Game changer at Skylark Golf Club

Phil Helmn MGin Golf

Surrounded by Hampshire countryside, the resort style course at Skylark Golf Club is undoubtedly one of the most fun, accessible and well-presented golf courses in the area. The 18-hole, 5,583-yard par 70 parkland course offers fantastic views at every turn, mature trees, lakes and testing bunkers give real character to the course which, while kind to the less experienced golfer, holds some surprises for the player who enjoys a challenging round.

Skylark has had a variety of owners in its modest history. Starting out as Fareham Woods Golf Club in 1998, then Quindell Golf and Country Club in 2002, before becoming Skylark Golf Club in the spring of 2021, following the Just Develop It (JDI) acquisition in 2013. They quickly made several improvements, with planning permission sought and granted for a new pro-shop and sports bar, along with improvements made to the gym and spa facilities. Whilst the 18-hole parkland course is famous for its exquisitely maintained course and strategically placed bunkers, JDI also wanted to develop the club as a premier wedding and event venue on the South Coast.

Fast forward to the present day, and Skylark finds itself with a new owner called Time GB Group (Royale life retirement homes), who bought the club eighteen months ago. Things have settled down now for Course Manager Simon Bell-Tye and he looks forward to the exciting future he and his team are planning and preparing for over the next few years.

Simon Says

It was lovely to catch up with Simon and, interestingly, it became very apparent that our paths into greenkeeping were much the same! Simon is a very good golfer (and I mean very good), and tunes his game most weekends at his home golf course, Royal Winchester Golf Club, which he personally holds in high affection. Back in his early years, he originally had aspirations of turning professional at eighteen years old, but realised his 2 handicap wasn't good enough to make it big in the world of tournament golf. By coincidence, at the same time, the then course manager at Royal Winchester, Phil Hanks gave Simon the offer of helping out on the golf course. Like most of us who said, "I'll give this turf maintenance a try," the rest is history as they say.

He loved it so much that he realised he wanted to make this his vocation for life. I say vocation, because Simon is like the rest of us in the world of turf - totally absorbed by the role of a sports turf manager (as I'm sure his long-suffering wife will testify)! Simon is a perfectionist, which I believe, all good turf mangers need to be in order to succeed.

A couple of short years later, South Winchester golf club came calling and he gained his level two at Sparsholt college, before he then returned to his beloved Royal Winchester for a further four years' service. In search of a promotion, Simon moved to Botley Park Golf and Country Club in 2003 to take up the position of Deputy Head and went on to become head greenkeeper. In 2014, Simon made the move to become the head man at Fareham Golf Club (now called Skylark). Simon explained, "I brought a couple of the lads with me from Botley Park and recruited a couple more and we started improving and developing the course."

Simon and his team have continued developing the golf course with an unwavering sense of earnest ever since those early days, and eight years later the foot still hasn't lifted off the proverbial accelerator pedal! "I like to think we've totally revamped the golf course," Simon explained. "We've 'tidied' the course by removing problematic and overgrowing tree areas, gradually improved the turf composition on the greens by adopting a robust (three times a season) bent/fescue over-seeding programme, installed £150,000 of fairway drainage to the bottom half of the course with the help of a company called SpeedCut Contractors (thank you Barry Pace), built (in-house and from scratch) a new putting green and practice area by the clubhouse and re-built all 39 bunkers, taking the opportunity to add much needed drainage and installing artificial eco bunker edges and faces, which has massively improved their playability."

I had the opportunity to witness first hand some of his ongoing projects, namely greens drainage with the assistance of DJUKE and their very impressive hydrowick system (thank you Cameron McMillan), constructing even more bunkers, re-building extra tees and improving some existing tee complexes (thank you The McKie Group contractors) and also installing newer sprinkler heads to name but a few (thank you PSI Irrigation Ltd).

"Re-building bunkers and tee tops has been a major game-changer factor for us," explained Simon. "They are features which every golfer appreciates from a playability aspect to the visual enhancement. We receive a lot of great feedback when these areas are finished". Simon went on, "Some of our tees were too small and most were uneven. We've nearly completed the entire 18 sets of tees and, this winter, we will finish the last 5 tees."

"It's a simple process really," commented Simon. "It starts with our team turf stripping and exposing the soil, then the excavator digs out the drainage at 3 metre centres to an outfall, then we add a 70/30 rootzone to give us approximately 200mm depth of decent material, the contractor then regrades and blends to the surrounding area. Whilst all this is going on, we remove the old irrigation pipe work (which usually runs down the centre of the tee) and re locate new 50mm pipework to the sides. PSI Irrigation then come in and install new heads and set arcs for us. We take the opportunity to replace the old heads with new Hunter I25's or I20's depending on coverage requirements. It's teamwork at its best really," Simon explained with a grin. "We've done so many everyone knows what to do. We can usually build a tee in a week! To finish the job, our team re-lay pure rye turf and it's allowed to settle for a few months before reopening for play."

Simon has also been very busy improving greens drainage. He has commissioned DJUKE to install their very efficient hydrowick system. Simon explains, "This system of drainage has been extremely beneficial for us. The contractors are in and out very quickly and the green is back in play before you know it!" explained Simon. "We've completed fifteen greens so far and our last three will be completed soon. It's made a huge difference to all year round playability to the greens and well worth every penny."

Of course, golf course management isn't always about the exciting building projects but about the everyday. Simon is particularly grateful for the help and support of his local Headland representative, Iain Richardson, and the agronomic (and personal) support he provides 24/7. "I'm on a full nutritional programme which Ian and I sit down at the end of the year and plan for the forthcoming year," explained Simon, "We take soil samples regularly which helps us formulate the way forward. This not only maintains the good surfaces we already have, but over time has helped to improve all aspects of turf and root health."

Team praise

Simon was rightly proud to mention that since he and his team began their journey the club have received recognition from the Professional Golfer Association (P.G.A.) with them hosting four events over recent years. To add to the endorsements of the club's improvements, Hampshire County Golf have hosted numerous championship matches at the club and now have regular fixtures in their calendar. This is praise indeed for all the hard work the team have done.

What next?

The old irrigation system needs to be replaced and we need to start thinking of creating new water features such as ditches, streams and ponds." But with a smile on his face, he goes on, "But next week we begin to bring in landfill lorries to help create more undulating features around the boundaries of the course, this will help with our finances which can go towards all those new construction projects we have planned for the next nine years!

Simon and his team have their feet firmly on the gas pedal and don't look like easing off the throttle just yet! Great to meet up Simon, and huge congratulations to you and your team on all your accomplishments so far.

Article by Phil Helmn.

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