Lymm not in limbo

Greg Rhodesin Golf

Billed as one of Cheshire’s finest courses, Lymm offers a 6341yd, Par 71 mixed heathland and parkland course with contrasting and challenging holes in a peaceful haven surrounded by farmland and the Manchester Ship Canal.

Established in 1907, Lymm’s 18 holes present a ‘demanding but fair’ test for all abilities. Helping fashion that golfing experience is a continuing programme of course improvements, coupled with a rigorous maintenance schedule led by Course Manager James Dennett, to deliver year-round condition and playability for this award-winning site.

Bunker renovation is the latest innovation with James’s masterplan – and he takes up the story of how determination amid setbacks has won through, aided by a healthy team dynamic.

“We have a relatively small number of bunkers, totalling 47, with the majority (30) lying within the first 9 holes,” he explains.

“Holes 3 to 10 are built on the spoil from the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, which runs alongside parts of the course, and is on the site of the original 9-hole site.”

“The nature of material left by the workings is disturbed sandy topsoil, mixed with bricks, and all manner of other objects,” he adds. “Holes 1 and 11 to 18 are built on the old River Mersey flood plain, which is heavy clay soil.”

“Bunkers on holes 3 to 10 are notoriously contaminated with stones. When work has been carried out on renovations, bunkers have been lined with turf as is traditional. However, over time, the turf decomposes and stones emerge to impact playability.”

So, James inherited historical maintenance issues when he took over as Course Manager in September 2020, but he was clear on his priorities from day one. “A key objective was to improve the playability of the bunkers,” he recalls, “but in truth, progressing past the planning stage has been a tough challenge.”

“Club approval, materials selection and budgeting have combined to hamper progress,” he reports, “however, last winter we renovated the Par 3 5th bunker to the new standard as a trial, so the club could gain member feedback and, if that was positive, we could use it as a blueprint for the remaining bunkers.”

In a departure from traditional practice, James decided to line the test bunker with EcoTec from EcoBunker, rather than with turf.

“I have had experience with other forms of liner - from concrete, rubber crumb and fibre liner for example.”

“All have their pros and cons. However, I felt EcoTec was a good overall product that ticked most boxes for the site at Lymm. To protect the liner from future renovations, I installed two rings of Advanced Edge, finishing the bunker walls with natural revetting turf.”

“By doing this, when the time comes to rebuild the bunker, the greenkeepers only have to remove material down to the synthetic edge, to keep the original shape without disturbing the liner. This solution also ensures the bunker looks 100% natural as the synthetic edge is below the sand line.”

But his biggest challenge has been, “time, money and weather. With the difficult economic climate, prices for materials have risen to an all-time high. But the club was determined to avoid cutting corners.”

With a budget of £5,000 for the project in material costs - bunker liner, fescue and revetting turf, heather, drainage material and sand - James started the bunker renovation in mid-January 2023. “The rain bucketed down, but February proved to be the driest month of the year luckily, so mud soon turned back to workable soil.”

“The work offered a personal challenge for me as I had never project managed anything from start to finish, and a lot of my team were new to the industry and had no practical knowledge of how to build a bunker.”

And as James notes: “You can design a bunker on paper, but it is not until the spade hits the ground that you learn to work with the contours to make the new bunker fit in with its surroundings.”

He needn’t have worried about the reception the work would receive from members. “The 5th bunker was a big success and the vast majority of feedback was positive.” With that big win in his pocket, and member support behind him, James can progress with his mission.

“The plan this year is to concentrate on renovating the Par 3 9th bunkers and continuing with greenside traps before moving on to the fairway bunkers in the years to come.”

While course renovation and playability has proved a major hurdle that James has overcome, he has had to keep firmly focused on another key facet of a course manager’s role – staff.

“When I joined Lymm, a good number of the team had been working there for a long time – two of them for more than 45 years,” he recalls. “The team then were either retiring or had ambitions to progress their careers at other clubs. This meant I had to build a new one from the ground up, when many experienced greenkeepers were leaving the industry.”

“I found the task of finding qualified staff particularly hard, as I know clubs across the country are experiencing similar issues.” However, that didn’t discourage James, or the club, he notes.

“After a few bumps in the road, we now have a diverse team from different working backgrounds, who gel together and have a passion for the game of golf.” Meanwhile, James has managed to swell the team size from five to seven full-timers.

“I like to have an open door policy with my staff,” he says. “They should feel comfortable about coming to me with any questions or issues. I find that adopting this approach leads to a happy and positive environment, which makes the staff feel valued. The club always does what it can to look after the staff in times of need, and in return the staff are more willing to go the extra mile for the club.”

James is a keen believer in continuing professional development (CPD). “Two of my staff - Abi and Olly - have started their NVQ2 in greenkeeping this year, and when the weather’s bad, I conduct team training in health and safety, machine maintenance or online courses like Agrovista’s Amenity Academy to gain CPD points.”

“Every one of the staff is a BIGGA member, paid by the club, and I encourage the team to attend seminars or webinars to gain more knowledge, as that is the lifeblood of progressing the sector.”

James Dennett - Course Manager (centre), Paul Davy - Deputy Course Manager, Matt Hayes - First Assistant, Ian Brooks - Mechanic Greenkeeper, Andy Brown - Assistant Greenkeeper, Abi Birchall - Assistant Greenkeepe, Olly Glindon - Apprentice Greenkeeper, Alan Gerard - Semi-retired Greenkeeper (2 days)

To that end, January marked a milestone for Lymm - the first time most of the team had visited BTME. “It’s important to attend the event,” James says, “and we always try and go because this helps professional development and team bonding.”

What’s his strategy for the day to day tasks? “I try my best to spread the jobs around to enable everyone to become a well-rounded greenkeeper. I have worked at some clubs that don’t do job rotation. In my experience, that method doesn’t produce a happy workforce and also limits the ability of the team.”

Getting together certainly ranks high for James. On pay day, the team has started to go to the pub to further encourage bonding, and twice a year he arranges a staff night out. “The club has invested heavily in staff wellbeing, providing a high-quality welfare building, with Wi-fi, TV, changing room and dedicated drying room. Also, staff uniform has been fully replaced with higher quality clothing.”

Clearly, James runs a happy crew at Lymm, with strong support from the clubhouse – a unified approach that more golf clubs are adopting, as James stresses, “Looking after staff and creating an environment they want to work in will produce a better performance out on the course and better experience to visitors and members.” And that can only mean a win:win for everyone in golf’s drive for wider sustainability.

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