La Grande Mare Golf Club - Coming full circle

Blair Fergusonin Golf

For Rick Hamilton, five years in Australia were followed by twenty-four years in Hong Kong, where he travelled extensively as a consultant for his own company and the PGA Tour. After almost three decades away from the island where he grew up, Rick returned to Guernsey in 2018.

For this interview, he sits on the other end of a phone at his hometown club with the sun beating down on the 18-hole beachside course which, unlike many, already has golfers back on it. Guernsey has been no exception to the COVID-19 pandemic except that, as we speak on 6th May 2020, the course has been opened for four days as two nine holes to comply with the designated two hours of outdoor exercise.

Throughout their lockdown, which came into place before mainland UK, working hours were reduced to twelve a week. A complete four-day shutdown was forced due to complaints before essential worker status meant they could return. From 27th April, they were able to work unrestricted again before a slightly impromptu return to golf was announced with one day of notice.

Rick's journey back to La Grande Mare has been different to usual career timelines. For many, their home town club might be their first job rather than their last, but coming from a small island with a sense of adventure means things don't quite work that way. As previously mentioned, he had planned to be a fireman in Australia, but a City & Guilds qualification in Engineering meant things were able to go in a different direction.

"When I was in my late teens a lot of my friends got apprenticeships and, back then, it was a big thing to go backpacking and Australia and New Zealand were the main destinations, especially Australia," Rick explained. "Growing up on a small island is lovely, but you'd hear stories about these people going around the world, and it was something I thought would be nice to do one day, I thought it sounded amazing."

"When the right time came, there were about thirty of us that went backpacking over two years. A lot of my friends had City & Guilds apprenticeships and, back in those days, Australia was screaming out for tradespeople whether it was a mechanic, a chef or nursing and hairdressing. It was easy to get in so, after we'd travelled around and finished our tourist visas, we applied for residency and went back and settled there."

Royal Perth Golf Club / Lake Karrinyup Country Club

"I did the normal backpacking and tourist thing of driving around the country and had an amazing time windsurfing, fishing and camping and doing all those things, before I settled back in Perth in Western Australia. When I was driving up and down the coast, there were some beautiful golf courses, and I always thought to myself, especially when I went down south to a place called Margaret River, that's quite an interesting job. One day, I was in a pub having a few beers and bumped into a few guys from Royal Perth Golf Club, and they were advertising for a workshop mechanic, so I went for an interview and they offered me the job."

"So, instead of joining the fire brigade, I thought I'd see what this job is about. I started in 1991 with a new superintendent, so I was part of the team who were there to raise the standards of the course and the workshop. That's where I really got the greenkeeping bug; from then on I loved it, I thought it was an amazing job."

"From there, I moved to Lake Karrinyup Country Club which was one of the top courses in Australia and, in 1995, I got asked to go and work in Hong Kong to help build a golf course on an island for the Jockey Club which was a Gary Player course. So I moved to Asia as a workshop manager and made my way up through the ranks to an assistant, and I ended up being the Superintendent of the golf course that I helped build and I was there for ten years."

"After that, I set up my own company, Asia Turf Solutions, and I was consulting, building golf courses, planning maintenance, and then ended up doing agronomy on new projects for Jack Nicklaus. Then I worked for the World Golf Championship renovating and rebuilding courses, and I was the Head Agronomist for the PGA Tour in China which involved helping to set up the PGA China Tour seven years ago. I went out and audited golf courses and found the venues for them and then prepared those courses for the tournaments."

Jockey Club Kau Sai Chau Golf Club

Whilst the beginning of Rick's career had a sense of good timing and a bit of luck about it, the years that followed required dedication and a set of goals he wanted to achieve. His greenkeeping knowledge was built from the ground up, starting at Royal Perth and then more formally at Murdoch University studying Turf Management. That was built upon during his time in Hong Kong with a Turf Management Certificate from the University of Georgia and supplemented by attending events in Australia and America to learn from those around him.

However, one aspect of life in Asia that can't be taught in a classroom is the culture. When Rick first moved to Hong Kong, the Asian golf market, driven by real estate construction, was booming. Wealth was being demonstrated by building vast properties at the side of signature courses, and for those there at the start of the boom, there was an opportunity to be part of the growth.

"The Hong Kong job was supposed to be a two-year contract to go and build the golf course, set it up and come back but, like a lot of things, you go over there for two years and twenty-four years later you're still there," Rick explained.

"I had travelled quite a bit and, when I went there, I'd already travelled around Asia and experienced other cultures, and that's the big thing. You have to go in there and be respectful and understand their culture, and how they do things, otherwise you won't survive."

"The opportunities in Asia at that time were rapid, and the learning curve was massive. This was in the mid-nineties early two thousands when golf course construction and development in Asia was a big thing, and it only slowed down a few years ago. If you were really keen and passionate about what you did and worked hard, you could make your own luck and opportunities would come up. Having a good network of friends and getting on with different people like architects, machinery suppliers and fertiliser suppliers was good. It was quite a tight-knit community with a lot of expats, and everybody in South East Asia knew each other, and you'd meet up at golf shows."

Aerial view of La Grande Mare's stunning beachside location

"So, when we went in there, we built the courses, did all the specifications for the turfgrass types and irrigation - that would either be Toro or Rainbird - and put machinery packages together. Back in those days, there was a lot of money around so we'd make a list of what we wanted and the owners would pretty much buy it all, so it was a bit of a dream job. In my first job in Hong Kong on the island, there was no expense spared at all, the owners wanted it to be world-class standard, so we were there to advise, and it was all done properly and professionally. If we said, we needed X amount of greens mowers and X amounts of aeration equipment we got it."

"Over the years, as things moved on, you had to open up and operate the golf course, and that is when things tightened up a bit. A lot of owners wanted these golf courses, but they didn't realise how much they cost to run and manage, turf management is big money. They couldn't believe that they could buy a BMW 3 Series for the same price as a fairway mower."

"Because golf was quite new to a lot of people at a detailed level, they knew very little about maintaining courses. One of the interesting things I found working in Asia for so long was that, at my first course, we had to train all the staff. And they would all be fishermen and fisherwomen, and they lived in a little village, and they'd never seen mowers or a golf course. They didn't know anything about it. But, as it turned out, the best operators in terms of operating the machines and looking after them were women. Ninety percent of my operators were ladies, and they were the best. The men couldn't operate the machines to the same standard, and they didn't take care of them either. When you go around Hong Kong and China you'll notice, even today, that a lot of the operators are women."

Air2G2, a favourite machine of Rick's / Rick with a new Foley grinder, part of the workshop improvement plan

"Later on, the course had to be operating, and you had to rely on your green fees and things did tightened up. When you were doing machinery replacement programmes, you had to be a bit more careful about what you picked and make sure it was the right machine for the course. Not being too extravagant and making sure the machine was going to serve the purpose of that specific site and job."

"That's why the specialist machines, like the Air2G2, are good because you can use it on any area or soil type and there's no disruption to play. In the old days, golfers hated when you went out with a 16mm tine and had holes and topdressing everywhere, and the course was a mess for a couple of weeks. But, these days, with the amount of equipment and accessories we have with machines like the ProCore 648 and Air2G2, it's a clean process unless you need to remove a lot of thatch or organic matter."

While the domestic appetite for the game was growing quickly, the professional interest from outside the country was moving at a slower pace. On his arrival in 1995, the Asian Tour and European Tour events, such as the Hong Kong Open, were taking place with little PGA involvement. By 2012, the fourth of four WGC-HSBC Championship events was brought to the Olazabal Course at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, China with Ian Poulter winning the tournament.

At the time, Rick knew the PGA Tour was looking to expand into China and, given his extensive background of working in the country, he began consulting for the Tour as their agronomist. Although he had been operating his own company since 2004, by 2017, he was working on fourteen tournaments as well as consulting on course constructions and maintenance elsewhere.

La Grande Mare - not a links course!

The wide variety of the job is what kept him hooked for so long. One day he could be in Southern Hong Kong in the tropical heat and ninety percent humidity with disease and heavy rainfall, and the next day growing a course in a completely different climate or prepping for a tournament. Whilst variety was key to Rick's enjoyment of the job, there were particular aspects that stood out for him.

"Going into some courses that were quite run down and getting them ready for a tournament was always a buzz," he said. "Especially going in with a local team who had never experienced it. I would go in weekly or monthly and put programmes together and work with them and train them, so that was very satisfying. At the end of the tournament, the local greenkeepers felt amazing, so that was a really nice journey to go on with them."

"One of the most satisfying jobs was construction. You go to a site and have a look at it for a potential golf course and you've got this open pallet, and you work with the designers and build the course. Seeing it from day one to the end result, when golfers are going out and playing, is the most rewarding part of the job; being involved through the whole process and being part of a team who create a legacy that thousands of people will come and enjoy. When I look back today at the courses I've worked on, it's an amazing feeling."

Being able to experience a career of such variety abroad for so long comes at a price. The countless flights and long hours are part of the job but, eventually, the time spent away from his wife, children and grandchildren, coupled with regulation changes regarding golf course construction in China, brought Rick's time away from home to a natural end.

Golfers enjoying the course/ A prominent loopholed tower is surrounded by German bunkers

As a dual citizen, he had the option to return to Australia, but ultimately the draw of home won. This decision, like the one that initially saw him leave, had an element of fortunate timing about it. There were no solid plans for work on his return to the island, just considerations of farming or consulting. However, not long after he was home, La Grande Mare came calling and, for the two years that have followed, he has strived to make it the best course in the Channel Islands.

"I've gone full circle, from working at the highest level to being very hands-on at a course back home. I was lucky to come back and have a project like this on my doorstep. I live six minutes away whereas before I could spend sixteen hours travelling to projects."

"I came in and started working, and then we got a new owner last year, and we're looking at doing a lot of development work. We've had a good budget to go and buy new machinery for the course, and I've been able to do a machinery replacement programme and get the guys here trained up on the new equipment."

"The course is twenty-five to thirty years old, and it's quite short. It's a beautiful site on the beach; it's not a links but a parkland course built on marshland. It needs upgrading, like a lot of courses that get to a certain time in their life. It needs to be rejuvenated, so we're looking into that aspect of things going forward."

"The soil type is clay and silt so, in the summer, it hardpans and it's like rock. Even when we try to change the holes, the hole cutter almost breaks or when you're trying to knock hazard steaks in the ground sometime the wood almost splits. Then, in the winter, it holds a lot of moisture so the native soil here is a challenge and being below sea level doesn't help with that."

La Grande Mare - right on the beach

"We get big spring tides, and we're right on the beach so these ten-metre tides crash over the sea wall, and with the rain, there is a period of time where the water can't escape out, so there's a lot of open ditches and things like that to try and channel it away, but there isn't enough drainage with the old push-up greens. Because of the soil type and the lack of subsurface drainage, the moisture is retained for a long time and, in the summer, it's hard to get the aeration and the water in there. One of the reasons why I got the Air2G2 was to make the greens more forgiving, so I could control how they play. With USGA greens in a tournament, you can control the firmness, moisture and speed but here, when I arrived, there was no control over how the course played."

"It's a constant programme to keep the greens aerated and open. I have been going out with the Air2G2 with the 300mm probes on quite a close spacing to relieve the hard panning and opening them up, and then we come in with the Verti-Drain with different tine configurations to try and keep it on the top as well. We do that quite regularly to keep them moving, and then we follow up with a wetting agent and watering to try and help."

"We've been doing a lot of work with topdressing using higher quality sand so they putt better, as well as amending some of the programmes to try and get the rootzone a bit healthier and stronger because some of the greens have problems with nutrition. I looked at all the soils and used profile porous ceramic to help improve the condition of the soil rootzone. When we get the tides come in, we get a lot of salt on the course, so running gypsum programmes and other amendment programmes means we can pretty much control the greens now. We've already had positive feedback from our members and players during competitions we've had, so we know we're going in the right direction."

"I want this course to be the best in the Channel Islands. I want to consistently produce the best quality surfaces and greens. I really want the golfers to come out and enjoy the course and have it in the best condition it can be, because that's what I strive for."

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