Excellence personified at Royal Norwich Golf Club

Blair Fergusonin Golf

It would need to be something special to prise Peter Todd away from the London Club where he had 'grown' it to become a European Tour venue. So the opportunity to take on one of the largest new builds the UK has seen in recent years was one that he simply could not turn down. Blair Ferguson met up with him in the Turfcare Centre of Excellence; just one of many innovations at the all new Royal Norwich Golf Club.

Peter Todd, Estates Manager and Director

From day one of planning, Royal Norwich Golf Club aimed to do things differently. Their opportunity to build a new £17m golf club at Weston Longville was treated as a chance to construct a benchmark facility in the region; one built on a sustainable model that moved away from being a traditional committee run members club.

In fact, the entire face of the club has changed. There is now a particular focus on welcoming families, women and the younger generation into golf with a six-hole academy course and a completely fresh approach to running the club by installing a board of directors, including experts in their field, and that is how Peter Todd came to be Estates Manager and Director at Royal Norwich.

For this interview, we meet at Peter's office, some six months before the official opening of the course and new clubhouse in September 2019, where Ian Poulter will play a round on the course. That moment will signal the end of a long process for Royal Norwich, who first looked to develop a golf facility on this site in the late 1980s and will officially start their life at this state of the art facility.

The building we meet in, called the Turf Care Centre of Excellence, is a shining example of what this process is all about. Addressing the greenkeeping team's needs with modern, well-equipped facilities is part of the business philosophy to make staff feel valued and happy. In turn, happy staff are then in a much better mindset to look after customer's needs. He also saw an opportunity to work with companies like Bernhard to allow other greenkeepers to use the facilities for learning.

The 3rd at Royal Norwich

Peter explained: "There was a necessity to build a brand new greenkeeping facility here because Royal Norwich didn't purchase the old agricultural buildings on site as they belonged to a neighbour and were never an option to use. Once it was decided the building would be centrally located on the course, I was asked, as part of my initial consultancy role, to look at the design of the greenkeeping facility, so I designed it working out what storage space was needed, workshop space and staff room etc."

"Integral to that thought process was having a space to hold training classes or meetings that was separate to the staff break room, so you could have a training course running independently that wasn't disturbed by the daily routine activities. There was also a strategy to build partnerships with industry so they could also use the facility, and we could build stronger relationships with key players within our industry. This dedicated room was key to that and having the latest IT technology in there, large screen, fibre optic internet and air conditioning make it a high-quality learning space."

"A part of that learning space is the sharpening room. Cutting units today are precision pieces of equipment requiring specific training in how best to set them up on a daily basis, as well as look after ongoing maintenance. Whilst there are many club's with skilled greenkeepers looking after machinery, there's no substitute for having someone who is a specialist technician. By being a specialist you have time to work on all of the intricacies and, having operated a workshop at The London Club with two full-time staff on a 36-hole fleet of machinery, those guys were flat out the whole time to keep the fleet in top condition and follow the manufacturers recommended maintenance."

"When we planned it here, I recognised that we are only an hour and a quarter from Bernhard's production facility in Suffolk and it made obvious synergy, having worked with them in the past, to work together to make a great sharpening room. It wasn't only good for us but good for them to be able to bring other people from the industry to look at how to optimise this type of equipment. The fact we were building one from scratch meant we could get the design right. I sat down with Steve Nixon from Bernhards at the USGA San Diego show and sketched the layout for the sharpening room to make sure there was sufficient space. There was a lot of thought and discussions that went into it, and it should stand us in good stead long-term."

The greenkeeping facility was the first significant aspect of the project to be finished and was a landmark for those who began the long journey years ago. Peter's involvement started in 2016, and he explains how the fresh approach to the project was enough to take him from his previous role as Estates Manager at The London Club.

"I was doing one or two days a month consultancy work for Royal Norwich in 2016 and, at that point, they hadn't signed the deal with the housing developer to buy the old golf course and, to be honest, at that stage I hadn't envisaged working with them beyond being a consultant. There was no reason to leave The London Club because, having spent years fine-tuning it, hosting televised tournaments and getting the operation how you want it to be, it was running extremely smoothly, with a fantastic team and boss."

"During the development's planning stages, it became apparent to the club that they needed expertise within the team to run a project like this, essentially, grow in and establishment skills. I was asked if I'd be interested in being involved on a full-time basis."

"What came over to me was the enormous potential of the project. Firstly, the team involved on the Royal Norwich side. You had people who were giving up all of their own time simply because of their passion to see Royal Norwich survive and prosper well into the future. The existing club probably wouldn't have done so as the old Royal Norwich, like a lot of members clubs, needed reinvestment and they didn't really have the cash. So, you had this stalwart group of members who were steering the development project with a passion and I was greatly encouraged to see that happening."

"There are very few sites where you get the opportunity to put a golf course on such a fabulous piece of ground. To have 400-year-old oak trees and mature Scots pine on what is a relatively sandy loam soil; it doesn't get much better than that. The enthusiasm from the members of the team that I'd met and the fact Ross McMurray from European Golf Design (EGD) was going to be the architect all helped to convince me of the merits of the joining the team. Ross had done an excellent job at Woburn on the Marquess course, and I was used to working with EGD after working with Gary Johnson prior to one of the tournaments at The London Club doing some minor amendments. I was enthused by all the different aspects, and the fact they were going to construct it to a high standard was the other key selling factor to me. My driver is doing it once and doing it properly."

"It was a big decision, but I'm not daunted by big decisions. I think a lot of these things come down to research and making sure you've asked all the right questions and got the right team and finance involved. I was very enthused by the fact that the Chairman, David Coventry, worked with the rest of the committee to change the governance model for Royal Norwich because he recognised that trying to run a multimillion pound redevelopment project by committee, where you had to make daily decisions on things, just wasn't going to work."

Peter regards the change in the governance model as fundamental to move the club in a new direction and why further progress will continue. The complete shift away from a committee saw nine directors appointed, five of which are members, with the other four being compiled of industry experts in their field. Recruiting people with experience in greenkeeping, finance, catering and golf club management allows the club to be run more like a proprietary business, with each person accountable for their own areas. A specific business plan is in place along with financial and membership targets, turning Royal Norwich into a hybrid members club that is being run along business lines, making them a lot leaner, focused and targeted.

The approach of using experts has been used throughout the entire process, from the initial team that visited Peter at The London Club on a fact-finding mission to Peter's own research into materials and machines for the course.

Somewhat uniquely, Peter started his professional life with Reed International, a paper and publishing company, where he honed his skills in negotiating and working in a commercial environment; two skills that lend themselves to project management. His interest in horticulture had been present throughout his young life, and he helped maintain a four-acre Georgian garden every Sunday from the age of sixteen as one of his first jobs, and he continued to do so until he was twenty-three. A change in his position with Reed led to him leaving to pursue full-time studies at Merrist Wood College in Landscape Management, ultimately leading to him beginning work at The London Club following a spell in golf course construction.

His formative years at Reed, and his greenkeeping career, combined perfectly for the task at Royal Norwich and played a pivotal role when it came to working with the course architects and selecting materials for this multi-million-pound project.

"I came on board as the person who would sit down with Ross and look at the specifications and tune aspects of it to suit this locality. A good example of this is the rootzone. A decision had to be made, and we looked at various options with EGD of rootzone amendment; people stopped using peat with sand construction greens years ago, and they've tended to go down the route of green waste compost, but there are alternative non-organic amendments like zeolite and our chosen material, Profile porous ceramic."

"This was one very crucial aspect and also where was the sand coming from to mix with the rootzone amendment because that was a significant cost to the project. Rootzone choice was going to be the key decision, as well as grass species on greens and the rest of the golf course."

The 7th and 16th at Royal Norwich

"Some of the rootzone research involved going abroad because no one had used Profile porous ceramic in the United Kingdom. The only projects I could find nearer to the UK were a 10-year-old project in County Cork and the new Adare Manor project that opened last year. I met Alan MacDonald at Adare Manor, and also met Trevor Norris who constructed Castle Martyr in Cork, to get an idea of how 10-year-old greens had performed, whilst being able to look at the new greens at Adare Manor, so it was a perfect scenario."

With the specification in place, a contractor had to be appointed. A scoring system was used to judge candidates on categories such as financial stability, in-house or sub-contracted labour and previous experience. After this process, MJ Abbott was awarded the project, with their expertise in construction and irrigation installation proving pivotal.

Deciding on an irrigation system was another chance for things to be different from the norm.

"I went to Scandinavia and looked at Rain Bird, and I went to look at Toro systems down in the West Country, just wherever people were installing new ones," Peter explained. "There were aspects to the specification I shaped, with some very specific ones to do with the irrigation control systems. Communications between the pump house and the PC that controls the irrigation. We specifically put some things in there that weren't the norm in the industry. They weren't the standard thing, but they are things I see as being the future of the industry, like our pump house being internet connected, so the pump engineers don't have to come on site, they can interrogate the control panel remotely. Grundfos can look at the operation of the pumps and, for example, see how much current they're drawing."

"That hasn't been the norm in our industry, but if you look at other industries that use big pumps, like a water company, they would have some of those systems in place. We're embracing new technology in the specifications. I think there's a slight tendency in all industries for people to take the 'off the peg' specification because it's the most economical, but it isn't that difficult to tweak specifications to suit the locality, the client situation and what their long-term aims are."

"For us, it came down to who was in a position to do what we needed, and it became apparent that our best partner with irrigation was Rain Bird."

Irrigation would become an important theme of the construction process, which began in June 2017. A lack of rainfall for all of June and July 2018 made the seeding very difficult on areas that weren't covered by irrigation. Eventually, after a lot of discussions, the decision was made to seed and leave the seedlings dry because it was lower risk than encouraging germination with a chance of no rain. Ultimately, this was the correct decision with no rainfall until August, but there is still some recovery work to do on the course's roughs.

The rough areas are one line on Peter's list of critiques that he hopes to have cleared by September, but the progress that's already been made shouldn't be forgotten. Peter's team of twelve staff have been working hard across both the old and new courses during construction. Logistically, this has been a challenge with the twenty minute distance often feeling much longer, but their commitment is evident as you walk around the course that has almost taken its full shape.

Two years ago, soil was being moved to resemble a golf course when Peter moved into the temporary accommodation for a year located in the middle of the site. From there, Peter, his team and everyone involved in the project have been able to enjoy the milestones along the way.

"One of the great satisfactions of working in this industry, unlike many jobs, is that we see the fruits of our labour. If you do an excellent job cutting a green, you can look at it and think that looks fantastic, and that satisfaction is the reason I think people are very passionate in greenkeeping and do what they do."

"I think construction is even more rewarding, because you start with something that's a plan on a piece of paper and then you start ground modelling like a piece of clay and sculpting the golf course. Once it's grassed and being mowed it's all revealed, and it reveals itself in stages, and I think there's great satisfaction in seeing all those stages as you go through construction and see them come to fruition. The grow in, and establishment are the most satisfying because you see grass; up to that point, everything is soil. It's when the grass starts popping that you see people's faces start to change and that first cut of the fairway is a pivotal moment."

"Now the guys are coring out the bunker sand lines so you can see the shape of the perimeters in the bunkers. Up to six weeks ago, they were just full of grass with no shape, and now you can look down the golf holes and see those sand lines and that, in itself, is very satisfying."

Royal Norwich has always been clear about their aims for the new courses and facilities. Building a benchmark facility for Norfolk will be achieved, and the drive of everyone involved will likely garner a much wider reputation for a members club that has built for the future.