Managing in his own way at Stowmarket Golf Club

Blair Fergusonin Golf

During its 120-year life, Stowmarket Golf Club has been developing in one way or another. Originally a nine-hole parkland course when it opened in 1902, it now sits at 6,108 yds, having undergone redevelopment in the sixties with designer Charles Grayston, followed by the design of six new greens in 1968 by Hawtree. Blair Ferguson met with Head Greenkeeper, Matthew Gill.

The topography of the land is not what you might expect from Suffolk. Steep inclines split the holes at Finborough Park and work to create a challenging round with beautiful scenery.

These above ground challenges and excellent course quality attract golfers, but below the surface, Suffolk clay, an ageing glued irrigation system and changing times have provided a constant and welcome test for Head Greenkeeper of thirty-three years, Matthew Gill.

Over two visits - one for the interview and another for pictures - the course showed both of its sides. On a wet March day following high winds, the first, the course was closed, but on the second two weeks later and bathed in sunshine, the appeal of Stowmarket Golf Club could not be more obvious.

These two contrasting positions Matthew is working to change, with 5mm of rain often the difference between open and closed, and progress is being made. Arguably, no one knows the course better than him. He first joined Stowmarket on work experience in 1987 and two years later was the first apprentice taken on using the then new YTS scheme.

His path to the top job was steady and considered, but his transition from one of the lads to management was quick and wasn't without learning opportunities.

"I think I got the right position at the right time. The secretary who promoted me was an ex-headteacher at Oakwood School in Stowmarket, and he was very good. He could see that I could do the job but also that I needed to go on management courses."

"I was appointed following an internal restructure in August 2003. The man who was the head greenkeeper when I was a YTS lad was still in the team, and it wasn't an easy transition in that sense. It was tough for a few years because of that dynamic change, but it was all part of it."

"I felt I had to distance myself from being one of the lads, and that is the hardest bit. There are six of us here, and I am the boss, and it doesn't matter what you say, I'm always going to be the person that appraises them every year. So, not being in that circle of having a laugh and joke is difficult sometimes, but you quickly learn that separating yourself is more important than being popular."

"It was gradual for me. I had a long honeymoon period, and for six months to a year, we were doing things differently. I took a very different approach by using new techniques and different working hours. Sometimes the old ways are good, but there is a better and quicker way to do it a lot of the time."

"I've always wanted to see staff progress and ultimately move on to new roles. I wanted to give people responsibility and help them grow as greenkeepers, and there have been several cases of that happening."

"I did two management courses quite quickly after I took over. BIGGA do courses through Frank Newberry, and I learned a lot. I suppose the key is to make sure you manage how you think you would like to be managed rather than trying to replicate someone you've seen in the past."

"Maybe pick some bits out, but ultimately your personality will come through. You can't really say this is how he has done, and this is how I'm going to do it because it's too difficult then because you're trying to reinvent yourself."

Developing a management style has been one thing, but finding the staff to manage has been another in more recent times.

This topic often comes up in interviews and is an industry-wide issue. Matthew, like many others, points to wages as the main culprit for the decline, but a general lack of awareness for the profession among younger people is also a big problem.

Matthew explains: "I think staffing is going to be a big issue as we advance. We had a lad here two weeks ago, and he is a golfer, and he was keen on wanting to be a greenkeeper. I could see myself in him, and I thought he could do well here."

"He was here for the first four days and then got an offer from his old employer and went for it, even though it wasn't a job that excited him."

"I think this industry is going to struggle in the future because at the lower level, and even in the middle level, unless you've got a position and you do five, six, seven or ten years worth of training and education in your industry, most people can't afford to move. Now, they can go and do anything. They can work at Tesco and get paid the same. I know that's not what everybody wants to do but, relatively speaking, you can walk into a job and get paid more, and the lovely idea of that's a nice job is there for a lot of people, but it doesn't pay the bills. And that's when people leave, and I think there is a glut of people around 30 years old that if they don't get looked after, they'll be gone, and we'll never get them back."

"Being a Head Greenkeeper is a bit like being a football manager. There are lots of people who think they know the best team to pick, but the final decisions come down to one person. That person is the only one who sees everything rather than just what is important to them, and usually the opinions you get are based on that."

"I'm quite happy to be straight-talking with people, but I also know that there is only a certain amount you can do. At committee meetings, I can explain my decisions and listen to them and see it from their perspective. And sometimes, whether or however the club wants to go, you say this is as good as we can get and that is it."

"Over the years, the club has steadily invested in machinery and infrastructure. This has improved the course, which brings with it greater expectations from the membership, who often judge us against clubs close to us. We are between Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, who have very good courses, additional 9-hole pay and play courses, and a stronger membership base because of their location, so we are always aiming to match that"

Despite the developing issues of staffing and the familiar pressures of the job, now is an exciting time to be part of the Stowmarket project. The club is approaching one of its most significant investments, in recent times, with a new irrigation system that will allow them to take full advantage of its just over nine thousand cubic metres reservoir into the advanced planning stages.

With wetter winters and drier summers, the changing climate has contributed to this change. But, the positive environmental factors of single head control and course benefits will see Matthew able to deliver the consistency he wants.

"It will be more efficient with water. We've bought a moisture probe for the greens, so we know where each one is at in terms of percentage levels, and I can adjust as needed."

"With the current system, you have a left-hand side of the green and a right. Sometimes the greens, like the two tier one near the school, the top level is dry, and the bottom is wet, but the sprinklers come on left and right. That's no good because someone has to hand water, or the bottom gets overwatered, and the top gets under-watered. With the new system of everything being valve in head, we will eliminate that problem."

"An irrigation consultant will oversee the specification and tender process. I have spoken with other head greenkeepers and got their opinions based on projects they have recently completed."

"We are on a significant slope in places considering how flat we are generally. There is some unusual topography, and there are parts of greens that are shaded and other parts that are exposed. So, we need to have a bit more control, and we don't have that. Even going forward, we need more consistency. One of the things we've had for years here is people saying the bunkers aren't consistent, and the reason they aren't is that they are not watered. It sounds daft, but watered sand is more consistent than dry."

"There are many things to consider with this design, like how much water we have to start with, what people want and what we can actually afford. Also, do we future proof it to have complete fairway irrigation, because I think that could happen in the future?"

"That may not happen in the next three years; that may be something we add. At the moment, we have built two new tees this year and installed all of the irrigation in-house because most of the team are very capable of working on those projects. That saves you a lot of money, and you know when something goes wrong how to fix it and are more confident in using it."

"I think more golf clubs are going that way. You do need to do your own projects like that. Gone are the days when you just phoned up and said can you help me do this. But, because the system that we have is glued; everything has to be shut down, and everything has to be drained, then you have to glue, then let it set, power the system up and put the water in again."

"In the new system, leaks will be isolated and fixed with the system still operational, and we won't have to shut the whole system just to do one section. Again, thirty years of progress."

"When it comes to the technicalities of that irrigation system, there will be so many things where we will be in a far better position. I'm positive members will see a big difference."

"I think our current one is fine, it hasn't been horrendous, but it is at the end of its life. My take would be we got lucky this year and got a couple of breaks when we had unsettled weather, and we didn't need it. If we had a break, a day before the club championship, when you're trying to keep them quick and the greens are on the edge of being firm to hard, then very quickly you'll get situations (like they have had at the US Open), when the greens become burnt and impossible to play on. And that is when people realise you're on a knife-edge."

"The greens are cut at 4mm, so it doesn't take a lot for them to turn in a few hours with some heat on them."

"A part of patching it up is you're not doing other things that you want to be doing, and that time adds up eventually. I said to the greens committee chairman that ill-informed members were saying we don't want to spend that money on an irrigation system, but what is the other option? This has to happen."

"The biggest issue I've got is it can't deliver as much water as I want quickly enough. I have to start the programme at 9pm, and people are still playing golf, and it's still going at 6am. We come in at 6am, but after covid people are teeing off at 5am, so they are going to get wet. If I shorten it, then greens staff will have to hand water; that will all get sorted by having a bigger mains to get round and pop up more heads."

"It's like someone saying here's a car that is thirty years old; what could you do with a brand new one now? A lot."

Irrigation is only one half of the puzzle, with the other being drainage. This project started six years ago, with rope drainage being installed on the weakest greens first.

So far, six have been done with four more of what Matthew considers the worst left to go. This work, along with irrigation, is exceptionally important to Stowmarket because it is a club where the course drives the profit. It sits outside of the main town, isolated from any houses, so the clubhouse's main source of foot traffic comes from golfers.

The key thing to remember is Stowmarket was built to be a summer course. Transitioning it to take winter golf confidently is what Matthew is trying to do, and rope drainage is playing a major part.

"It's about consistency across all of the greens, and they are all completely different. We see that through stimpmeter readings, those at the top end of the course are always quicker because they will be more exposed. Because of that, you get better finer grasses, which means the ones at the bottom are a bit slower, but not enough for people to say there is much difference. So, hopefully, if we can drain them a bit better, that consistency will be there."

"But, I think that is what people forget. This is an old course compared to somewhere like Royal Norwich, where their rootzone is everything they want all the way across, but we don't have that here. You can find all sorts."

"During one of them, there were three different types of clay - grey, blue, and god knows what, and you think how on earth? The trouble is that the course was built to have summer play, and now they are built for all year round and, of course, people expect to play all year round."

"We've been lucky this year because we haven't had much rain, but we're now catching it. We had three days where we've gone from closed to having trolley bans, buggy bans and open and then 5mm last night, and we're back to being closed again."

"As part of addressing this, we have had D Juke install rope drainage. We are pulling in rope using a mole plough at 300mm deep and one metre apart. There is an outlet that comes down to about a 600mm main drain. It acts like a wick, and it actually draws it out. The hard bit is getting the water from the top surface to the rope. When you have clay, you have to make sure that you tine it and use different techniques."

"So, it is only as good as what soil you have on there. Of course, you are putting it in because the soil isn't great in the first place, so it is sort of chicken and egg. It is a good system, but we have got a high content of clay greens, and today eight of them are flooded. They will be great and playable tomorrow, but compared to modern sports pitches, they will never take as much rainfall because we will always have a high percentage of clay in the profile."

"We install rope drainage twice per visit, and we've now done six in total. We concentrated on the wettest greens because some of them were starting to go yellow this time of year."

"We've got about four more of our worst ones to do, but I don't know if the club wants to do all of them. They are all clay push up, so there is no formal drainage in them at all."

"But, along with that, over the last twenty years (even after investing in a Toro topdresser) we try to put on between eighty and one hundred tonnes a year. They are quite small greens, so I know for a lot of people one hundred tonnes seems to be the figure that they go to, but for us, eight to one hundred is a good amount. So, we're building away from the clay."

"We have seen an improvement with the rope drainage, but it is ultimately how quickly it goes from the top to the bottom of that capillary action."

Matthew has seen and continues to be part of significant changes at Stowmarket. In his own words, "what started as an old gents club is now geared up to be a business", and a massive part of that can be seen in the course investment.

Other challenges, such as a now resolved issue with leatherjackets, will likely surface as time goes on. But, with Matthew at the helm, Stowmarket Golf Club and the future greenkeepers he mentors are in good hands.

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