Orcadian delights

Peter Brittonin Golf

It's a well known fact that Australians like to feel the sun on their back and sand between their toes, so how did one of their kind find himself plying his trade in a remote corner of the UK where the winters are unforgiving and the summers are, at best, breezy? Chris Rae, Head Greenkeeper at Orkney Golf Club details his journey so far

Orkney is an island archipelago situated ten miles north of Caithness, Scotland. It comprises seventy islands, twenty of which are inhabited. Its population has remained around 21,000 for the past two hundred years, with minor fluctuations. The locals are known as Orcadians.

Mainland is the largest of the island group, which itself qualifies as the sixth largest of all Scottish islands and tenth in the British Isles. Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, and the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Orkney has a cool, temperate climate that is remarkably mild and steady for such a northerly latitude, due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. The average temperature for the year is 8°C; for winter 4°C and, for summer, 12°C.

Average annual rainfall varies from 850 millimetres (33in) to 940 millimetres (37in). Winds are a key feature of the climate and, even in summer, there are almost constant breezes. In winter, there are frequent strong winds, with an average of fifty-two hours of gales being recorded annually.

It is to this rugged, barren, yet beautiful landscape that a man more accustomed to wearing shorts, t-shirt and thongs is now plying his trade as Head Greenkeeper at Orkney Golf Club; one of four serving the islanders and visitors; two eighteen hole courses, and two nine hole courses.

"My wife Inga is from Orkney," begins Chris Rae. "We met in Sydney in 2005 when she was on holiday, and kept in touch for two years once she returned home to Orkney. She then came back to Sydney in 2007, for a year, we then moved to Orkney in 2008 for what was only expected to be twelve months ... nine years later I'm still here!"

"I made my way into the industry in 1998 as a pimple-faced sixteen year old working as a groundsman at a private 18-hole course called Pennant Hills on Sydney's north shore. After eighteen months there, I gained an apprenticeship at Concord Golf club in Sydney's inner west. It's an 18-hole championship course which had hosted the Australian PGA in 91/2/3. During my time there, they hosted the ANZ tour championship, won by Peter Lonard in 2001, and the Ladies Australian Open in 2004, won by Laura Davies. On completion of my apprenticeship in late 2004, I went into golf course construction, employed by a company called Eclectic. We worked on various reconstruction projects around Sydney but, when that company ceased trading in 2006, I was taken on at Avondale Golf Club as a greenkeeper, where we had just completed the last stage of construction. I then went back to Concord for a further two years, until 2008, when I moved to Scotland. I've had various jobs here in Orkney, including groundsman at Balfour Castle for three years, before taking over in my current position in February 2013."

"I completed my Level III turf maintenance apprenticeship from Ryde TAFE in 2003, Chemcert Spray ticket in 2001 - which has now been updated to PA1 and PA2 - and I also am up to date with my first aid certificates. I have my front end loader and excavator tickets. I also have my chainsaw ticket, not that it's much use up here in Orkney; there's hardly a tree on the island!"

Chris cites Mark Parker has having been the biggest influence on his career. "He is the course superintendent at Concord Golf Club, and has been for nearly thirty years, after taking over at the tender age of twenty-one. He made me see what a great career this can be. Not only that, he gave me the work ethic I have today and also taught me a lot about life in general. If it wasn't for him, I don't know where I would be today. A true professional of the industry and someone I still email regularly for advice and have a beer with when I'm home!"

Orkney Golf Club is a 5575 yard, par 70 for the men and 5088 yards par 72 for the women. It covers a total of around seventy acres, so occupies quite a small site. This can be a health and safety concern at times with holes in "very close" proximity.

"It's classified as a parkland course -although we don't have any trees as it's such a windy site - so it's pretty barren looking parkland," observes Chris. "What I have done during my time here is introduce long rough - much to the delight of the members - to create definition between holes as the site was mown wall to wall previously. A lot of gorse and heather has started growing back where we have left the rough. The long rough has become an issue though so, this year, we are undertaking a programme to eliminate the thick Yorkshire fog which seems to be spreading, using Rescue and a new addition to the machinery fleet, a Major flail/collector. We are hoping to promote some of the more local fescue species."

Chris describes the soil profile in one word - poor! "We have about 200mm of topsoil, which is actually quite good, across the course but, after that, it's down to shale and rock. So trying to keep the course dry can be very difficult, even though we are on the side of a hill."

"Some of the greens here are 'original', which means they are 127 years old! They weren't built, just laid at original ground level rather than pushed up. These pose the biggest problem during the winter with all the rain we receive. Some of the others are push up style; the most recently built green was sometime back in the seventies. None of them have any drainage so, when you've got 200mm of topsoil then clay, it makes flooding quite common. The tees are all push up style and, as far as I know, there is no drainage in them, but they do seem to drain quite well, only flooding after heavy rainfall."

"We run our GreenTek Thatch-Away verticut units over the greens twice a year (in May and September), and will also give them a light run over with the units through the season just to keep them running true. We either hollow tine or solid tine, depending on the condition of the thatch, in May and September. We then topdress with a locally washed sand, applying about a tonne per green. I give the greens a hit of iron in November to keep the moss under control and once again in February.

"Prior to me working here, the club used to purchase a kiln dried loam from Kent - if you know your geography, that's going to be expensive - approximately £100 per tonne by the time you include haulage and ferry costs! And, only being able to bring over 26 tonnes at a time, we were limited as to how much we could put on. I have reduced that down to £28 per tonne by using local washed sand, which has freed up money for other projects. I will solid tine greens though the winter when the weather permits. We solid tine tees and aprons in the spring and autumn, but no topdressing."

Chris goes on to explain that the course does not have irrigation, and is unlikely to have in the future. "We don't have any irrigation. What we do have is a 2000 litre tank on the back of an old trailer and a pump. So, when we have new turf, we pump water out of an old quarry on the course and use it to water in. It certainly is a slow process, but it's hard to justify installing any sort of irrigation system up here if it's probably only needed two or three months of the year."

"Last season, we went three weeks without a drop of rain, so had to bite the bullet and rig up another tank on our other trailer - two of us went around for twelve hours hand watering the greens. It's amazing the things you find yourself doing after having worked on one of the best courses in Australia, with a state of the art irrigation system, spending many hours in the heat hand watering, and now this. But I wouldn't change it, I really enjoy the challenge! There is limited drainage on the course, but we are slowly targeting the worst spots."

"Prior to me starting at the club, there was no diary, records or maintenance regimes kept, so I was on my own and had to start my programmes from scratch. Rae Craigie, Head Greenkeeper at Stromness Golf Club, was a huge help in my first year, he's been a greenkeeper here in Orkney for twenty years and was happy to answer any questions I had. It took about three seasons to find out what really worked for us. There was a lot of trial and error, but we are slowly getting there."

Chris has three additional staff to assist him. Twenty-four year old Ewan Coltherd has worked at the course for nine summers. Adrian Stanger (60) has been with Chris for three years. Prior to joining, he worked for forty-one years as a stonemason for Historic Scotland. And finally, there's nineteen year old Fergus Macivor who, after working on the course for two summers, has now been taken on as a full time apprentice. He is in his first year at Elmwood doing his SVQ1, which runs for two years."

"We work by the 'all hands on deck' method, as we say, i.e. all staff can use all the mowers, strimmers etc. When it comes to construction, I generally work on my own so the other boys can be maintaining the course, calling them in if I need a hand."

"Currently, only I am qualified to spray, but Fergus will be getting his tickets this year. The apprenticeship system is great, it allows me to train him to a high standard and delegate other jobs which, in the past, only I was able to do, freeing up my time to concentrate on other work."

These 'other jobs' have been many and varied. "Since I started four years ago, we have undertaken a rolling programme of bunker reconstruction. To date, we have attended to fourteen bunkers, either rebuilding or eliminating them altogether as they were more of a nuisance.

We can't afford a designer, so I design and build them myself, putting into practice the skills I learnt in Sydney whilst working in course construction. I thoroughly enjoy this method as it builds my skills and learn from my mistakes. I build them with maintenance in mind, so we are reducing time spent on them once in play. We can have a bunker built for about £1500-£2000, depending on size, doing it all in-house. We are also attending to any drainage issues that arise."

"We grew in our own turf farm last year. We own a twenty-five acre field next door which is rented out to a farmer, so we reclaimed 3000m2 back and seeded our own turf. The theory being that this will reduce costs in the future, given we currently get our turf from Aberdeenshire which means that haulage costs, once again, are very high."

"Before I started, nothing had really been done for twenty years. There were a few new medal tees constructed by the committee seven or eight years ago, but not much other than that."

"At the end of the day," states Chris, "it's all about presentation. If your course is in a poor condition, then you're going to lose members and social play. When I took over here, the course was in a dire state. It felt like it was 1985! We have turned that around and are moving forward at a fast rate. Membership and social play has increased as a consequence."

Chris details that greens are cut at 4mm in the summer, five days a week, using two Toro 1000 walk-behinds, and at 6.5mm in winter as and when needed. Tees and aprons are cut at 10mm twice a week through the season with a Jacobsen Triplex. Fairways at 14mm twice a week with a Toro 5410. Semi-rough is cut at 25mm with a Toro 216-D and rough is cut once a week at 2in with a Lastec.

Bunkers are hand-raked three or four times a week "depending what's on" and strimmed fortnightly to keep them looking tidy.

"We are in the process of purchasing a Wiedenmann Terra Spike, which we will use on the fairways as they have never been properly aerated.

We will also use it on the greens to get down and break up the solid layer which is restricting water penetration and root development."

"Tees, aprons and fairways are sprayed with a selective herbicide to control the daisies, which are huge problem here. Being on a windy site and having the surrounding fields ploughed twice a year means the weed situation is a priority to keep on top of. We don't apply selective herbicide to the greens as I prefer to undertake this task by hand. We go over them thoroughly in winter. Then, in summer, all four of us will go across them once a month for the first session of a morning, meaning we can have all greens hand weeded by 9.00am, I find this to be the best method by far, and I can have a bit of banter with the boys in the process!"

"Wind is the main issue up here," bemoans Chris, "it makes spraying rather difficult! I have seen myself coming in at 3.00am to get the fairways sprayed when there is a break in the wind, and with the daylight we get up here, it's usually done with clear skies! We get the odd frost or snow and a fair bit of flooding through winter. I'll use temporary greens when I have to in the winter, but try to leave it as long as possible before they come into play. With the greens having no drainage, they can become waterlogged quite quickly."

Clearly, there's a lot going on at Orkney Golf Club and the increase in membership must be very pleasing for the committee. "We won't be hosting a Major anytime soon," jokes Chris, "but it's good to leave my mark. I always talk with the members on the course if they want a question answered. And Facebook is a great tool to show them what and why we are doing something. We have just added a maintenance page to our new website too, so I look forward to utilising that in the future. I feel the membership certainly appreciate what we do and the skills and knowledge we have."

What's in the shed?

Toro 1000 Pedestrian greens mower x 2
John Deere 220A pedestrian greens mower
Jacobsen Greens King VI triplex
Toro Reelmaster 5410
Toro Reelmaster 216-D
Lastec 721XR
Toro Workman 3300-D with 1800 topdresser
John Deere Gator
New Holland TD 5010 tractor with loader
John Deere 4600 tractor with loader
SCH PSP70 sprayer
Allman 400L sprayer
Multicore MC15 aerator
Fleming fairway fertiliser spreader
Ryan pedestrian scarifier

Marshall 3 tonne tipping trailer.
Stihl strimmers x 3
Stihl handheld blower
Stihl MS 180 chainsaw
Flymo hover mower
Hunter Juno cylinder grinder

"The majority of the bigger mowers we purchased second-hand. When I started, the club had £40k to spend, so we upgraded most of the necessary machines with good second-hand stuff. We are currently in the process of spending £20k to purchase a verti-drain, new turfcutter and hopefully a Toro Sidewinder/Reelmaster for surrounds. This will be on a 3-year loan. Once that is paid off, we will look at the next few machines which need to be replaced and continue with running programme, as this method suits our club best.

We go with what is the best deal. I, like most folk, prefer Toro machines so, if we can afford decent second-hand ones, then we'll purchase them.

Prior to my employment here the club didn't have a topdresser or aerator. There was no topdresser in Orkney, so that was a revelation the first time they saw it in use! The club used to borrow Stromness Golf Club's aerator. Those two bits of kit have made greens renovation a far less laborious task, and the members comment on how much smoother greens are, also changing to walk-behinds mowers has made the greens play truer.

We hire in a mini excavator when I am doing any sort of construction, drainage or cleaning ditches.

To remain compliant with current legislation, we installed a Waste 2 Water system in 2015; it has been a game changer! Previously, machines were washed with the excess water running into a ditch, which then ran into a field; that field is proposed for houses in ten years time, so we are ahead of the game!!

What would my wish list include? Where to start! AFT trencher, 2.5T excavator, a second triplex mower ..."

Article Tags:

Want the latest news, ideas and exclusive offers direct to your inbox?
Then sign up to our weekly newsletter today.