Cooking up a sand dune at Perranporth Golf Club

Lee Williamsin Golf

Perranporth Golf Club is situated on the beautiful North Coast of Cornwall, overlooking the glorious Perran Sands beach. It sits on top of a disused tin mine, among the dunes of blown sand and old mine workings and the views from every hole are dramatic and a delight. Lee Williams met with Course Manager Rob Cook, who is tasked with the general upkeep and maintenance of this unique links course.

Rob has taken on the enviable task of this James Braid course designed in 1929, after industry legend Bill Mitchell retired in 2018, having served the club for a remarkable fifty-eight years.

Rob first took an interest in golf when he started caddying for his dad, when he was just fourteen. He then started to play himself (at his local golf course of Bowood) and would spend any free time working on his handicap. After completing his A-levels and a BTEC in business and finance, he was still unsure what career path he wanted to take - until his mum stepped in. "She told me I needed to further my education rather than just playing golf all the time. I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do, but obviously I loved golf and, whilst at school, I had worked with the greenkeepers at Bowood in the summer holidays, so I decided to complete a HND in golf course management at Reaseheath College. Part of the course involved going out on work experience for seven months, and I was lucky enough to be placed at the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire. I loved it and, when I finished the HND, they offered me a full-time position."

"I would regularly go home to Cornwall to see my parents and friends and, every time I visited, I would chat with the guy who leased Bowood Golf Course, who was spending quite a bit of money on the course. Whilst working at the Forest of Arden, the phone rang one day and Ray Hunt (Course Manager there at the time) informed me there was some chap on the phone for me. In front of Ray, I answered the phone and was then scared to inform him that Bowood had just asked me to be their Head Greenkeeper. Ray was supportive but recommended i only take the job if suitable budgets were in place, however I was twenty-one at the time and a bit naïve, so I accepted the job."

"It turned out to be a nightmare at first; there were older greenkeepers who did not like being told what to do and the guy who was acting head (who had been demoted) was stubborn. Eventually, with there only being a few of us, things calmed down. Then, the owners went bust, someone else came in with a lot of money and we had some excellent years … until they did a moonlight flit and the farmer (who originally built the course) took it back on!"

Whilst at Bowood, with not having a lot of money to spend on maintaining the USGA specification greens, Rob made the decision to go down the fine grass route and he started to get quite a lot of fescue on the greens. He would pick the brains of the greenkeepers at the local links clubs, as this was the turf management style he was most interested in. "I have always had a passion for links golf, so when a job came up at Trevose Golf Club up the road, I applied, but I just missed out. Then, when the position came up here due to Billy retiring, I felt it was the ideal opportunity. It is such a natural site and it ticked all the boxes for me; fescue dominated greens and low inputs."

When Rob first moved to the club, his first job was to find a trusty and knowledgeable Deputy Head, as the current deputy decided to leave when he was not automatically promoted to Head. "There were some strong contenders already at the club, but they had not been there very long and I felt I needed more knowledge and experience. I managed to appoint Anthony James (Jacko), who is well known in Devon and Cornwall and had been at Killiow Golf Club in Truro as Course Manager for ten years (three years service now with us). We have a great team in place with Shaun Trudgeon (twelve years' service) - NVQ Level 3 Greenkeeping, Tony Blyth (five years) - NVQ Level 2 Greenkeeping and apprentice Tom Tiffin (nine months)."

Left to right: Shaun Trudgeon, Tony Blyth, Rob Cook, Anthony James (Jacko) and Tom Tiffin

Perranporth is a par 72 natural links course and measures a modest 6,252 yards from the back tees. Often described as a links course on steroids it has multiple blind holes and, except for a little lengthening here and there, its layout has remained virtually unchanged, due to lack of funds.

The course was constructed on what was no more than a sand-strewn wasteland of tin mining remains, lashed by wind and rain over the centuries. "It is a headland with sand blown on top and I believe the dunes are amongst some of the highest sand dunes in Europe. What's unusual here is that all the mounding at the side of the fairways is sand, but a lot of the fairways themselves are quite silty with mine waste. So, everybody thinks the course is on pure sand, but when we verti-drain we can only go down to four inches - it is not all that it seems!"

Rob believes if you have been entrusted with the maintenance of a links course, one of your duties should be to promote finer grasses such as fescue. "On a site like this, putting on loads of fertiliser and lots of water is sacrilege."

The fescue dominated greens were constructed naturally and the profile is described as sandy soil.

"Since the 1980s, Billy had religiously been topdressing with Rufford 1742 (a 70/30 mix), which has built up and provided a beautiful free draining profile, able to hold on to nutrients."

The fully automatic irrigation system was installed in 1990, which Rob describes as 'on its knees'. It's something the club have been looking to upgrade for the last few years, but money is the stumbling block. "We make the best of what we have and we do a lot of hosing, as we struggle with pressure.

We only really water the greens to preserve the current system. There are sprinklers on the tees, but we only water the par threes; the more we use the system, the more it fails. Just over three years ago, the club upgraded the pumphouse and tank which was great, however we have had to reduce the pressure because if we used it to its full capacity, the pipes and joints would burst. When we fire the system back up in early spring, we usually have around five or six leaks, in fact, most of lockdown was spent fixing leaks - it can be soul destroying."

The course is extremely free draining, which enables play all year round. "Last June, it rained pretty much all the way through which meant we had a couple of pockets of standing water on the course, but they were not really in play. If anything, the course performs better in winter when it is green and lush. In summer, it is very dry and tends to burn off pretty quickly … if there is anywhere that could do with irrigation, it is here, as it dries out rapidly."

Rob gives me the breakdown of his maintenance regime for the greens throughout the year. "During summer, we cut no lower than 4mm, then gradually rise that to 5mm before going to 6mm in winter.

We have four Baroness LM56 hand mowers and a Toro GreensMaster TriFlex 3420. With staff being furloughed, it has been difficult this year but, typically, we will try and hand mow two to three times a week with the groomers and try and do a double pass, then use the Toro over the weekend." I asked Rob why he swaps between the two methods of cutting? "I just love the finish the hand mowers give us and we only have groomers on those mowers. All the guys here are passionate about hand mowing and it saves wear and tear on the surrounds; because it's an old-fashioned course, it can be difficult to turn the triple. Over the years, I have carried out a lot of hand mowing myself and I would adopt this to all tees and greens if I had the resources."

Throughout the season, Rob doesn't undertake scarifying on the greens and has carried on from where Billy left off with the use of graminicides. "When I first started, I applied four applications in spring and autumn (before Rescue was taken off the market), to ensure I had eradicated all the ryegrass and Yorkshire Fog. Controversially, the next step was Laser, which kills everything apart from fescue and poa including the highland bentgrass; this is horrible and leggy (similar to creeping-bent) and you would see platelets of it, which would catch your eye and look awful. Before applying Laser, I had undertaken a lot of overseeding with chewings and creeping fescue then, in August last year, I bit the bullet and went for it. It did exactly what it says on the tin and killed all the bentgrass, however some of the bare patches filled back in with poa over the winter. So, we sprayed again at the end of spring to pick up anything we had missed or any regrowth and the results have been tremendous; we are pretty much fescue dominated now. The fescue does not respond well to scarification and verti-cutting, so we only groom."

Aeration on the greens tends to be carried out more in winter using the Toro ProCore 648 as well as the Verti-Drain, when they have a little bit more moisture. "Every couple of months, they will get a solid tine at varying depths, so as not to create a pan using the 648. It's a fantastic piece of kit; probably my favourite machine in the shed."

"Our renovation weeks are relatively simple. We will overseed using the Toro ProCore using blunt tines to pot seed six to seven bags a time of a fescue mix, which works a treat. I apply a granular seaweed from Ocean Knowledge and a 70/30 topdressing."

Every June/July, STRI will visit to take soil samples from the greens. Rob feels this may become unneccessary though since adopting a nutrient programme of only applying seaweed alongside a monthly top-dressing regime since last August. "I apply ten tonnes a month of Rufford 1742 topdressing, giving me a total of 120 tonnes per year. For us, this is like a feed because the fescue loves it. The seaweed adds a nice balance of NPK and trace elements. Over the years, I have tried to determine the best seaweed, but you just can't! Some people say heat treated is best, some say cold-pressed, but then you also have the freeze-thaw action. Add to this the different types of seaweed and it's a minefield. I apply 20 l/ha of seaweed every few weeks, but I will mix five litres of a cold-pressed, five litres of a heat-treated, five litres of the freeze-thaw action and five litres of Kelp pack. I do this because I do not know which is best and I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket; it seems a bit overkill, but it works for us."

Most of the machinery at the club is on hire purchase and all the maintenance is carried out in-house, with only the regrinding being farmed out. "My deputy, Jacko, is pretty hands-on and a good mechanic, so he carries out all of the servicing, which greatly helps reduce our costs. We look after our machines and, if I buy a machine like the front-line mowers, I try and hold on to them for ten years. I am a confessed Toro fan, but my view is for individual jobs. I will pick whatever machine is best, irrespective of the colour. The Baroness hand mowers are absolutely brilliant and leave an excellent finish."

Ecology is fundamental to a club like Perranporth with it being such a natural golf course and this is their main selling point. "I think this course is one, if not the most, natural and raw links in Cornwall and this is something we should market. It may not be the easiest of courses to play and you may not love it, but I urge everyone to visit because it is pretty old school and natural. Keeping scrub down is a big thing here, and we work with the wildlife trust."

Some of the dune system is part the Penhale Dunes; a complex of sand dunes and a protected area for its wildlife on the north Cornwall coast. It is the most extensive system of sand dunes in Cornwall and is believed to be the landing site of Saint Piran. Dating from the 6th century, St Piran's Oratory is thought to be one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain. The remains were discovered in the late 18th century and, in 2014, the covering sand was removed to reveal a building more than a thousand years old in a good state of preservation. "We work closely with the dune ranger and, two years ago, we started to undertake quite a bit of burning to thin out the Marram and burn the rye grasses, with great results. The following year we got a lot of wildflowers coming through which attract bees and other wildlife. This year, we have sprayed quite a lot of the scrub that has crept in such as pampas grass and cotoneaster, which should not be on a links course. We also attract a lot of wildlife including deer, foxes, badgers, kestrels, peregrine falcons and one of the most exciting resurgence we have is the Cornish chuff - which, at one time, was pretty rare."

What's in the shed

Toro Greensmaster TriFlex 3420
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D x2
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D Sidewinder
Toro Reelmaster 5410-D
Toro ProCore 648
Toro Workman x 2
Baroness LM56GC x4
EZGO golf buggy
Aebi TT75 with front flail

Team 500 sparayer
Iseki TG5470 IQ tractor
Iseki TG5390 IQ tractor
Smithco greensroller
Dakota Top Dresser
Viking rotary mower x 2
Ryan Turf Cutter
Flymo x 2
STIHL chainsaw x 2
STIHL brushcutter x 2

Read Getting Personal with Rob Cook here

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