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.”