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The Course Manager’s Calendar – March

Peter Hall has been at Whitecraigs Golf Club for 26 years. The course manager has seen many changes over the years, but none more significant than the ongoing comprehensive redesign of the James Braid-designed course.

Peter, there’s a lot going on at Whitecraigs.

“Yes. We rebunkered the 9th hole and redesigned our 14th which made a huge difference.Right now we’re changing bits of the course because the weather we’re getting means the bunkers are getting washed out constantly. Last year we put in two capillary concrete bunkers just to try it out. That was particularly successful, so we are going to do the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 18th holes and we’re going to make some changes to the bunkers while we’re at it, taking some away that aren’t being used much.”

How many bunkers are being removed?

“We’re removing three bunkers and redesigning seven. It’s not major redesign work – a few of them have steep faces which we’ll roll over with turf.”

More generally, how significant is the overall programme of works?

“It’s pretty big. Most of the things we’ve done so far, the members were wary of. But once they’re done; they love it. A lot of the folk here think the course shouldn’t be changed, but we have to progress.”

When will you start work on 1, 2, 3 and 18?

“The work should have happened by now, but the contractors have been held up by the weather. This weather is holding everybody up. To be honest, I’m quite happy they’re not here right now because the ground conditions are miserable.”

How long will the work take when you get it going?

“We’re hoping to get it done within two weeks. The contractors are coming in to do the shaping, draining and installing the capillary concrete and my guys will do all the turfing. When they do a bunker, we’ll get right in behind them – that’s the plan anyway.”

Moving on to topdressing, what sand do you use?

We have a Hugh King silo on site filled with kiln-dried sand. We use that for topdressing and graden work. This year it’s been so wet that we’ve been verti-draining the greens and filling them with sand, just to help the surface drainage.”

Why did you bring the silo on site?

“We had a thatch problem on greens so we acquired a graden, sand-injection machine and we were using bagged sand from another supplier. But we found some of the bags were damaged or burst. If we were getting 40 bags in a palette, quite often 10% were burst and we couldn’t put the sand through the graden machine. It varied for each load or how long the bags were lying in the yard. Someone suggested using the silo system, which turned out to be a top idea.”

What are the benefits of using the silo?

“We were losing sand, whereas the silo is secure – that’s the big difference. Perhaps as importantly, the sand is always dry when it comes out so it works very well. And it’s always on site, so we don’t have to call in orders all the time.”

What impact has this had on the course?

“Ripping out the thatch and putting in the sand has made a big difference to the greens. In fact, we haven’t graded this winter because the thatch levels have been so low. We just carry out constant, light topdressings every fortnight. And with the kiln-dried sand, we can just go out and get it done. It doesn’t interrupt play at all. It disappears. Before, when we brought in the bagged sand for the graden, all our topdressing was done with bulk loads which were kept outside and were wet and interfered with play. We’ve found that the dried sand is a lot better.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – February

Now in his 20th year at Nairn Dunbar Golf Links, Richard Johnstone has had time to get to know the place. But with a mild winter and the prospect of co-hosting The Amateur Championship with The Nairn Golf Club in 2021, this could be his best year yet

How are the preparations going for The Amateur?

“It’s a fantastic achievement for both clubs to host the event, and it’s great for the town of Nairn and the Highlands generally. As we get closer to the tournament, the R&A will want the conditions of both courses to match. So we will be working with them closely for the two years leading up to the tournament, which includes two yearly agronomy visits.”

It’s been a mild winter so far. What impact has this had?

“It has been extremely mild. We’ve been able to get a couple of topdressings down during November and December, and we’ve cut the greens five times in January alone, which is unheard of this far north. January and February usually have snow and frost, so you normally wouldn’t have the cutting units out on the course much. Generally, our soil temperatures don’t rise until mid-April. But you don’t want to speak too soon – winter is not over yet “

You’ve been at the club for a long time.

“Yes, I started as an apprentice in the year 2000. Through continuous professional development and internal promotions I have managed to work my way up. I did almost five years as a deputy course manager and then in April, I’ll be four years as the course manager.”

And you started in the top job as you meant to continue.

“Yes, we started with a restoration project and wanted to be more sustainable. Through education and training, you find out that climate change and the removal of certain chemicals is happening, so we set out to prepare ourselves for the future. There’s still a lot of work to do, but we are making progress. For example, we were at 11-12% with our organic matter levels and we got it down to 4-5% within 2 years. A lot of that has been achieved with the help of Hugh King’s Washed Dune sand.”

Is the restoration project affecting all of the course?

“We focussed on the greens to start with because they were soft and held water with Annual Meadow Grass dominating the sward, we are now able to focus more on the tees and approaches. We’re encouraging fine-grass species to thrive in the surfaces. These species are much more sustainable; you don’t need as much water or fertilizer, and we’re not spraying any fungicides or pesticides. So, it’s become more sustainable to look after.”

What grasses are you introducing?

“Creeping Red Fescues and Browntop bent.”

What did you have before?

“Predominately Bent and Annual Meadow Grass. There was no fescue in the greens although we did have lots in the roughs and unmanaged areas. Because we had a lot of organic matter on the greens, it encouraged the Annual Meadow Grass. So, we couldn’t start seeding the fine grasses until the organic matter levels were right. For about a year, we hit the greens hard at different depths with grading sand injection, solid tinning and hollow coring. We put on more than 250 tonnes of sand every year. I told the members that rather than dragging the issues out, we should solve them quickly, and they backed me.”

How has the course changed in the last three years?

“We’ve taken away a lot of trees and gorse and revealed a lot of natural dune systems. We’re making big inroads back towards a links course but it will take many years to unveil the natural topography over the full site”

What has been the members’ reaction to the changes?

“They say they’re experiencing more consistent green speeds. With the finer grasses, there is less of a speed difference from morning to afternoon. With the meadow grasses, if you cut them in the morning, there would be a decline in speed, trueness and smoothness by the afternoon. The improved firmness of the greens has meant less pitch marks and footprints. With more links-style conditions, people are playing more traditional bump-and-run shots into the greens.”

How big a role has Hugh King sand played in the changes at Nairn Dunbar?
“The Washed Dune sand has played a big role in the dilution of organic matter, the firmness, trueness and smoothness. It’s helped greatly with that. We try to get out there little and often applying 6-10 tonnes once every three weeks during the season. Then we give it a light brush or a roll over the top and the golfers would hardly know they’ve been sanded. It’s been excellent and really improved the surfaces.”

How would you describe the quality of the sand?

“The quality of Hugh King’s sand has been great. It’s perfectly compatible with our soil profile which helps with infiltration. When the sand arrives, there’s never a lot of water in with it. So, when delivered in our bay, we get it inside as quickly as possible which dries it even further. By the time we put it out, it’s almost like putting out kiln-dried sand. The delivery is excellent. When we want it; it’s delivered on time and communication has been great. We’re delighted with the quality of the sand.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – January

Iain MacLeod has headed up the greenkeeping team at Tain Golf club for 43 years. During that time, he’s seen more than his fair share of testing weather conditions, and has developed a few techniques to deal with them.

Happy new year! What’s up in January?

“January is when I will do quite a lot of aeration on greens and fairways. On the greens, I’ll be putting reasonable-sized holes in and then back filling. I’ve got a few tonnes of Hugh King’s kiln-dried sand which I will use to fill the holes to create extra drainage pockets right through the profile.”

How big are reasonable-sized holes?

“20mm. The idea is go down as deep as we can, especially on our 18th green which was built in 1911 on suspended clay which holds the moisture a bit too much for my liking, so I’m trying to break through that with channels of sand to take the moisture away. Only two greens are getting done completely; 17 and 18. They are our wettest greens. And we’ll also do any low-lying areas. Some greens won’t get done at all.”

Seems like a good time of year to do this work.

“Yes. We’ll go in late December until early January with 20mm tines which you can fill straight away without too much spill. We’ll use three tonnes of the kiln-dried sand and then, if we get any decent days, we’ll start light dressing, putting about eight tonnes of Hugh King’s Washed Dune sand on all 20 greens. We try to put down about 130 tonnes of Washed Dune sand over the year.”

How often do you topdress at this time of year?

“It really depends on the weather. If we get really good, dry days, we’ll get at least two applications on in January and two in February. Because there is so little growth, you can’t go mad. Once we get into the growing season, I’m happy to put on sand weekly if the weather is right. In January, I’ll look to put on a couple of applications with the same in February and then three in March and build from there.”

What are the advantages of using the kiln-dried sand?

“Because the product is so dry, you can pour it into the aeration holes. It just falls in and fills up really quickly. You can pack it in if you want, or just leave it. The surfaces at this time of year are very rarely dry so you wouldn’t be able to do that with normal sand.”

How does that benefit you?

“Once you’ve filled up the holes, you have a drainage channel right through the profile. But the holes are quite big so, theoretically, a ball could sit in a hole. The sooner we can fill up the holes the better. As golfers like to play throughout the year these days, I like to do this work in December and January because it’s not too busy. Once we get into February or March, more and more people are playing and we might get some visitor play. December and January is the time to any deep aeration and back-filling.”

What effect will this have on the greens come mid-season?

“The work we’re doing now will make our greens more free-draining which will help them stand up to heavy rain, which unfortunately we get sometimes in Scotland. It will help keep the surfaces playing even in inclement weather. When you have a competition, the last thing you want is to suspend play because of flooded greens.”

How long have you been using the kiln-dried sand?

“I think about seven or eight years. Sometimes when we’ve done some light coring in the spring, we’ve brought in a 29-tonne-trailer load of kiln-dried sand. I know on a dry day, we can get that into the holes. I’ve been using the Washed Dune sand for over 10 years. We’ve started filling the holes with the kiln-dried sand more recently.”

How did it start?

“We tried a couple of tonnes and liked it, so we order it now when we need it. After this round of work, we won’t need to use it for a couple of years or so.”

You’ve stuck with Hugh King for over decade. Why is that?

“When the sand arrives from Hugh King, it’s always the same. Even the colour is the same. We used one supplier years ago and each time the sand arrived it was a different colour. We’ve had loads from other people that had stones in them because something had gone wrong with the processing. With the Hugh King sand, it’s the same colour and quality every time. The consistency is always there.”

How would you rate the service you receive from Hugh King?

“When I order sand from Hugh King, I’ll get it within two days. From other suppliers, I’ve had to wait weeks. So you know you’re going to get it when you want it, and it’s always the same product.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – December

Iain Barr has spent 21 years at Largs Golf Club. Now, as course manager, he discusses his approach to winter maintenance in the west of Scotland.

So what are your plans for December?

“We’re releveling one of our tees, we’ll continue with a drainage programme and we’re renovating some of our bunkers. Those are the plans for the next month, weather permitting. The weather will be a determining factor in how we prioritise the jobs.”

Tell me about the drainage programme.

“It’s an ongoing drainage programme that we started because we were having problems with tree roots in the drains. So we’re extending some of the drains and replacing them with new, twin-walled pipes to try and keep the tree roots out. When the roots get into the drains, they act as a water source blocking the pipes. We’re using a new twin-wall pipe because it is a bit thicker. They are also smooth on the inside, so there is less for the roots to cling on to. They seem to work quite well.”

Are you doing the whole course like that?

“No, we’re looking at specific areas where we’re experiencing problems. We’re getting more rain and more intense rain these days, so some areas are getting larger-capacity pipes which helps move the water a lot quicker. We started with the twin-wall pipes about three or four years ago. They’re more expensive, but because we’re in the west of Scotland, I think it’s needed.”

How many bunkers are you rebuilding?

“It depends on what time allows, but hopefully we’ll do about 10. We’ve got 51 bunkers in total.”

And the new tee?

“The eighth back tee is a bit uneven, so we’re going to lift it. When we reconstruct it, we’ll level it off and use Hugh King’s Root Zone 2 for the top-level root zone. We’ll put on about 75mm of that to give us a good sandy layer before we re-turf it. That will give us a drier surface for moving forward.”

Are you using the same root zone for the drainage work?

“Yes. On the drains, when we’re finishing off the top level, we’ll put on King RZ2. In the lower, wetter areas, we will put the King RZ2 on top of the gravel carpet which is on top of the pipes, so we’ll have a gravel layer, a binding layer and the rootzone.

And for the bunkers?

“We’ll put on some King RZ2 before we turf them. We don’t revett the bunkers; we roll-face them which is often the case for parkland style courses. So we use a bit of rootzone for the final shaping and for turfing. It’s a nice sandy medium which is ideal for the turf to grow on. We use that rather than recycling some poorer quality soil.”

And how about topdressing during the winter?

“We actually do a summer maintenance week towards the end of August when we do our aeration, coring and verti-draining work, and we get four tonnes of Hugh King sand on each green. We use the King Blend Medium Coarse sand. We do all our top-dressing early rather than during the winter because we want to keep the surfaces for the players during the winter months.”

That’s an interesting approach.

“Yes, but we’re also getting a lot of buggies and trollies, so we did an aeration, sand-capping exercise on our walk-ways which is proving to be quite successful. We’re trying to keep them firmer and drier in order to retain the grass cover during the winter. We did that in September and started doing this about three years ago. Most golf courses aren’t really designed for motorised buggies and trollies, so we’re having to improve the ground conditions and adapt some areas to take this traffic. We’re putting in pathways as well, but we’re trying to apply more maintenance to the main play areas, and that involves extensive aeration and topdressing with King Blend Medium Coarse sand that gives us drier, firmer surfaces which encourages the grass to grow better.”

You mentioned before about having the right quality of sand. What did you mean by that?

“The sand has to have the right particle sizes and distribution of particles so they don’t compact together but instead provide drainage for air and water to move through the soil profile. Hugh King’s sand is highly specified and rigidly tested so they maintain that consistency which is very important when you’re applying the same sand month after month, year after year. When you build up that profile, you’re building up that consistency. If you have one or two bad layers, you create a block in the drainage system. That consistency is vitally important for what we’re trying to do.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – November

Despite being one of the world’s oldest golf clubs, Crail Golfing Society rarely stands still. After picking up his 25-year service award, Bob Meikle talks us through the changes at the Fife club and his busy winter schedule.

What are your plans for the winter?
“Well, we’re putting in a brand new irrigation system into the Balcomie Course, and we had to knock down our old greenkeeping shed to make room for the bigger irrigation tank. We’ve just put in a new shed extension which should be completed next week once we get the snagging list done. That’s been a big job, but it’s all linked with the irrigation. It’s been very busy. It’s exciting times.”

Sounds impressive.
“It’s good that the club is reinvesting – this is a massive project. It’s good that Crail is thriving so we can do this kind of project. Our visitor numbers are up as is our membership. We are really busy.”

The irrigation project must be a significant undertaking.
“The planning for this has been ongoing for six years – we went through the design stage, we confirmed rough budget costs before going to the members, we made a booklet and had a members’ forum to really get the members on side. There has been a lot of communication. And then we had a special general meeting to explain how it would be funded. We got everything signed off in April this year. It will be completed in March 2020.”

How will this affect play on the course?
“We’re going to have certain holes open depending on where the irrigation company is working. No medals will be allowed on the course. They will instead be played on our other course; the Craighead Course. Only bounce games will be allowed on the Balcomie. It should officially be closed but we’re trying to meet the members in the middle.”

Are you using this as an opportunity to do any other work around the course?
“When the course is closed, we’re going to rebuild bunkers and put more sand on the greens because they’re not going to be used as much. We’re going to smother the greens in Hugh King’s Washed Dune sand. We’ve just mini-cored and seeded them, and now we’ve put on three tonnes of sand per green in the last three weeks to fill the core holes and cover the seeds.”

How much sand are you using?
“Because the greens won’t be getting much play, we’re going to topdress again in another three weeks. So that would be nine tonnes per hectare. We try to apply 120 tonnes of sand a year, but that depends on the fixture list. This project gives us the opportunity to get a little bit more on.”

Why is it so important to get as much sand as possible on the greens?
“We trying to promote firmer greens and dilute the thatch, and with the new irrigation system, we’ll have better putting surfaces as well because we’ll have better water coverage and, hopefully, use less water because we won’t have leaks in the system. The old system had leaks. The glued joints were failing because they were 30 years old and had passed their life expectancy.”

In particular, how is Hugh King’s Washed Dune sand helping with this project?
“As well as topdressing the greens, we’re using the sand behind the irrigation company. When they’re ploughing or piping, there will be little defects that we’ll have to cover with seed and Washed Dune sand to level off the surfaces and help recovery.”

You’ve been using Hugh King for about six years. Why do you stick with them?
“It’s the consistency and the good relationships we have built up with Hugh King and their distributors. The sand gets delivered first thing in the morning so we can get it to where we want it, in the shed or in the bay, with no hassle. It’s a very good relationship we have with Hugh King. Every time we get a load, it’s always consistent. It’s always clean and not contaminated in any way.