Flixton Golf Club - The Mersey beats us!

Greg Rhodesin Golf

Whoever claims that managing a 9-hole golf course is half as hard as that for an 18-hole one needs a swift rethink. So says Paul Barrow, Head Greenkeeper at Flixton Golf Club, Greater Manchester, who has all the experience, and maintenance headaches, to back up his statement.

With just one full-time assistant, Paul has his work cut out every day of the year, as the threat of flooding from the River Mersey, which runs alongside the 9-hole course, looms large.

The image of Paul standing alone in a sea of floodwater last year tells a graphic tale of the club's constant battle against the elements.

In time, the waters subsided and Flixton opened for business once more. But occupying Paul's thoughts is the nagging question; when will it happen again?

Paul's been a member of Flixton since he was nine, so the 32-year-old has enjoyed a generation of golf, competing against what he states is a challenging parkland round for any player.

But let's go back. A graduate in Sports Science from Myerscough, Paul spent his first few years working in the professional shop at Dunham Forest before applying for a post at equally high status Delamere - "the links inland and a great course to learn the ropes."

A fulfilling four-year spell there culminated in a job offer back at Dunham, where he spent three years further honing his greenkeeping skills.

The siren call home proved too powerful for locally born and bred Paul, who took up the head's post at Flixton in 2015.

"Every course is learning curve," he says, "with different conditions and microclimates requiring differing seed mixes to deliver optimum playability."

As an avid golfer, Paul sees a course from both perspectives - a user and a deliverer.

"For golfers, presentation is everything and the first thing they ask is 'what are the greens like?'." It's all about going back to basics, Paul believes. "A clean, tidy course with well-cut greens gives the kind of presentation golfer want. Our greens are holding up well, so they don't have too many gripes here."

Member expectations are only one side of the coin; growing numbers of pay and play golfers demand perfection, which means the pressure's on clubs like Flixton to do their utmost to provide it, especially locally when they can enjoy the delights of Dunham Forest and Delamere.

Meeting those expectation relies on quality groundscare, helped by the tools and machinery to do the job. "We have a healthy budget," Paul declares, "and our fleet is improving steadily, thanks to the club's council members being more aware of what our work entails."

When golf was written off during lockdown, Paul used the fallow period as a great opportunity to help acclimatise the committee to the realities of greenkeeping. "I invited them to look over what we do," he recalls. "Their eyes were opened when they saw broken machinery."

Closure meant days working alone for Paul, as assistant Anthony Cox had been furloughed, however, "he came in to cut the rough for me, which really helped."

No play brought welcome relief in one sense. "With no flags, furniture or golfers, my job was a little easier - no moving markers either. I was freed of all the usual chores. The three and a half to four days it took us when golfers were on course dropped to two and a half during lockdown."

And the bounceback since then is a revelation. "Member numbers have doubled," Paul reports - perhaps a double-edged sword for the greens team.

Although officially 9 holes, "technically we have 10," says Paul, "as you play the 9th to one green as a Par 4 and play to another green as a Par 5, so we have two greens on one hole."

Nine-hole courses have another hurdle to surmount, Paul explains. "If pay and play golfers are used to an 18-hole round, then come here, they don't really want to play the same holes twice but prefer an ever-changing challenge across 18 holes. Also, the way the new World Handicap System works gives golfers more shots on a more difficult course to try to make the game fairer for everyone but, in turn, 9 hole-courses have to give players a real challenge so they can play on them more frequently."

Introduced this spring, the system has overcomplicated matters and will take two years for players to adjust, Paul believes. "More pay and play is great in one sense but the downside is that golfers new to the game will turn up not knowing about the clothing to wear or rules of the game."

"Do they realise they have to replace divots, they can't take trolleys on to tees and greens and they should let players behind them move ahead if they are playing too slowly?

"Members can help golf virgins adjust to the game, but we have a role too and I take it on myself to try to inform diplomatically by saying 'I don't know if you know that . . .' and that can smooth the way."

And to press home the point, Paul keeps a bucket of divot mix on each tee. "At the end of every week, volunteers go out on course to fill any holes on the fairways."

Paul engages four or five helpers, three days a week and for four- to six-hour stints. "Tending the course is a nice thing for them to do. I have to train them on some greenkeeping jobs, but as they are mostly ex-golfers, they know to look out for players, and golf balls."

The usual health and safety measures apply to them too. "They have to sign in and sign out and wear hi vis jackets. Our liability insurance is in place to cover them for any mishaps."

Volunteers have had "a massive impact", Paul states. "Most of them have been members at Flixton or nearby, so they know the quality I expect, but Anthony and I still need to manage our ten greens and putting area."

Speaking of Anthony, "he came here from Worsley Golf Club in 1991. I can trust him on anything. We've built up a great working relationship. I'm always avidly looking at course presentation, Anthony's full on the greenkeeping aspects. If I miss anything, he won't."

Flixton is in a privileged position, many would argue. "The course is protected indefinitely and, like the William Rowe course nearby which has sadly folded, we are on a flood plain and the local council would not build on it."

"You never like to see courses shut, as the more sport and leisure facilities we have the better, but if they have to, why not turn them into nature walks and wildlife diversity areas, rather than building on them. There are plenty of brownfield sites to take housing."

Like many a greenkeeper, Paul is happy to gain feedback from players. "I prefer people to ask about something they are unsure or unhappy about, rather than simply criticise."

The going's good though. "The word is that our greens are getting better and better. A couple of golfers who play lots of other courses say they are constantly improving, which is great to hear."

Paul's "back to basics" approach embraces a programme of feeding and aeration. "We aerate weekly at appropriate times, star-slitting down to three or four inches and deeper in summer, feeding the grass to boost growth and cutting to 4mm throughout that period."

The club strives to stay open every day of the year and, to that end, installed extensive drainage under the greens in the time since Paul arrived. "After rain, they dry off in thirty minutes to an hour, instead of the three to four hours previously and they are far firmer now - a major improvement on the squelchyness we had before."

"A main drain runs down either side of each green, taking water from the 3m centre drains under the putting surfaces. From there, water runs into ditches and existing drains. We've built a stone-filled four-foot deep sump pit to help take water away from the course."

"The evergreens lining Flixton also aid water take-up from the parkland course, but we still pray that it doesn't rain or freeze because dry days are the prompt to handle the more challenging projects, like cutting."

River proximity brings its own issues. "If the Mersey level rises above our two outfalls, we're in trouble as nothing drains off the course," Paul explains. "I monitor the river level constantly and, during lockdown, had to see it rise from low, to medium then high from October onwards. Unlike other courses on the Mersey, such as Northenden and Withington, we don't have pumps and flood gates that we can open when we need to."

"The water took six to nine weeks to leave the course, though the silt residue greened up a few of our greens and fairways, but we also had to clear tonnes of rubbish away, though the second time we were flooded, far less was left behind so the filter systems on the river must be doing their bit."

The sheer torrent of floodwater wreaks havoc with the Mersey banks, Paul adds. "It washed huge chunks away as the river shifted its natural course. Half the seventh tee went because the earth underneath it started to crack."

"The sixth green is right next to the 7th tee, so we fear we could lose that too."

The team is planting willow hedging - a process known as faggoting - near the bank in a bid to avoid what Paul says is inevitable.

With loss of revenue uppermost in his mind, Paul has approached the river authority but "they were not interested in compensating us. It was just a blessing we had lockdown when the flooding came."

The club now promotes to new golfers to shore up income. We want communities to come down here and use our facilities," Paul pleads

Still with course drainage, Paul has just brought in sports contractor Danvic to vertidrain the fairways. "This is the first time for us since I started at Flixton," says Paul. "We have talked about it and have our own smaller Verti-Drain, which we use to do tees, greens and approaches down to seven inches, but we specified eight and more depth in future, as it only takes days getting in a contractor to do the fairways, whereas it would take weeks if we did it."

"The plan is to repeat the process annually around October time, maybe going down to nine inches or varying the depth upwards. The danger is you create a pan level; a black layer where water just sits."

Planting plans

After talks with the club president, Paul is introducing wildflower mixes in strips, edging the course in a bid to attract bees and other insects to the site. "We're trialling them on a couple of areas - the president is keen to go ahead."

A selection of different species of four to five foot high pines have also been planted in protected areas. "I want more evergreens as, in winter, the course can look bare if you only have deciduous trees - and evergreens need less maintenance."

Arb practices can bring down the wrath of neighbouring residents, however, as Paul notes. "They see us cutting down trees and complain. We explain that we are not doing it to annoy them but because specimens are either dead or dangerous. It's about looking more down the line, not the here and now."

"Usually twenty to thirty trees are felled over winter - some to reduce shade on the course - but we plant as many as we can to replace them. One hundred went in last year in two nursery areas at the back of the 1st and 2nd tees. Then we'll transfer them to other parts of the course when they reach six to eight feet."

In more wildlife activity, volunteers have fitted bat boxes here and there. "A university student was researching bats and she put some up too," Paul says.

"That's a really good move as I want to encourage more young people to engage with us by keeping areas as parkland beauty spots that they can enjoy."

Conceding that golfers like "greens, fairways, roughs and bunkers", Paul reduced Flixton's complement of sand traps by two last year, to stand at thirty-six.

"You don't need too many," he declares. "Two or three a hole is plenty - professionals find pitching up out of bunkers easier than negotiating hollows, bumps and swales."

"Flooding isn't usually a problem, but it's better for them to fill up and draw water off the greens and approaches."

Water isn't too much of a drain on the club coffers either. "Abstraction rights for the borehole that was sunk before my time allows us unrestricted access during summer, bringing a massive cost saving on mains supply." He doesn't have to think twice about actuating the irrigation system. "It's on at night usually and controlled from the shed," he says.

Dark waters

Paul passes into darker waters when the conversation shifts to talk of greenkeeping's future. "I fear we're a dying breed," he states. "The pressure we are under to deliver excellence is immense, and many young lads prefer to go into other industries. They don't relish losing their weekends and getting up at the crack of dawn, when they can earn more as an electrician or a plumber.

"The club treat us really well - I have no cause to complain but the greenkeeping sector needs to start considering how to attract more young people before it's too late. When I'm thinking that I'm the last generation of greenkeepers, that's scary. I cannot see an answer to the problem.

"The apprentices that have come here don't stay because the pay is too low. I remember one saying that he loved it at Flixton but was lured away by better money."

Flow of information

Paul is keen to continue to improve the flow of information between the greens team and the clubhouse. "I appreciate we need to do paperwork but members like to see us out on course doing our job. The more updates you can give them about what you do, the smoother the club runs."

He's one of a three-strong greens committee, which meets monthly for an overview of activities, planned projects and targets. "I've also launched a monthly members newsletter to send out and post on the clubhouse noticeboard."

When the occasional tete-a-tete breaks out on course - machinery noise upsetting players focus for example - the solution is to work out what's best for both sides, Paul believes. "Managing expectations is the name of game," he says.

Electric avenues

Paul's accent on green practices extends to his fleet. "Electric is the future, but I need to know machines will do the job before switching over and like to view all sides of the issue. We'll be looking at electric hedgetrimmers and cutters and I'll be attending local demo days at grounds nearby to see kit for myself. One thing's for sure, we have to take 2-strokes off the shelf soon."

Machinery wait times can be a worry for a club like Flixton, Paul adds. "Our new Kubota greens mower took an age to arrive. Greenkeepers I speak to are hanging on to their old stuff, so second-hand equipment and machinery is more difficult to get hold of."

What's in the shed?

Baroness LM315 Greens Triple - used for cutting greens. We also have a set of verticut units and tees/approach units that are very easy to change over

John Deere 2500e - which we now use as a second greens mower for big comps so 2 of us can go out and double cut, also get used throughout the year

Deutch-Fahr Agrokid 45 tractor and Ransomes trailed gangs - tractor is used for all things but the gangs are mainly for the rough in the summer

John Deere utility vehicle - used all year round, mainly for any little jobs like going out changing holes, bunkers etc.

Toro Reelmaster 5410 fairway mower

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