Gordon Moir - The Keynote Interview

Peter Brittonin Golf

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Becoming the Director of Greenkeeping at 'The Home of Golf' can only mean one thing; you are at the very top of your game. It is a position that Gordon Moir has held since the turn of the century and, in this keynote interview, he discusses how he came to be working at the world's most iconic golf venue, how the industry has changed during his time and what the future might hold

What is your official title?

I am the Director of Greenkeeping, St Andrews Links Trust. Tournaments fall under the remit of another of my fellow Directors, who used to work for the European Tour. Obviously, I still get involved in aspects of the various tournaments we stage, which includes a number of our own annual tournaments as well as the Open, Alfred Dunhill Links Championship etc., whether it's discussing matters with the organising bodies, taking things through Committees or helping out with setting the course up in the morning.

What sports were you involved with in your younger days - did you play golf?

Yes, I've played golf since I was about eleven years old, which is over forty years! I was as low as 1 before I contracted rheumatoid arthritis when I was twenty-six. I still play a lot and my handicap varies between 4 and 5. I used to play badminton, five-a side football and run, all just socially, but the arthritis put paid to that, although I still like to try and keep reasonably fit as I also have diabetes. If I was a horse, I'd probably be put down!

How did you become a greenkeeper?

I loved golf, but didn't fancy turning professional, although I was asked. One, I wasn't good enough and two, in those days in the North East of Scotland, there were no opportunities to play, so I would have been stuck in a shop.

I did reasonably well at school but didn't fancy university. My family had a farm and I left school to work on it. Although I enjoyed that, the farm was never going to come to me and, also, I wasn't able to play golf as much. The local club, Fraserburgh Golf Club, offered me an apprenticeship and said they would put me through college. By that time, my friends were all having a great time at university and I thought I was missing out, so I took the opportunity (and a pay cut)!

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How long have you worked at St Andrews?

After fifteen years at Fraserburgh, I moved to St Andrews in 1991 as Head Greenkeeper on the Eden Course. There were only four courses on the Links then. Although the Strathtyrum and the 9 hole Balgove were built, they were only just being grown in.

I was promoted to my current role in October 2000 following the untimely death of my predecessor, Ian Forbes whose title was Links Manager. Ian had held that role since 1995 following the retirement of Walter Woods.

What would you consider has been the highlight of your career so far?

Getting promoted to my current position would certainly be the biggest achievement.

As far as highlights, there have been so many - two Opens and two Ladies Opens, being involved in building The Castle Course - they were all great experiences and you learn so much being involved in these kind of things. Also, meeting so many great people, not just the top players, but people involved in all aspects of the industry. I've been lucky to meet so many people who have ended up being great friends and helped me in so many ways.

How has the greenkeeping industry changed during your time?

The professionalism of the people involved in greenkeeping has risen so much; the younger greenkeepers at the top are so much better educated thanks, in no small measure, to BIGGA and people such as Walter Woods, Cecil George, Elliot Small and Jimmy Neilson, to name but a few, who pushed so hard for this back in the 1970s and 80s. That has helped us be much more respected and appreciated by the people who run the golf courses, be it a private members club, resort course or whatever. Course Manager are now more involved in all aspects of the business and their input is valued.

Machinery, as well, has taken such a leap forward, even just in the last ten years, along with other items of technology. Of course, all this, along with a constant diet of golf on TV from fabulous courses around the world, has led to higher expectations from clubs and

You are keeper of the world's most iconic golf course; the Home of Golf. What additional pressures are put on your work by being in the media spotlight?

All the team are very much aware that things we do can be picked up on by the media, especially if it's a "bad news" story, so we try to be very careful in everything we do. With that, we have a social media policy for the staff as many large organisations do. There's a huge amount of interest from around the world, especially about the Old Course, as could be seen when we announced we were going to make some small alterations for the 2015 Open a couple of years ago.

We have our in-house media relations manager, so we try and enjoy a positive relationship with the media and we also enjoy a close working relationship with local stakeholders, including the R&A, especially when it comes to the Open.

With the Old Course fully booked until November, is there a preferred pecking order for visitors at the other six courses in the portfolio?

With people who come on an advanced reservation booking, or through a tour operator, we have a two course policy where you must play one of our other courses. Most people on these trips would choose the New Course (opened in 1895), the Jubilee (1897) or the Castle Course (2008). On the day ahead booking system, people will gravitate to the course they feel may suit their game or their budget best.

The New, Jubilee, Eden and Strathtyrum all put through over 40,000 rounds a year, whilst the Old is nearer 45,000. Season ticket play still makes up the majority of rounds across all the courses, (around 55-60%). The Ladies Clubs in town play most of their competitions on the Eden and Strathtyrum, although they still have competitions on the others and their main events on the Old Course. The Castle has around 24,000 rounds in the eight months it is open.

How do the courses differ?

With the exception of The Castle Course, which is built on agricultural land and on a clifftop at the other side of town and has USGA spec greens, there is very little difference in the other courses apart from length and degree of difficulty. They all sit next to each other on the same sandy soil profile, (bar four holes on the Strathtyrum and two on the Eden which are on an old riverbed where the soil is more of a silt base).

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They are all maintained in very similar fashion; fertiliser, irrigation and pesticide usage are all low and similar, typical of managing a links course. The STRI visit twice a year to carry out their performance management testing. Off the regular tees, the Jubilee is considered the toughest of the courses, along with The Castle, then comes the New, the Old, Eden and the Strathtyrum, but we have a great portfolio and there is something for everyone, no matter their standard, and the Balgove with no rough is ideal for beginners, the very elderly and for training the youngest members of our Junior Golf Association. Even the Strathtyrum can present a test for the good golfer as you can aim to shoot in the mid to low 60s and, with its elevated greens, it can be tricky.

Whilst green fees range from £120 on the Castle, £75 on the New and Jubilee and £42 on the Eden to £28 on the Strathtyrum, the quality of the turf is the same throughout. That's something that is important to us as golfers will understandably be disappointed that they haven't been able to secure a game on the Old. Therefore, it is important we provide the same quality on our other courses to help make sure they still have an enjoyable experience.

Are any new developments planned, for example an additional course to the current portfolio or changes to existing ones?

There are certainly no plans to build another course or to make any significant changes to the existing ones. Every year we will make a small change here or there to some of the existing courses; maybe a new tee or something.

This year, we plan to rebuild one of the greens on the Eden, which is very small and shaped like a bowl. We have been having drainage problems on it for the past few years, as well as a general shortage of pin placements. We have hired Martin Hawtree to assist as it is an original Colt design from 1914 and we don't want to lose the character of the original greensite. We also plan to make a couple of tweaks to green surrounds on the Castle Course over the winter. All these changes go through an approval process by the Green Sub Committee and the Links Management Committee.

How has the management and running of the course changed in your time at the club?

The basic principles of the management haven't changed that much. What has changed is the improvements in equipment and resources that have allowed us to do things quicker, more often and with less surface disturbance than previously. This has led to a marked increase in the quality of the courses. One of the key things we have changed is the structure of the team; before, we pretty much had one team looking after one course. Now, Graeme Taylor and his team look after the New and Jubilee, whilst Kevin Muir and his team are responsible for the Eden, Strathtyrum, Balgove and all the practice facilities, working out of their own maintenance buildings. This has helped us be a lot more efficient by pooling equipment and staff and the course manager can 'load' a course for a particular event. Before, these teams always had to ask if they could borrow a machine or some staff from a colleague.

We still have one team, led by Gordon McKie, only looking after the Old, whilst Allan Patterson and his guys look after the Castle, which is a little more remote.

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What affect does tourism golf have on work schedules?

From the first week of May until mid-September, the Old Course is fully booked from 6.30 each morning until it is dark, usually with fourballs. To keep in front of golf, staff usually start (are actually on the course) by 5.30am and, on occasions, by 5.00am. Because of the double greens and shared fairways, they have to cut the back nine at the same time as they cut the front nine. The exception is the 1st and 18th fairways which, because of their size, they leave until the end. By starting at 2 and 17 they can stay ahead and, when they cut what we refer to as the 'home end', they only have to contend with golf going off the first tee as the early starters haven't reached 18 yet.

Thank God the Old Course is closed on a Sunday as that is when we take the opportunity to carry out most of our practices such as topdressing, verticutting, spraying etc., as we could never fit that in during the week.

On the other courses, golf is out at 6.00am, although visitors tend not to go out before 7.00am so the staff on them still get off with starting at 5.30am unless, when there is a local club competition on or at weekends, when they have to be ready to go by 5.00am. St Andrews golfers like to play early.

Each course has a 'maintenance morning' each week where, although the tee is still open, golfers are advised that, before 9.00am, there may be some disruption to the greens, so they have the opportunity to move to another course, if available. That is when these teams would try to fit in things such as topdressing. They have the same morning each week, i.e. the Eden is Mondays, the New course is Tuesdays etc. They just need the weather to play ball!

It is all a bit of a juggling act at times and you have to change things, if required, at short notice.

What relationship do you have with the tour professionals?

Very little. We would deal more with the tournament directors, such as the R&A or the European Tour, rather than the players. During the practice rounds, the staff are continually carrying out fine-tuning work whilst the Professionals are out and most of them are chatty and will comment on the course to the guys more than the likes of myself.

Is there one player that has made an impact on you?

I think all the greats have left an impression on me, either directly, subconsciously or by how the industry has benefitted from them raising the profile of the game. Guys like Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Watson and Woods in particular and, from a European point of view, Seve, Lyle, Faldo, Monty and Rory just to name a few.

I couldn't name just one, the most I could get it down to would be two - Palmer and Nicklaus - as I've been fortunate to have met them both and had the opportunity to chat to them. They were both extremely polite and genuinely interested and appreciative of the work greenkeepers do.

What is the most difficult problem you have had to deal with at St Andrews?

We had some severe flooding on parts of the Eden and Strathtyrum courses in March 2010, when the sea wall just beyond our land was breached during a particularly bad storm and the tide came rushing in over three holes on each course. It took us most of a week to get that resolved and the courses fully operational again, and some further work to combat the longer term effects of the salt water and silt damage that occurred.

Storm surges and coastal erosion are an ongoing concern and something we have help with from St Andrews University in monitoring. We also work closely with Fife Coast and Countryside Trust and other stakeholders and help them keep the neighbouring dunes in as healthy a condition as we can.

Do the TV pundits and press folk talk commonsense? For example, some have criticised the changes made to the Old Course. Is that fair?

Most of the time, what they say is fine, but it's frustrating if they don't get their facts correct or they comment on things without knowing the full story. The changes to the Old Course were a typical example of that. I'm sure that, in most cases, they were told there were going to be these substantial changes to six or seven holes, but were given no detail and, therefore, you can understand why they would come out with some of the statements they did.

They were also probably never aware that the Old Course has always evolved and, what we have done the last couple of years, is no different. I was really pleased that people such as Scott McPherson, a golf course architect who wrote a book detailing the evolution of the Old Course since 1850, came out and helped to get that message across, along with other students of the history of golf at St Andrews.

Is there anything you would have done differently, professionally and personally?

Yes, quite a lot, especially when I first started out as a head greenkeeper/course manager! I was very much thrown in at the deep end and had to sink or swim. Although I got a lot of help from so many people to whom I will always be grateful, a lot of things were trial and error. There was very little of the education available back in the early 1980s, such as the workshops which BIGGA now put on.

I've always tried to look back and assess honestly what I've done and if it could have been done better or differently and learn from it. If I think it could have then I would look to change it the next time.

I have always tried to put what has been best for the golf course and my employers first rather than what might have been best for me, and I think that has stood me in good stead.

Having a supportive and understanding wife has been vital. I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have without her help and advice. It's important to have someone a little bit removed from the immediate industry as a sounding board.

Any regrets?

No. Although there are obviously times or things which you don't enjoy over a period of nearly forty years, they are far outweighed by the good days and the friendships you make.

You have always been considered as an ambassador for the greenkeeping industry. Is it in a good place right now?

I think it is, although I'm always conscious that we are in a little bubble in St Andrews in that the visitors will keep flocking here because of the history and the tradition of the Old Course, (provided the courses are still in good condition and represent good value for money).

I know that isn't the case everywhere and, where committees and members want particular standards but don't appreciate the cost of producing these - or don't want to know - then there are many good greenkeepers out there facing hard times. Although equipment and technology has improved so much, it has come at a cost and many clubs struggle to afford the latest all singing, all dancing pieces of kit.

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How would you raise the profile of greenkeeping and sports turf in general?

I think the best way we can do it is through the media and, by that, I mean the golf magazines and TV. The industry magazines are great, as are all the seminars, workshops and exhibitions that are around, but mostly they are preaching to the converted. It would be great to get golf club officials along to events.

Unfortunately, greenkeeping isn't 'sexy' and magazines and TV channels are not hugely excited about running articles or commenting on the skills and hard work put in to presenting a golf course.

However, through social media, there are signs of that changing with some behind the scene footage of the Open at Royal Liverpool starting to appear on websites etc, so, hopefully, the momentum will continue.

Thank you for your time.

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