-profile tournaments as well as an upcoming historic Open, Gordon McKie, course manager at the Old Course in St Andrews, is constantly pushing for improvement. But while there is no let up at the Home of Golf, one thing remains the same; the sand.
With events like the Dunhill and R&A’s autumn meet, this must be a busy time of year for you.
“In terms of tournaments and preparing the golf course, yes; it’s a busy time. But at the Home of Golf and, in particular, the Old Course, it’s a busy time any time of the year. During the autumn, there’s more to deal with in terms of infrastructure, tents and leaderboards, but in terms of greenkeeping, it’s very similar to what we do for the rest of the year.”
And how would you describe the year so far?
“It’s been an interesting year weather-wise, which we’ve tried to embrace as much as we can. It’s been one of the wettest summers I can remember. Between that and the heat; it’s been very different to what we normally have, and certainly a lot different to last year. We just have to take what we get and get on with it.”
How have you “embraced” the conditions?
“This summer, with the growth being so intense, it has allowed us to put on a lot more topdressing. So we’ve been topdressing on weekly basis applying about five tonnes of Hugh King sand per hectare. That’s about 12 tonnes of sand a week which helps us improve the surface in terms of firmness and the roll of the ball. It’s been a good year in that respect. The wet summer could’ve had a negative effect on the firmness of the golf course, but we measure the levels of organic matter and that tells us exactly how much sand we need apply to counteract the rain.”
Does this mean you’re further down the line with your topdressing programme?
“We’re ahead of schedule because we’ve been able to topdress on a weekly basis. Compared to last year, we’ve nearly doubled the amount of sand we’ve put down, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
What’s your target?
“We’re probably looking to achieve about 250 to 300 tonnes of sand on the green surfaces annually. We also sand our surrounds, approaches, tees and fairways. We sand our fairways twice a year, usually in the winter time with 100 tonnes per application, so that’s 200 tonnes on the fairways. In total, I am using about 600 tonnes of Hugh King sand across the course. So far this year, 200 tonnes have gone on the greens alone. We’ve put about 100 tonnes on the fairways and maybe 180 tonnes on the surrounds.”
What sand do you use?
“It’s wall-to-wall Washed Dune sand from Hugh King. We use it to aid firmness. Links golf is all about the bounce and running game, so the more sand we can get on, the firmer the surfaces will be.”
How important is Hugh King’s sand to the preparation of the Old Course?
“It’s very important. One of the reasons we moved to Hugh King sand was the compatibility with our surfaces and the colour – the brown colour allows us to get a lot more on without affecting the playability of the course or adversely influencing the golfer’s perception of sand being applied to the golf course. It’s been very important to us.”
The fact you’ve been using it for nearly 15 years says a lot.
“Our philosophy goes all the way back to Old Tom Morris; it’s one of the things we try to keep going – to do the right things that Old Tom started all those years ago. It’s a simple philosophy about how to maintain a golf course. Topdressing, therefore, is absolutely key to what we do here, and it always will be. It will always be a key component about how we manage the Links. We couldn’t achieve the firm surfaces we have now if we didn’t apply the amount of sand we do.”
How are preparations for the 2021 Open progressing?
“When the last Open leaves town, you give yourself 12-18 months to get the course back, and then the preparations start when you find out the next date for the tournament. So we usually have about three years to prepare. We’ve started doing some wee changes, but because we host The Open so often, we’re always trying to improve things so the professionals get a better experience when they come here. But we’re also trying to constantly improve it for our customer base to provide as good an experience as we possibly can.”