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The Course Manager’s Calendar – July

Two and half years into his job as course manager at Western Gailes Golf Club, Stewart Brown explains how a new topdressing programming is prolonging the life of his mowers

So how are you settling in at Western Gailes?
“Well, last summer was extremely dry which was unusual for the west of Scotland and that was followed by this year which has been extremely dry. We’ve been drier over here than they’ve been on the east coast, so I’ve brought the weather over with me. It’s all good.”

What kind of winter work have you done on the course?
“We have an ongoing programme of bunker work and levelling of tees. We’ve also done quite a lot of work on our walkways; widening them and adding grass. In May and June, we did a lot of the remedial work, such as overseeding. Through July, we’ll concentrate on presentation work with continual aeriation and topdressing programmes with minimal disruption.”

Of course you have a second set of tees at Western Gailes.
“Yes. We essentially have a winter course using a separate set of walkways and tees to get people round. We use that from November until February. It makes a massive difference and gives the surfaces a rest through that part of the year, especially in the west coast of Scotland which tends to be quite wet. Historically the tees were allowed to grow during the season, but we’re trying to upgrade the winter course, so we’re maintaining the winter tees as we do the rest of the tees. It means that when we switch over in the winter, it feels like you’re playing a proper golf course.”

So what do you have planned for July?
“It’s a busy part of the season, particularly with visitors. The priority is maintaining the playing conditions through July, August and September. We get a break when the Glasgow holidays start which means we’re quiet regarding competitions through July and into August, and then it gets busy after that. Although July is quiet with members, we get a lot of visitors, so it’s a busy period in that respect. It means maintenance-wise, we’re just trying to keep everything tidy while continuing with our usual topdressing programme.”

What is your topdressing programme?
“We’ve changed things slightly this year by increasing our frequency but bringing down the volume, so we’re sometimes going weekly but mostly bi-weekly with about five tonnes a hectare of Hugh King’s Washed Dune sand. We cut the greens in the morning, topdress them and with a turn of the irrigation heads; the sand’s away. We’ve got a lot more sand down this year using this process.”

How much sand?
“To date this year, we’re at about 350 tonnes of Hugh King sand on greens, tees, approaches and a select number of fairways. The idea is to put another 300 tonnes down, so our target is about 600 tonnes throughout this year. A lot of that is down to the damage we experienced on the fairways last year because of the drought. We’ve had to do a lot of work to recover them, so there’s been a big increase in our sand use this year.”

Are there any other advantages of following this new programme?
“We’re prolonging the life of our machinery a lot because the sand isn’t lying on the surface. We used to do a monthly, slightly heavier topdress at about 12 tonnes a hectare. Now the idea is to topdress to match the amount of growth you get, so you’re not really getting that build-up of material below the surface. This little and often approach seems to be working for us.”

What practical benefits does that have?
“We’re not picking up any of the Washed Dune sand with the mowers, so the blades stay sharper for longer. That’s made a big difference for the greens mowers and the approach mowers. It’s time-consuming and expensive to keep changing the blades. In fact, it’s not so much downtime, as much as the cost of replacing the blades. We’ve probably gone through half the amount of blades on our greens mowers than we would normally by this time of year. We’re getting a lot more life out of our machinery, which is a huge bonus.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – June

Although James Hutchinson has been head greenkeeper at Castle Stuart Golf Links for only two years, he has an intimate understanding of the much-praised Highland course.

Although you took over as head greenkeeper a couple of years ago, you’ve been at Castle Stuart from the start. How does that help you with your job?
“To be involved in a golf course from the very start, right through construction to the finished product is special. There’s a lot more underneath the finished product you’re able to understand, like the irrigation, drainage and rootzone. You know exactly what’s under there and you know what you’ll have to deal with later on.”

So what do have planned for June?
“We’ve been chasing a bit of grass on our fairways. Last spring and summer, we lost a bit of the fescue because we had to share our water supply with a local farmer, so we were restricted to how much water we could put on. We had to focus on greens and tees, and the fairways lost a bit of grass. So there has been a big over-seeding project and a lot of topdressing to get the fairway levels back.”

How does Hugh King’s sand help in this process?
“At the start of June, we’ll be applying a light topdressing. We tend to use more topdressing, but with light applications – we put a dusting on every fortnight. It creates a deep bed for all the seed we’re putting out.”

Do you put out heavier applications during your closed season?
“Yes. We open up in March and close in the middle of November, so by the end of February – towards the start of the season – we put out the heavier dressings to get the levels back after the winter work. Because we are a business, the greens have to be as good as they can possibly be. It’s about getting the course to the highest possible standards. So the lighter dressings mean the golfers don’t see the sand. They replicate what the dunes would do naturally on a windy day. You only get one chance. Whatever it takes to have the course immaculate, then that’s what we have to do.”

So light and often.
“Yes. If you apply too many heavy applications, you get layers and I don’t like layers. Little and often. With that you should stay away from the layers. We’ve also got a big wetting agent programme to complete in June which is even more important now as it will make sure we have recovery if we have another hot summer.”

How long has Castle Stuart used Hugh King sand?
“Since we’ve opened, it’s always been the Washed Dune sand from Hugh King. We use
150 tonnes a year.”

Why did you opt for Hugh King’s sand in the first place?
“The Hugh King sand was very similar to what we already had, so it helped with the rootzone plus you can put it out, cut the next day and it doesn’t hang about for too long. The sand gets down into the soil and protects the crown. It ticks all the boxes for us.”

How would you rate the service from Hugh King?
“Whenever we get in touch, there’s never a problem or a delay. In terms of the product, I have no complaints whatsoever. It’s clean. Even if it sits for a while, no weeds come up through it, and there are no stones in it. It is pristine.”

Castle Stuart, 18

The Course Manager’s Calendar – May

Keith Law, head greenkeeper Forfar Golf Club, has served his time. He started at the club as a trainee greenkeeper in 1992. After stints in Australia, Monifieth and Letham Grange, he returned two years ago and hasn’t looked back

What’s it like to be back where it all began for you?
“The last two years have flown by. It’s been great to get back. We’re trying to fine-tune and tidy the place up, which will be an ongoing project.”

What are your plans for May?
“I am waiting for the grass to grow. It’s been a bit slow this spring, but temperatures are set to rise which will make a big difference. They say it’s going to be 200C by the weekend, but I’m walking around with four layers of clothes on. We’ll wait and see. I’ve heard we’re
coming into a dry spell with warm temperatures. Here’s hoping!

How will that effect your approach to topdressing?
“If the weather plays ball, we should see a big difference. Everything is weather related. If the weather had picked up three weeks ago and we had got some good temperatures, the grass would have been growing and we would have topdressed our greens by now. Being in the north east of Scotland, growth can be quite slow at this time of year.”

Assuming temperatures pick up, what’s next?
“Within the next couple of weeks, we’ll start topdressing. I usually get someone to cut the greens in front and another guy goes out with a tractor and the topdresser. He’s followed by another guy who goes behind with a brush on the front of a set of vibrating rollers. He brushes it in. Finally, it gets watered during the night. It’s a real team effort.”

How long have you been using Hugh King sand?
“It must be five years that Forfar has been using Hugh King’s Washed Dune sand on the greens at about 60 tonnes a year. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve used Hugh King sand, and I am very impressed. Especially how easy it goes onto the greens and how easily it rubs in. It makes life easy.”

What do you mean?
“When we apply the sand on the greens, it is brushed and rolled into the grass and then watered at night. With other topdressings, you can cut the greens a couple of days later and hit all kinds of stones and pebbles which can blunt your blades. That’s certainly not the case with Hugh King sand. You can cut the greens the following day and there is no harm done to the machinery at all.”

How does that help you?
“It’s good for keeping costs down because you’re looking at £120 for a set of blades. If you’re topdressing six times a season; that soon adds up. It also has an impact on the golfers. We can put the sand down before the first golfers go out and get it all brushed in ready for play, and it will actually improve the surface that day. That makes my life just a wee bit easier.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – April

Bob Meikle has been working at Crail Golfing Society for 27 years. Now the venue’s golf course manager, he joined straight from school and has seen one of the oldest golf clubs in the world flourish.

What are your responsibilities?
“I look after both golf courses, the driving range and all surrounding areas. Everything. If the light bulbs need changing in the clubhouse, I’ll probably get asked to do that. You have to be flexible.”

You’ve been here for 27 years. You must have seen some changes over the years.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes. Crail only had 18 holes when I started. They had bought the land for the new golf course, but hadn’t started building it. I saw the construction and grow-in of the Craighead Links course. It’s great to be a part of that, to see how they construct tees and greens and how they shape it. There aren’t many people who have witnessed that.”

What’s on the agenda for April?
“During the first couple of weeks on the Balcomie course we’ll start overseeding and putting down Hugh King sand. We’ll put about 12 tonnes down. We also try to put sand down during the winter because the weather’s not that bad for us down at the coast. It means we can put down some topdressing during the winter months as well. We’ve been able to put a couple of applications down at six tonnes per application. After that, we’ll put down sand fortnightly but with just four tonnes a hectare. We’re so busy during the summer, we can’t interfere with play, so we put down sand every couple of weeks at a low rate so we can just wash it in.”

How many rounds are played at Crail?
“The Balcomie course will have at least 35,000 rounds and Craighead will take 20,000 – it’s getting busier all the time, so we do very light applications. We don’t even rub in the sand, we’ll just wash it in so we’re not interfering with the surface. Golfers will come an hour later and not know we’ve even done it. The STRI recommended we do that because we are so busy. Light and often, so no one knows you’re doing it.”

How long have you been following that strategy?
“We started last year. Before that, we were putting heavier dressings on but not as frequently. The new way is a one man job. Once the guys have cut the greens, you’ll go behind with the spinning topdresser and put down a very light dusting. We put the sprinkler heads on for two minutes a head and that’ll wash the sand in. And that’s it. It’s an easier operation.”

What improvements have you noticed since introducing this practice?
“We’re trying to put as much sand down as we can, but we have to find a balance. I’m getting my way, but the golfers don’t know about it. We’re getting the greens firmer, drier and smoother. The last four years we’ve been aiming to put more sand on, and as a result we’re finding the greens are draining faster, playing better and we’re diluting the thatch more. It takes time, but we’re getting there.”

When did you switch to Hugh King?
“We’ve been using Hugh King for four years now. The Hugh King sand blends in better because it’s slightly darker. Every load we get is pretty much the same. It’s always clean, there are never any stones or contamination. It’s consistent. I usually get a call the day before they deliver and the driver calls when he’s half an hour away. We have that communication, which is really good.”

How would you rate Hugh King?
“We’ve never had any issues. We’ve had good communication with them. Every load has come in when they said it would and it is always very consistent. We’re really pleased.”

The Course Manager’s Calendar – March

The greens at Crieff Golf Club have never been drier. We catch up with course manager Charlie Macdonald to find out how kiln-dried sand has helped realise the club’s ambitious improvements.

Charlie, the last time we spoke, you were completing a big drainage project. How did that turn out?
“Well, at the back end of last year, we verti-drained down 10 inches and applied a tonne and half of Hugh King kiln-dried sand on each green. That really helped the greens drain especially after we put in all the drainage. We’re just tying up the drainage with the verti-draining, so together it will make a huge difference. The greens are absolutely bone dry. There’s not a green on the course that’s wet.”

How long did the verti-draining take?
“We started in the middle of October and it took us roughly two and half weeks to do all the greens because we hand-brushed the greens after. So it took five members of staff about two hours to do a green. It was a tough job, but it was worth spending that time to get the sand down deeper into the profile. The top two inches is already quite full of sand because of the amount of top-dressing we’ve put down.”

How long have you been using Hugh King’s kiln-dried sand?
“We’ve used the kiln-dried sand the last five or six years. We use it in September or October and then we use Hugh King’s medium coarse blend sand for top-dressing during the summer. We’ve used about 40 tonnes on the greens this winter.”

Was this done on both courses?
“Yes, we’ve got 29 greens. We did the nine-hole course in September. It has smaller greens so they probably took about half a tonne a green. It didn’t take us long; we were getting through five of them a day.”

What impact has this had on the greens?
“The greens are looking really healthy and dry. All the verti-drained holes have recovered so we have full grass coverage on all the greens. They’re looking pretty strong going into March which sets them up well for the spring. If your greens are dry throughout the winter, they’re a lot healthier going into the start of the season.”

Job done?
“Nearly. With the kiln-dried sand we have left, we’re going to give them a solid tine down to about 3 inches. We’ll probably use another 15 tonnes of sand for the 29 greens. We’ll be doing that in March weather permitting.”

And then you’re into the playing season.
“It’s a constant programme. You’ve got to keep going. If you stop, the thatch layer will start to build up again, so we’re constantly going over the greens every five or six weeks with vert-drains going down 9 inches followed by an application of sand and a rolling.”

How does that affect play?
“With the sweep-and-fill brush, we can get rid of the sand no problem. It just disappears. It’s great to use a sand that disappears with a few brushes. And it literally is a couple of brushes and it’s gone. If it’s dry first thing, one brush after a light application is good enough. Then we give it a cut and a roll and after that the surfaces are back to normal. Some of the golfers don’t even know it’s been done. The golfers don’t moan about it, which is a bonus.”

Those greens have been well looked after!
“We use a lot of sand, and we have always used dried sand at the back end of the year so the sand can penetrate down into the profile which has made a huge impact. The greens are firm and dry 12 months of the year. We have a parkland course in the centre of Scotland, so it just shows you how dry they are when you can ride a triple over them right through the winter. The sand has definitely helped. It’s been fantastic.”

How would you rate the service you’ve received from Hugh King?
“Hugh King has been fantastic. We get bunker sand, rootzone, topdressing and dry sand, and it is all so consistent. We’ve never had a bad load of any sand. It’s been absolutely spot on. I wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t good, and I wouldn’t tell you it was good if it wasn’t.”