Monmouthshire Golf Club - It must be a good job

Jake Barrowin Golf

Sixty-three-year-old David Winter is only the fourth head greenkeeper at Monmouthshire Golf Club since 1892. To understate, the position's turnover rate is low.

That second man was also the club professional and steward, and lost an eye during his time at the club (cause unknown). He and his wife, who ran the catering and clubhouse, were paid a combined sum of £8 per year.

After him, the father of David's childhood best friend was in the post, which is how he was offered the transition into greenkeeping from his post as an apprentice electrician.

"That was a raise from £7 per week to £23 per week," David said, "which was a fantastic raise. My mother and father, however, went berserk."

"My father was a tradesman and I'd given one up. They thought you had to have a trade. Saying that, I've never looked back. I've enjoyed every single one of the forty-four years I've been here."

"The previous head I worked under for the first fifteen years of my stretch was very old-fashioned. He always turned up to work in a collar and tie. He tipped his hand to the captain and members."

"It was a particularly prestigious club at the time, full of doctors and surgeons, and military majors and colonels. There was a nearby hospital as well as the old military links."

"I learnt a lot working under him. I inevitably worked, early on, in some similar ways, although I'd say we've moved with the times. Back then, everything was done by hand; even hollow tining."

Those final three HGs came after the execution of a plan put together by James Braid, the prolific golfing architect and five-time The Open winner, which extended the course from nine to eighteen holes.

The flattest section of the grounds were once the surfaces for the Welsh Grand National of horse racing - the bridged ditch at the bottom of the valley was used as a jump.

The stanchions from what was once the grandstand are still visible when the summer plant growth around the River Usk has died off.

And down at the far end of the course, across the other side of the low point from the clubhouse, is the greenkeepers' unusual shed. It is an ex-aircraft hangar, which was used for glider storage in wartime by the Air Training Corps.

David and the club's General Manager, Clare Sobik, work out a budget, which tends to be a smooth process because she has also been at the club for a long time - around twenty-five years.

The greens staff is four-strong, plus a part-time gardener: "My staff are very good. It's a strong team. We share seventy years' service here between three of us. They know the lie of the land and climate."

"Kyle Holmes is my assistant; eighteen-year stint. Neil Morris has been here for twelve years, after arriving from Celtic Manor Resort."

"We've also just taken on Matt Winfield from Celtic Manor to replace a departing groundsperson and a gardener, Alwynne Watkins from St. David's Golf Club in Pembrokeshire."

"The course is on about 100 acres - some people call it 110 - and most of that is managed. We have a lot of trees here, which we've been working to cut back to increase semi-rough sizes."

"We mostly put the forestry out to contractors now, and a lot of how we decide on which trees to remove or trim is based on health and safety legislation."

Left to right: David Winter, Matt Winfield, Neil Morris and Kyle Holmes

"Whilst we do oil and filter changes ourselves, none of us are mechanics, and we contract the major servicing work out to the local Toro dealership."

"We work exclusively with Toro machinery, because the land is undulating. It's become clear over the years that the Toro machinery, well-built and able to cope with hills, is a good fit for the course."

"Also, with that ability to drive well comes an ability to cope with damp conditions and the heavy wild plant growth we have here. There isn't much of the year when we're closed, so we need both."

It would seem that, for reasons which may well be complex, people who work for Monmouthshire GC tend not to leave in a hurry.

One factor in this, however, could be the location. The eastern edge of the Welsh valleys is sweeping and picturesque, and this is even more emphatic on the course than unmanaged land.

Some of the holes are high and open to the valley winds, with mountain vistas looming above, whilst some are short, tucked away in low-hanging treelines, and feel rather more American than Welsh.

It's an exclusively parkland course: "It contains two variations of parkland. The front part is very flat, running around the river, and the back is undulating along a bank towards the canal."

"It's stony at the back too, but that's mixed with clay. Maybe surprisingly, the whole course drains really well, as long as the River Usk is running low."

"When the river level rises, the lower half of the course gets a bit waterlogged, but as soon as the river drops, it dries out again very quickly. We haven't had any flooding for four years."

"I think we're on our third irrigation system now. The first was installed in 1965, which was gravity-fed from the canal. Every morning, I'd open the main valve and one on each green."

"That worked very well for the jobs we needed at the time. Because it came from so high up, through a two-inch pipe, the pressure was high and it started quickly."

"Then, when we started cutting the greens more often in the mid-1970s, we replaced that with a Toro system, which was done on an upright controller with pins for starting times."

"About ten years ago, we upgraded to a fully computerised Rainbird system with a weather station and the Freedom controller. It's a massive difference to have that on your hip and walk around with full control. It's a greens, tees and aprons system now."

Grasses on the greens are almost exclusively bents and annual meadow grasses: "We don't seed with fescue very often and, a few years ago, we undertook an aggressive programme of overseeding with bent. We were doing that through the season, butit's now down to about twice per year."

"There is no artificial drainage in most greens and they're all push-up greens, so the annual meadow grass is inevitable. They're also built in saucer shapes to gather water as there was no irrigation at that time."

"Only the wettest couple have pipe drainage in them. To be honest, all the verti-draining we have done through contractors and the tining, which we do with our own ProCore, seems to do the trick."

"We used to get on the Izeki tractor, with a CoreMaster mounted on the back, and then verti-drain at the end of the year. The ProCore, though, is very useful."

"Also, we used to verti-drain in the spring, but we stopped doing that, because the weather at that time of year is very up-and-down. So, we hollow tine with three-inch tines every spring instead, verti-drain more during the Autumn, and micro-tine as often as we can throughout the year."

"Like anyone, there are periods when it rains for days and weeks, and we do get wet. But, everyone comments that it is a self-draining course."

Left: Packed rubber pathways

David and the team have recently been increasing the topdressing load, and now put a significant amount on the greens each year.

"We've also been refurbishing our paths. We thought that the packed rubber construction would be good for conditions, but also that they're nicer places to walk for the players."

"The other change we've been implementing recently is an upgrade of our bunkers. We're having them artificially revetted by Durabunker, which strengthens the bunker edges and results in a more interesting recovery shot."

"We haven't got them lined at the moment; it's just soil immediately beneath them. I would like to put some rubber there, but we have to use the finances for one thing at a time."

"The bunker sand is a moist, all-purpose sand. It wasn't chosen for a specific benefit; more because the sand we used to use was a white stone which went off the market. We wanted something light."

The Brecon Beacons National Park has its eastern border just a mile from the course, which means that to the east of the club, the mountainous Welsh terrain quickly gives way to English flatland:

"It's a microclimate. The Blorenge mountain (clearly, anyone making the claim that nothing rhymes with 'orange' is misinformed) deflects the clouds coming from the west."

"As the weather front comes to hit this area, you see a split with a blue space. It also has the other effect, like a cauldron, by which the rain can come in and stay isolated here for a long time."

Durabunker strengthened edges

Again, the number of trees on the course has its benefits and challenges: "There are some big issues with trees in certain areas."

"Because it was once a very open parkland course at one time, and different committees have planted additional trees over the years, some areas are closing in."

"We're trying to thin hedgerows out consistently, which tend to be mainly on the front nine. On the tenth, though, the hedges tend to cut in around the green a bit too."

"On the back half, the problem is more the spruce trees which were planted a long time ago. They have grown and grown. They're very large. Because of those trees on the front, the greens require a lot of switching. The dew hangs around a lot, so that's a daily job. During the winter, we split into two groups and each cover nine holes."

"That's the first duty, having arrived at 6:30am. We don't have an early start, because the best cutting conditions are usually between 11am-4pm."

"We check for damage and I'll assign duties for the day. They know the routine and, if there's any extra work to do, I'll nominate staff for it. The greens are right down at 3mm now. That goes up to 5mm in the winter. It's 13mm for tees and approaches. The fairways are 15mm, and the semi-rough is two inches."

The club does not use temporary greens: "We haven't had any for around 15 years, and I can't say we've seen any detriment as a result of that."

"They still pick up lovely in the spring. If we have a frosty spell, I'll just put two pins on each green instead; one which is a metre into the green, and one in the usual place."

"It was a greens committee decision to call off the use of the temporary greens. We trialled it for three years, to gauge any potential detriment. There hasn't been any damage."

David explained his renovations: "They seem to be getting later and later. We used to close for a week in September, whereas we now sometimes spill over into the first week of October."

"We do two per year, really, with all the usual processes for that Autumn one, and ensuring we get that hollow tine in during the spring. We also topdress as often as we can throughout the season."

"We tend to put around 90 tonnes down at the moment, but I want to push that a bit further and get to around 100-110 tonnes for control."

"We scarify fortnightly with mounts on the Toro kit. I've got a vibratory roller, and I can put either a groomer or a verti-cutter on them. We also have a SISIS Rotorake."

"Our thatch levels are very good because we keep on top of it by regularly scarifying and aeration."

"We have soil samples taken once per year. I take them from four greens. This year, we found that we were lacking a bit of calcium, so we've laid a calcium application during spring and will again."

"The samples don't really have an effect on what we need to feed with. I have a fairly set fertilising programme based on long-term trends and tend to stick to it."

"We tend to put about 90kg of nitrogen down per year. The programme I've had recommended is more like 110-120kg, but we're here every day seeing what's going on and what the course needs."

"You get a good knowledge of your surface, especially when you've known the place for so long like most of us have. That can be the most valuable thing for planning your work."

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