In the first week of the return of golf after Covid-19 lockdown, on what was a perfect day for a round of golf, Lee Williams headed to Northamptonshire to meet up with Tony Hunter, Silverstone Golf Club's Course Manager. Not being able to shake hands and having to follow the social distancing rules made conducting the interview a little different, but it was great to get back into the 'swing' of things.
Tony Hunter got into the sports turf industry by chance. He was a chef at Cherwell Edge Golf Club in Banbury, which is also owned by the current owner of Silverstone Golf Club, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, an uncommon cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and glands that spread throughout the body. "This meant I was off work for some time," begins Tony, "and, when it was time to go back to work, I wasn't able to go back into the kitchen because of the pressure of the work. Thankfully, the owner offered me the opportunity to work as a greenkeeper and I snapped up the offer. I thought It was ideal for me with the job being outside."
Since beginning his greenkeeping career twelve years ago, Tony has risen through the ranks. "I first started cutting the rough and fixing the irrigation system. When the head greenkeeper left, I was promoted to deputy working under the new head greenkeeper as I knew my way around the course. Whilst at Banbury, I took the opportunity to get my NVQ Level 2 in sports turf. When the owner bought the Silverstone Golf Club, he rang me and asked me to be the head greenkeeper. My initial reaction was 'do I have a choice?' to which he replied 'no, not really'! So, now, instead of walking over the road from my home to get to work, I have to drive in!"
Only having a few years' experience under his belt, Tony was thrown in at the deep end somewhat. "It has been challenging at times, and there are always ups and downs as anyone working in this industry will tell you. But, as long you know the primary principles and are willing to learn and follow the advice of the many experts in the industry you can call upon, I have managed to provide a well-manicured course."
The club has a somewhat different set up when it comes to the day to day running and its finances; one I have not come across in any of my other course visits. "The members rent the golf course from the owner," explains Tony. "The agreement is that anything above ground the members pay for, so that's feed, flags, seed etc. Anything underground, for example the irrigation, the owner pays for, plus he supplies the machinery. For supplies, I mainly report to a steering committee which has a chairman, two directors and an accountant. They deal with all the funds accumulated from the membership. If we need to replace or fix a machine, I have to go through the owner."
"It is a bit of a weird system, but it seems to work, until something like this COVID-19 pandemic happened. Now it's all a bit of struggle, but I am sure it will sort itself out in the end."
Tony describes the soil profile of the course as 'awful'. "It is all on solid clay, so it goes like concrete in summer. Then, in winter, once it gets wet, it gets very damp, so getting from tee to green is terrible, especially this year as we were not allowed to shut. The golfers just kept playing and playing, so you can imagine the damage it caused. We had a torrent running off the seventeenth fairway and through the yard, but they were still going out and playing. The problem for us is the greens are sand based, so the water just flies through; once it gets there, it is okay. It's a great winter course greens-wise, but its surroundings sadly let it down."
The course has a solid clay profile
"There are drains throughout the course, but they are not efficient enough to cope with the amount of rainfall we have experienced in the last few years. We do see water coming out of the outlets but, in a general downfall, the fairways will puddle up within ten minutes. The water does seem to evaporate quite quickly once it brightens back up though."
Helping Tony look after the course is Lorraine Sands, Deputy Head Greenkeeper, along with Assistant Greenkeepers Alex Blanchard and Chris Carley.
At the time of writing it had been down to Tony and Lorraine to maintain the course during the pandemic whilst the two assistants were furloughed. "This was fine until the golfers came back last week, as we could get on the course and do what we wanted when it suited us. As soon as the golfers were to be re-introduced - with a two-day warning - we were fully booked from 7.00am to 7.00pm every day within hours. It was panic stations; we could not cope. We tried, but it just wasn't possible, so one of the lads came back yesterday whilst the other is furloughed until further notice. To get the work done, we have found ourselves getting in at 4:30 in the morning so we can get in front of the golfers."
It's disappointing there will be no spectators at this year's British Grand Prix, especially when Silverstone was set for a bumper crowd as Formula 1 celebrates its 70th anniversary. I, for one, was looking forward to the trip. For Tony, this has meant one less thing for him to worry about this year as the golf course annually opens itself up for fans who want to camp out for race weekend. "Normally, on a race weekend, the course remains open, but shut if that makes sense! As well as the two large fields, we have to accommodate the fans. Last year, due to high demand, we had to knock out the ninth and tenth holes so the fairways could be used. The members are still able to access the clubhouse car park if they want to play, but the majority choose not to bother."
I asked Tony if the fans cause much damage to the fairways, and what his responsibilities are? "We had glamping tents up for around three weeks, which left yellow circles on the fairway where the grass had died off. The members asked what we were going to do about it? My reply was, nothing, they will come back naturally. We have to keep our eye out for tent pegs when cutting the fairways and fields once they have gone. The greens on those two holes were roped off, but that didn't stop people playing ball games on there! Fortunately, they didn't cause much damage. With the weather on our side last year, the fairways were like concrete, so the damage was limited."
"We try our best to maintain the course during this period, but we do end up on gate duties etc. I will park my motorhome up over the weekend, which I use when I go racing, it means I do not have the difficulty of getting in and out. It will be a welcome break for my team to not have to deal with moving chairs and tables up and down and deal with working around the campers. On the downside, I won't get to catch up with those who attend each year and recognise me, and the fact the owner will lose out on that much-needed revenue it brings in."
Tony's motto, when it comes to the maintenance of the course, is just do as much as we can with what we have available to us. "I would like to get more topdressing on the greens, but we probably get forty tonnes on if we are lucky due to finance and time. The calendar is so full it can be hard to work around everything. Then, once you have topdressed, you kill the blades on your greens machine, so we then need the money for a regrind. It's all a delicate balance. We used the shutdown period to apply a load of dressing, and we just left it; we didn't have to worry about dragmatting it in, the wind and rain helped get it into the surface. Some people will stick to what they do year on year, whereas we have to just play it by ear."
"We cut the greens with the Jacobsen Eclipse every day in summer, and we will try and leave the height of cut as high as possible, generally around 5mm, as they tend to dry out so quickly. We verti-cut early in the season to try and remove some of the moss which we get. I will go over the greens again in the next few weeks, but not quite as aggressive. If time allows, every two weeks we will put the sorrel rollers over. Once a year we will overseed the greens with Limagrain's MM10 Grass Seed, which is a mix of fescues and browntop bent; unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I cannot see us doing that this year."
"Last year, we managed to get a second-hand Toro Procore 660 for the back of the tractor as our old Wiedemann is only good for deep aeration. It's a great machine and is a lot quicker. We don't really need to go too deep being on sand. It does a good job, and has been a godsend."
Tony uses a mix of granular and liquid feeds throughout the season and is a big believer in the use of lawn sand. "In autumn and spring, I like to use lawn sand to help strengthen everything and blacken the moss off. I just like the results it gives me. I will try and time the application around some rain. I will stick a granular base feed down in April and then use a mixture of seaweed, liquid iron, humic acids, phosphates and nitrogen every two weeks."
When Tony needs to replace machines, he has two options; he can put his case forward to the committee who will then inform the owner, or he can approach the owner direct as he has known him a long time. "The owner is responsible for the machinery and usually likes to purchase outright, whether that be ex-demo or second-hand. Last year, we bought the aforementioned Toro Procore 660 and a Toro Groundsmaster 300D to cut the rough, both second-hand, and two years ago we purchased a Trimax Snake."
Tony's hobby is racing a track car, which I can tell you is impressive as it stored in the greenkeepers' shed. This beast has helped him develop his mechanical skills which, in turn, has helped the club save money with servicing costs and keeping the ageing fleet of machinery up and running.
The course naturally supports a variety of wildlife with large areas of dedicated long rough. "In July, these areas look lovely, the members don't like it, but it's a way off the fairway, so if you end up there it's tough luck! We do have some owl boxes, and we are looking to build some bug hotels with some of the pallets we have lying around but, like with everything else, it's getting the time. There are areas on the course I have never even walked through, where I see the deer emerging from and making their way across the golf course and occasionally running across the greens.
Tony believes the golf industry is struggling as there are too many courses in the UK and not enough demand. "In the seventies, golf boomed and every five minutes there was a golf club being built - it was a licence to print money. Now, the demand has dropped and I don't believe prices have gone up. If anything, they have come down as everyone tries to outbid each other. This leads to golf clubs not being able to cover their costs and, in the end, having to close down. I am not saying it is a good thing courses closing down as people will lose their jobs. Luckily, we are quite stable and have the extra income through the hotel, chalets and the camping events to help boost the golf course's finances."
The Trimax Snake was purchased a couple of years ago
What's in the shed
Jacobson Eclipse 322
Toro Greenmaster 1000 x 3
Toro Groundsmaster 3000D x 3
Jacobsen Tri-King 1900D
Massey Ferguson 350 tractor
New Holland 45 tractor
Wiedenmann Terra Spike
Toro ProCore 660
Jacobsen Cushman x 2
Hardy tractor mounted sprayer
Smithco Tournament X-Press turf iron