Manchester Golf Club - If It Ain’t Broke

Jake Barrowin Golf

Regarded as one of the finest courses in the northwest, Manchester Golf Club's Course Manager Matt Shimwell and his team have their work cut out to manage an area that covers over 240 acres!

Considered amongst the finest non-links courses in northern England, Manchester Golf Club has retained its design for over a century - a quintessential Harry Colt.

The third hole typifies this Colt signature attitude, with its punishingly long fairway and a runaway table-top green to welcome what would be a potential green in regulation.

Added to this are the steep banks coming into many of the greens, and the tendency for holes to play longer or shorter than true yardage. The bunkers are in his trademark natural, dropped state.

It is a throwback to a time each golf course felt truly different; a unique and challenging moorland-heathland arrangement, on which unusual and score-affecting hazards lie.

This means that Matt Shimwell, 36, the Course Manager, can focus on maintenance and superficial work without ever worrying that the course needs a shake-up.

Whilst there is some pressure to maintain the course's prestigious reputation, this is also a blessing which allows the club to focus its efforts - as the saying goes: 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Significant local events, such as those organised by the PGA and the national youth Reed Trophy, are held at Manchester because of the prestige it holds. They were top-three finalists for 'England Golf Championship Venue of the Year 2017'.

It's sometimes difficult to put one's finger on what makes a non-coastal course special, because there is such relative variety in links set-ups. I asked Matt what he thinks:

"It's got a links feel to it. It's not your typical parkland course. It's controversial to say it, but parklands can be very samey, can't they? You tend to go up and down in straight lines; maybe a dogleg here and there; treelined fairways."

"This has a lot of fescues and long roughs. The club has also worked over a few years to remove hundreds of imposing trees, to open the course up and recapture that original Harry Colt design."

"We've had bunker renovations to get it back to that mode too. It's also a long course, and it's tough. In fact, the last four holes are very tough. The pros were coming into the clubhouse afterwards saying how difficult they'd found it. The genuine test appeals to people."

Matt had always wanted to do something which allowed him to keep active and, having kept greens on day release from his landscaping job, he decided he'd definitely rather be greenkeeping.

Then, he went straight to Myerscough College to undertake a National Diploma, which involved a full-year placement at Limerick County Golf and Country Club.

This was followed by two fantastic nine-month spells in the US, at both Oakmont Country Club and Augusta National Golf Club, two of the world's premier golf courses.

After this, he came back to England for a bachelor's degree, before bouncing between greenkeeping jobs at some of the high-end Greater Manchester golf courses.

This is his second time working for Manchester Golf Club, which rests on the outskirts of his hometown, Rochdale, and his second head greenkeeping role. He's been in the job for just over a year.

"This is the place I always wanted to come back to," Matt said. "This is where I started, I love the course, and it's a dream to come back here as head greenkeeper."

"Mark Jones, who was the head here before me, is someone I look up to. He's now at Morecambe Golf Club. I worked under him for five years, and I learnt so much during that time."

"He, knowing I was dedicated, took me under his wing. He was always there for assistance and guidance. I still speak to him all the time. He's the guy I can call if I've got any questions."

"I'd say we share the same attitudes to greenkeeping, as he's had that influence on me: low input; low nitrogen; overseeding with fescues; a lot of aeration. I copy it, but in my own little way. I'm perhaps a little bit gentler, whereas he was more active."

"That aeration is fulfilled by verti-draining. We have our own Wiedenmann machine. We do the entirety of the fairways, not just the greens, with one-inch tines."

"I'll put one of the lads on a tractor with the unit attached in the morning and say 'right - that's you for the day', and they plod on. It takes about three weeks of solid work to do all 18 holes."

"The course is over 240 acres. It's huge. I think it's the second-largest area of land for an 18-hole golf course in Europe. The other day, a guy came to play. Standing on the first tee, he looked to the horizon and said, 'which golf course is that?' 'That's the eighth tee,' I said."

"We had a PGA event yesterday - the North of Lancashire Open - with 120 professionals, and the guys from Formby Golf Club were asking why they'd never been here before, with it being so immensely large and interesting."

"There are huge areas we leave as unmanaged moorland and heathland. That, by the way, is a big debate within the club [the course, almost uniquely, retains features of all the four typical types of golf course]."

"There is heather everywhere. You can't call it a parkland, because of the profile and the openness. You can't call it a links, even with the bunker types, because… well - it just isn't one. And you can't just call it a heathland, because it isn't on that base."

"The profile is that of a moorland golf course. But, there is so much heather, the club describe it as a moorland-heathland. Unfortunately, there's so much of that, it's unrealistic to maintain with a normal-sized greens staff."

That staff includes John Glover, deputy course manager and mechanic, as well as Richard Morgan, Dominic Welsby, with apprentices Callum Davis, Jake Glover and Daniel Entwistle. Sam Greenhalgh works for us seasonally."

"John does all of the servicing, which always takes place around March, including oil filters and the like. We don't have grinders, so we take them to a guy just two minutes down the road."

"That's Bradshaw Lawnmowers. He does the grinding for everyone in the area, whether it be golf courses, sports clubs, or hospitals - anyone with that kind of machinery."

"John has been here for thirty years, knows the course and its irrigation system like the back of his hand, and the club has just granted him honorary membership for his commendable, long service."

"He's a massive asset to the club, and it's so valuable, when there's something wrong with the irrigation system, to have someone who can quickly pinpoint its location and cause."

The club buys its equipment from Balmers GM of Burnley, and exclusively uses John Deere for its cutting machinery: "It's a brilliant service. They come and drop off the kit on the day."

The Manchester Golf Club team, left to right: John Glover, Sam Greenhalgh, Daniel Entwistle, Richard Morgan, Matt Shimwell, Callum Davis, Dominic Welsby and Jake Glover

"Mark started with John Deere purely because he was getting the best prices for greens mowers on their equipment. Quite quickly, they decided they may as well take advantage of a loyalty discount by having a unified John Deere cutting fleet."

Manchester's fairways are predominantly bents and fescues, with the roughs almost purely fescues. The greens are about 60/20 bent/fescue, with the remaining minority made up of poa annua.

The greens are soil push-ups. Matt describes the course as 'dry', however (no doubt owing largely to the rare soil profile and rigorous aeration).

"The top three-or-four inches is now very sandy, due to the extensive topdressing Mark has undertaken over the past fifteen years. Beneath that, though, there is clay."

"I'd say we're the driest course in the area, but naturally this previous winter had been horrendous. That's now giving way to the polar opposite summer."

"It's difficult to gauge the exact infiltration rates and moisture levels, because we prioritise the budget for other things than tech and soil samples."

"When we can get agronomy done, we use Robert Laycock, who has been with the club since day one of its current era, starting at the same time as Mark."

Based on Robert's findings, although he uses them as a 'guideline' rather than instructions, Matt purchases Johnsons J All Bent, which contains a 40/30/30 mix of the Arrowtown, Manor and Troy browntop varietals, via ALS, as well as some spraying materials.

The club uses temporary greens during times of hard frost or saturation, as they prioritise an open course over the use of the core surfaces, feeling this offers maximum benefit to the members.

It features a driving range, a 300-yard practice pitching area with a bunker and a practice green at its centre, plus two standalone practice greens nearer to the clubhouse.

The irrigation system, with which John is so familiar, is made up of a host of different sprinkler heads, including some by Toro, some by Rainbird, and some by Eagle.

This is because of the variety of greens sizes. Sprinklers were initially added to the largest and quickest-drying greens, before funds were set aside further along to accommodate the introduction of some new ones - which, by then, turned out to be cheaper.

They are linked to a PVC piping system with one pump, which pumps the water directly from the Trub Brook, a River Irk tributary, into the club's tank.

Three-inch pipe drainage lies beneath seven of the club's greens, partly because some of them have no severe need for the additional help.

They're going to add some to the 14th green this winter, because it became troublesome during the previous winter's torrents. They will undertake all of this work themselves:

"That's what we do across the board, because we feel you should always save money where you can. If something can be done in-house, we do it in-house."

A typical day for the team starts at 6.00am in summer and 7.00am in winter. They begin their day with a meeting to discuss the day's schedule, generated mentally by Matt the previous night.

Greens are cut daily during the warm season. Pin positions are changed around three times per week, the fairways and tees are cut twice per week and the semi-rough once, and bunkers are raked every second or third day.

The tees are 10mm, and the fairways are 13mm, with a two-inch rough and one-and-a-quarter-inch semi-rough. Approaches are slightly tighter than the fairways, at 11mm, and the greens are at ordinary heights, anywhere from 3.5-4mm in summer and around 5.5mm in winter.

Renovations take place sometime around August, and this year will include a 12mm verti-drain, a run with the club's own Graden machine at 10-12mm, followed by seed, a pure sand topdressing and a fertiliser designed for recovery.

The club's current major project is rebuilding its footpaths: "Because the course is so hilly, we were getting a lot of washouts."

"Every time it rained, you'd get red shale washing down the hills, and you'd spend a lot of man-hours shoving it back up. In spells during the winter, that could be every day, and was becoming a health and safety issue."

"We've invested a lot of money in footpaths, having considered many options including resin, Tarmac, concrete and plastic mesh."

"We went for the Tarmac option on the steepest paths, so there can't be any washout. They can now use those year-round. In the lower areas, we opted for the mesh, because it feels natural, with the benefit of robustness too."

And its ongoing project has been that tree work: "We tend to get together with the greens committee to organise a good four-to-six months' tree management through the winter."

"Luckily, one of the members here, Gordon Yates, is an ecologist. There will be a tree walk each November, to determine what would be the best option for tree removals."

"He knows every bit of wildlife that's here. I will look at those trees causing shade issues to the greens, while Gordon gives his verdict on the effect that route could have on the wildlife. Finally, the council will discuss it, and we'll implement."

Speaking to Matt as we toured the grounds, it became clear that this was perhaps the part of his wider plans with which he'd been most pleased.

With the removal of hundreds of difficult trees, there are valleys on this huge course where up to five gorgeous holes are revealed from one hilltop tee.

It has allowed for that distinctive feel which is the course's trump card. Refreshingly, the uniqueness of the course has, indeed, been maintained.

Thanks to the efforts of Matt, and Mark before him, it remains not just another wooded, doglegging inland golf course, but a genuine, old-fashioned Harry Colt.

What's in the shed?

John Deere 2500E x 2
Lloyds Paladin pedestrian
mowers x 3
John Deere 8800 terraincut (semi rough)
John Deere 8800A terraincut (rough)
John Deere 7700A fairway mower
Air 2G2
Dakota 410 topdresser
Gambetti 600 litre sprayer
Kubota RTVs x 3
Kubota L5040 tractors x 2
John Deere tractor
Super 3900 greens iron
Amazone 600L spreader
Landy drain jetter
Wiedenmann Terra Spike XP
John Deere Aercore 1500

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