Moor Park Golf Club - Parkland poetry...

Neville Johnsonin Golf

MoorPark Mansion
Did ever a golf club have a nineteenth hole so sumptuous as this? Did ever golf club have so fine a hall? In 1973 these were the words of the then Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman, about what has to be one of the most impressive golf clubhouses in the world, the 18th century mansion at the Moor Park Club near Rickmansworth.

It was featured in the acclaimed documentary Metroland, made for BBC Television by the great man of words, celebrating the development of suburban life across the outer extremes of north-west London. The cameras also recorded him missing a tee shot, an hilarious lasting reminder that he was no golfer.

The Grade 1 listed Paladian house was initially built for the 1st Duke of Monmouth in 1678, but its appearance today is owed to fortune maker owner Benjamin Styles, who had it remodeled in the 1720s. In more recent times, it played a part in the Second World War, when it was requisitioned as headquarters for the planning of the ultimately disastrous Arnhem airborne landings in September 1944. As well as the beautifully preserved grand interior, this is something that attracts many a visitor to Moor Park.

The mansion's surroundings owe much to Capability Brown landscaping in the 1750s. In mid-Victorian times, the owner at the time, the first Lord Ebury, built a golf course for personal use, and this was improved by his son, the second Lord Ebury, in 1893.

MoorPark HighCourseSignature
When the whole estate was sold to Lord Leverhulme in 1920, things changed. Fringe land was sold to raise money that funded conversion of the mansion into a country club, and top golf course architect Harry Colt was engaged to construct three courses - the East, the West and the High. In May 1923, the Moor Park Club was officially opened. Part of the mansion acted as clubhouse, as it still does today, to the delight of anyone who plays there.

Things changed again in 1937 when Rickmansworth Urban District Council, concerned at the club's plans for further development, compulsorily purchased the mansion and 350 surrounding acres. A forty year lease was awarded to a newly formed company, Moor Park Golf Club Limited, with the proviso that one of the three courses - the East Course - should be made available to the general public. Nowadays, this is Rickmansworth Golf Club.

Following wartime requisition and a lease extension in 1980, Moor Park Golf Club bought the freehold from the council and the Moor Park Heritage Foundation was set up to ensure ongoing restoration to the mansion.

MoorPark StuartBertram
In charge of the remaining High and West courses is Moor Park's Course Manager, Stuart Bertram. He's been at the club for twenty years now, his first engagement being as head greenkeeper for the High Course. I meet him on the steps of the mansion, wedding guests just yards away posing for photographs after a ceremony there. You can see why it is a much chosen venue - plenty of room inside and outside and unrivalled décor.

It's a short walk to greenkeeping HQ. Not quite a mansion, but pretty impressive all the same. It's the lunchbreak, and all fifteen of the club's greenkeepers are there ready and waiting for a team photo. It's like everything at Moor Park, well-prepared and ready in time. There's definitely an all-together feeling, and I haven't even started talking to Stuart about work on the courses.

He straightaway confirms the first impression, by telling me that everyone works on both courses. There's no 'us and them' or rivalry. The abiding aim is that each greenkeeper is familiar with conditions across all thirty-six holes.

"I like to see that, if needs be in the event of a major event or difficulty, all staff can readily and efficiently be diverted to one or other course," says Stuart.

"The club always sees I have the resources to do the job. It really is a great place to be a greenkeeper, but you do have to realise that the expectations of members here are higher than at most clubs and that course quality plays an important part in membership retention."

MoorPark GreenkeepingTeam
Stuart does an early morning course walk every day and will run through the business of the day with his deputy, Darren Marsten-Smith, soon after. Communication and democracy are keynotes to how things are run. There are monthly 'no holds barred' team meetings when all issues relating to course care are discussed. Everyone can have their say.

He has a good relationship with the members, although the higher expectations he's mentioned puts extra pressure on the job. You just have to be a good politician, he tells me, and he reckons he is.

"A modern course manager has to have his focus firmly set on where the club is going in harmony with the powers that be," he says.
Moor Park holds Greens Committee meetings five times a year. These, plus head of department get-togethers, give everyone concerned a good understanding of everything that is going on in all aspects of the golf club. Stuart also does regular website reports, so that members are always up to date with work on the courses and what the greenkeeping team is doing.

"No one can say they didn't know what was going on," says Stuart. "Members are more demanding these days. They want perfection."
He understands this well. He is a golfer himself, albeit with a modest 15 handicap.

MoorPark High15th
Stuart admits he is quite a stringent programmer of works and operates a tight schedule to fulfill daily and weekly objectives. "We have to cater for both members and corporate golf on both courses. This leads to a very diverse use of staff and making sure golf interference is kept to a minimum but, at the same time, meeting our objectives."

"During the season, we often have two tee starts as well as shotgun and, if needs be, we can deploy the whole team to fully prepare one course, then move onto the other. Everybody has to be able to do everything."

He is clearly every bit a traditionalist. His career path bears that out. A YTS introduction, study at Sparsholt College, early experience at Sunningdale, interspersed with a working period in America then, at twenty-two, his first head greenkeeping role at Princes Risborough Golf Club spells a thorough grounding.

"You have to do the hard yards to get to be a head greenkeeper or course manager," he says.

MoorPark West1stApproach
He doesn't like what he calls micromanagement of so-called head greenkeepers by unqualified outside consultants. "You have to be your own man to do the job one hundred percent professionally, and be in complete control of what you're doing for a club," he emphasises. "You only really get to that position by experience, doing all the jobs yourself and, in the early days, working under a skilled professional."

"When you are lucky enough to manage great courses like Moor Park's, it's a combination of careful planning and being able to react to what nature throws at you - crisis management, if you like."

Both the High and West Courses are parkland on London clay, which is heavy and does not drain well. There are gravel bands running through parts of each of them. The top end of the High Course has a heathland characteristic because of underlying sandy loam.

The High and the West get the same care and attention. There is no preferential treatment, but it's the High that is the championship course, and perhaps under that bit more scrutiny. Every four years it's the home of the Carris Trophy, which is the European under-18 tournament. The next is due in 2019. The English Senior Amateur and the London Foursomes are also played on it. Years ago it staged the Bob Hope Classic, so it has a notable past as well as a continuing pedigree.

MoorPark BlinderBunkers
"What is especially good here is that we offer a mixture of golf environments on the same site, and members and visiting golfers appreciate the variety," says Stuart.

He's a big believer in the merits of aeration and has a programme of regular sarel rolling, and deep tining courtesy of a Soil Reliever.

All the greens on both courses are push-up type and consist of Poa and Bent in 50/50, 60/40 and 70/30 ratios

"Our strategy in keeping the push-up greens dry is to minimise aeration during wet conditions over winter, when we'd just be drilling holes to fill up with water," says Stuart.

"There's solid clay beneath them, but they were designed to shed water. We concentrate our greens tining across the summer months."
"We've only hollow tined the greens here once in eighteen years, and haven't scarified them in six years," he says. "Organic matter is bang on. We're very proud of them."

"We tend to be on the lean side for all greens' treatment. Our feeding programme is simply 40-60 kilos of N yearly, supplemented by a weekly topdressing regime during the growing season."

"We have irrigation on the greens, as we do for tees and approaches. Our fairways have none because they are pretty much sustainable fescue."

MoorPark HenryVIIITree
All greens are all cut with a triple and, in summer, Stuart usually varies cutting height between 3.75mm and 4.00mm. He says he would never cut below 3.5mm.

"Anything over eleven on the stimp and we're very limited on pin positions on the High Course, and this can be an issue," he says. "Push-ups just weren't designed to go above eleven. Members and guests are generally complimentary about green speeds though, I'm pleased to say. Fast and true is what I like to achieve, and what they say they get."

Stuart's operation is a totally self-sufficient one. All machinery is on a five-year lease, and full-time mechanic Sean Lake keeps everything up and running.

Stuart tells me he likes projects that keep him excited. Bunker renovation is definitely one such ongoing project and he's very proud of what has been achieved in-house over the last thirteen years on both courses. His team has skillfully used the upside down turf technique to keep bunkers fresh and perfect for play.

MoorPark TreeWork
A successful trial, completed on seven of the High Course bunkers last year using Blinder recycled rubber granules, is signalling a change in bunker make-up however, and the liner's producer and installer, Profusion, has been asked to put in a proposal for rebuilding seventeen bunkers on the High Course using it. Stuart is hoping to complete a bunker upgrade on the entire High Course over the next two years and in time for the next Carris Trophy.

Woodland management is very much part of things for Stuart and his team. There are some remarkable trees aligning the courses, some going back to Tudor times. Not one of the oldest inhabitants by any means, but a beech had overnight been the victim of a combination of turbulent weather - unusual this summer - and prolonged dry conditions. It's a mini emergency, a timely example of Stuart's crisis management, and a near 'all-hands-to-the-pump' clearing-up operation. When Stuart takes me for a tour around the courses, he shows me this side of greenkeeping life at Moor Park.

Then it's back to the mansion to bid farewell. Every golfer that plays here must feel like they're in a period drama when they walk off either of the 18ths.

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