Highland hopes at Castle Stuart Golf Links

Lee Williamsin Golf

As Turnberry is to Ayrshire and Gleneagles is to Perthshire, Castle Stuart Golf Links has been conceived to be for the Highlands, a stunning championship links course opened in 2009, overlooking the Moray Firth. Head Greenkeeper James Hutchison has helped shape the golf course into what you see today. Lee Williams reports.

I was intrigued to know how James first got into the industry and how he found himself getting involved in such a big project like Castle Stuart. "At the age of sixteen, I started my career as an apprentice at Boat of Garten Golf Club, travelling twenty-two miles on a moped for the first twelve months I was there. I enjoyed working at the Boat - unlike some clubs up here, it had money, education was good and they were using a lot of the latest machinery. The head greenkeeper was keen that all team members carried out a variety of jobs, so that you weren't just doing the same thing all the time. He would explain why we were doing a certain job and why they were applying fungicides and wetting agents. It provided a good education, as well as a good job, and I managed to work my way up to deputy head, six years before I left for Castle Stuart."

"That was twelve years ago, and the course had been undergoing construction for a year. I was back and forth to Castle Stuart at least once a week, bugging Course Manager, Chris Haspell for a job. A greenkeeper position finally came up (which would be part of the construction team), so I had to take a pay cut, but the opportunity, for four or five of us, would be the chance to become deputy head if you were good enough - so, I took the risk. We were all part of the building process for a year and a half until, in the last six months before opening, four of us went for the deputy head position. As part of the process, we each oversaw the whole site for two weeks which included thirty-tonne dumpers, breakdowns, getting the sand in, getting it shaped up and getting it ready for hydro-seeding on a Friday. In all fairness, my fortnight had the most breakdowns of the whole lot but, thankfully, I must have done something right to get offered the job. Then, after that Chris and I worked closely together with a small team of twelve. We like to think we are in the higher bracket of golf courses, some of whom have at least twenty greenkeepers, but we have a good team who work hard and make up for that."

"Visitors see a new golf course and think it's finished, but that couldn't be further from the truth; drainage alone has taken eight years to get right in some areas. Chris left two years ago for another course which is not yet open, and I took over as Head Greenkeeper."

Head Greenkeeper James Hutchison

Since then, the knowledge James gained from helping to build the course has been priceless. "Being part of the project from scratch means I have a much better understanding of the course itself. You know exactly what is underneath the surface; the depth of the rootzones, where the drains are and the irrigation system. The thinking process becomes different, for example, when we're shaping areas I'm cautious and aware of not making pinch points to force everyone to walk the same way or balls collecting in the same place on a hole - you have to have movement so balls can shed left and right."

James also took inspiration and knowledge from greenkeepers he has worked with throughout his career and has a lot of respect for two of his past bosses. "Firstly, Alan Dobie at the Boat - his whole demeanour was so calm and he would never get wound up or get low about things (or at least he didn't let it show). He taught me that you have a job to do and you will do it to the best of your ability, but don't drag yourself down if you're having an awful day; at the end of the day when you're working with nature, you can't predict it. Second is Chris Haspell; he is very well-educated man when it comes to sportsturf management and, like Alan, he would always try and explain everything and encourage us to ask questions. The course is made up of pure fescue and his knowledge on this subject is unbelievable. I have certainly gained an understanding from him about how it grows and what is needed to make it work."

"This course is a lot different to the Boat (featured in our October/November issue), which is heathland including bent, fescue and poa, but here we are mostly fescue. People have a tendency to think it doesn't need much water, and whilst it doesn't need as much feed as ryegrasses and other species, it still requires a little bit. Changing my mindset from a heathland to a links course, and the different skills required has been a challenge, but I'm enjoying it."

4th green

James continues to gain knowledge and qualifications through the Jacobsen and BIGGA Future Turf Managers Initiative and previously obtained his NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3 in sportsturf at Elmwood College.

James likes to network with greenkeepers from surrounding areas. "I'm lucky that there's a group of greenkeepers nearby, from the likes of Kingsbarns, Skibo Castle, Royal Dornoch and Trump Turnberry, and we meet up whenever we can to bounce ideas off each other. It's not like the old days, when everybody used to keep themselves to themselves; we generally put any issues or problems out there and ask each other 'have you come across this', 'what products are you using' etc." As well as seeking advice locally, James takes the long trip down to Harrogate for BTME every year. "I think networking at shows during the day, and even at night whilst you are at the bar, allows you to gain a lot of knowledge from your fellow greenkeepers around the country and overseas."

Castle Stuart covers eighty hectares, which includes two and a half hectares of greens, two hectares of tees and eighteen and a half hectares of fairways. James tells me about the soil profile of the course. "There is 600mm of sand rootzone over the whole course on fairways and tees, on the greens there is 600mm of medium/fine (which is our rootzone) and underneath that is a metre of pure sand. This was on site when we started the construction and we mined an area up at the 13th for all our rootzone for the greens and surrounds. That obviously saved us a lot of money, but what we are finding is it tends to flush. We have been open for ten years now and we have developed a small thatch layer in the greens but, ironically, we could probably do with a little bit more thatch so that we can hold on to stuff. At the moment, product is still going through too quickly, but if you look at it on some greens you can see the collapse of thatch - so it's just about getting a happy medium. So far, we have found that a solid tine isn't breaking it as a knife tine would, but then the knife doesn't give you the surface afterwards for the golfers."

Soil samples are taken from the greens annually when STRI visit; however, if there is an issue, they will visit mid-season to gain an additional sample and determine what's going on. "The whole site suffers from barsideous fungus and it fluctuates with moisture levels; if the levels change within five and six per cent, either way up or down, it's enough to trigger it off. We sometimes get questioned on why we are putting the irrigation system on when we've had 20mm of rain overnight but, with temperatures rising to twenty-six degrees over summer, it would zap at least five to six per cent of the water which could flare up the barsideous. So, I choose to put on a little bit of water to just slow that procedure and hopefully keeping the disease at bay."

The irrigation system is wall to wall Toro, with around eight hundred pop-ups, but they are in a strange situation when it comes to the amount of water they can use. "When the site was initially built, we dug boreholes but couldn't find enough water, so we share our water supply with a local farmer. We pump in from around 2km away from a small reservoir that collects water from the hills around us, but it often doesn't replenish itself quickly and, if both of us are pumping from it, it is no use! The farm has been here much longer than us and they get first dibs so, from April to October, if they want the water, we can't pump. In 2018, this meant we weren't able to put anything on the fairways, so we just had to watch them dry out. We're based in the Highlands of Scotland so we honestly didn't think it would be such a problem, but now the process is forced, and we are going have to find water for ourselves. We are working with SEPA and various other authorities but, in the meantime, we are trying to obtain licences so that we take water from other local areas; even if it was only fifty cubic metres a day, it would help. A 2mm watering programme on the greens alone uses forty-eight cubic metres, which is a fair bit."

16th green

James talks me through the general maintenance of the greens, tees and fairways. "On the greens, we try to stay at a cutting height of 5mm. Fescue is a fine leaf plant and it doesn't slow the ball up as much as poa green, but depending on conditions we may have to reduce that height. We typically apply one-hundred and sixty tonnes of topdressing to our greens each year but, over the last couple of years, we have changed our regime twice. In 2018, I did a light topdressing more often, but last year we went heavy at the start and then just one dressing a month rather than two. That didn't work as well, so we are now going light more often and matting it in. We will try and pick a dry night so that you will hardly see it the next morning; this also helps with the machines, as the heavier dressings were killing the units."

"Once a fortnight, we will solid tine the greens and tees using a Toro ProCore 648 with 6mm tines. We have tried other machines, but they don't compare to the ProCore; it can turn pretty much on itself which is useful when some of our greens have infinity edges. The way the 648 works is ideal for us and I don't think there is anything on the market that beats it."

"In September, and right at the start of the season, we will overseed the greens using our Vredo disc seeder, using a 100 per cent fescue mix at 5g/m2. We don't undertake any scarifying on greens as fescue grass doesn't like it; you basically bruise it, stress it and that's when you get disease and reduced grass coverage. Instead, we have both a firm and medium brush to do the equivalent but, in another four years when the greens are more mature, there might be an argument. At least once a year, we scarify the fairways to get rid of some of the rough grasses; we have a little Yorkshire Fog, Poa etc. in them. Fairways are cut at the height of 9mm; at the start of the season we try and cut them at least twice a week just after the feed goes on, but generally when growth slows down, we cut once per week. Tees are cut at 10mm and get the same treatment as the greens. Every now and again we get Dollar Spot, which leaves some scarring, so a light scarification on that in the next year or so might be the way forward."

James has a fertiliser programme in place for the greens and tends to use low inputs, but he doesn't always stick to what is set out for the year. "At the start of the season, we will use a 6:5:10 with magnesium and iron, but sometimes we find we don't need an awful lot. With our flushing out process, we need to ensure we have got all the main ingredients because, if not, we just end up suffering somewhere else. Then, after that, it's a lot of liquid feeds, seaweeds and chelated iron to harden it up and tickle it through. Six to eight weeks after that initial feed, we use the ICL Greenmaster Pro-Lite Invigorator 4:0:8 which won't give us flush growth, but will keep things ticking over. Then, we may spray another 6:5:10 going into winter and, our overall aim over the year is to apply around 40kg of nitrogen and 70kg of potassium."

The club leases all machinery over a five-year period and they are not dedicated to any one manufacturer. They will look at what is the best piece of kit for the job in hand. James continued: "We do have a lot of Jacobsen equipment and work closely with them, as we found other main dealers didn't have the backup that Jacobsen had when we were doing the main purchasing of machinery. We didn't have our own mechanic, so it was peace of mind that, if anything went wrong, within a day or two someone would be here to fix the problem. Since then, things have changed a wee bit and other manufacturers have more of a northern presence, therefore we have more of a mix which now also includes John Deere and Toro, but things change on a yearly basis. John Deere has brought out a new triple mower for the greens (which a lot of people are raving about), so we will certainly look at those when ours given up. The course is a business and we have to have it looking its best every day, therefore, if a different machine is going to give us a better cut or finish, we would be silly not to buy it."

Team left to right: James Cadden, Callum Flynn, Ben Johnstone, Kerr Edgar, Stuart Hawker, James Hutchison, Ethan Ramsay, Darren Chisholm, Kevin Bartlett, Hamish Black and Jamie Fraser. Alan Grant and Charlie Shewan were on annual leave

"With the climate changing, it means that we generally experience wind all the time here, so we have purchased a new Jacobsen sprayer. The decision wasn't just because of the brand, but for the technology in the nozzle; it pulses about forty times a second, meaning we can be out spraying in thirty miles an hour wind without getting any drift. If we were going for engineering finish, I would have probably chosen Toro, but they don't have the pulsing technology."

As well as looking after the general maintenance of the main course last year in spring and summer, James and his team had the task of building a new par 3 in-house. "All the lads had a hand in creating it and put in a lot of overtime, which meant some of them had last January off as owed leave. We are closed from the middle of November and don't open again till March and, although we are still busy, it gave us the opportunity to give the lads their time back in lieu - some of them had nearly 700 hours they had to get back."

"I'm the only one left from the original construction team, but the lads had heard all about the fun we had and what was involved, so they were desperate to get their teeth into the new par 3 project. It was basically just flat fields, so we had to undertake the same process as when initially building the course - but on a smaller scale."

"We had to strip the soil to see what we had underneath then, shape the subbase to one per cent so it was all falling for drainage. Next, we put in 20,000 tonnes of sand giving us 500-600mm blanket in each area. We hired a local firm to come in with heavy plant machinery to help us; I didn't want to take 30-tonne dumpers in, due to there being a lot of movement, so we used 14-tonne dumpers instead. Robert and I were on the diggers spreading out and then we had our own team come in with the hand rakes, tracking in with the Sand Pros. Finally, we turfed it all and we hope to have it open soon … it was a hard process, but one we have all enjoyed."

What's in the shed

Jacobsen Eclipse triples x 2
Jacobsen Eclipse 2 hand mowers x 6
Jacobsen Eclipse 2 hand mowers with rotating brushes x 3
Jacobsen Super LF 1880 fairway mowers x 6
John Deere 8800 terrain cut mower
Eclipse rotary hand mowers x 2
Cushman Hauler PRO-X x 8
Toro ProCore 648
TruTurf rollers x 2
Jacobsen SprayTek XP Sprayer
Vredo disc seeder
Toro Sand Pro 5040
New Holland tractor
Class tractor

Background of the course

Scotland, the home of golf. History and diversity make Scottish golf courses famous throughout the world. As Turnberry is to Ayrshire and Gleneagles is to Perthshire, Castle Stuart has been conceived to be for the Highlands - a beacon reaching out to golfers throughout the world.

The centrepiece for this Scottish destination golf resort is Castle Stuart Golf Links, a championship links course overlooking the Moray Firth and well-known landmarks that are synonymous with Inverness and the Black Isle - Kessock Bridge and Chanonry Lighthouse perhaps the most notable.

Castle Stuart's goal is to add to the rich fabric of golf in the Scottish Highlands - a fabric made rich by Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Brora, and many other fine Scottish golf clubs. The cornerstone links course enjoys a setting and topography that combine to make the golf experience visually memorable. The golf holes are 18 compositions that place the notable landmarks of the Moray Firth directly into the player's perspective.

For the holes immediately abutting the sea, the Kessock Bridge, Chanonry Lighthouse, Fort George (home of the Black Watch) and Castle Stuart. Atop the 'old sea cliff,' these same Black Isle landmarks are often presented from towering heights that offer palpably different and perhaps even more spectacular visual aspects. It would be impossible not to enjoy these Highland landmarks when seen through greens with seemingly nothing beyond but a shimmering firth and the landmark itself.

Surrounding the golfer is a rugged and natural landscape comprising vast expanses of gorse, broom, heather and sea marram. This mosaic often tightly frames the vistas beyond and combines an immediacy of natural surrounds with a grand sense of distant vistas. Enjoying the visual experience on any given hole is a private pleasure, as other holes and conflicting inland views are out of sight. Castle Stuart's presentation of its manicured playing surface within its rugged natural beauty harkens back to a simpler era of golf, the 'transitional period' 1890 to 1935. Wayward shots and thin wispy fescue and pockets of bare sand where balls are easily found and recoveries manageable.

The bunkering is characterised more by open sandy areas with pockets of light vegetation than by formally revetted (stacked sod or turf) manicured bunkers. And from some tees and greens, the 1930s style white 'Art Deco' clubhouse can be seen sitting prominently atop its viewing.

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