Perched on the roof of the world

Jake Barrowin Golf

Mid-Wales' Welshpool Golf Club, maintained by two greenkeepers including Jonathan (Jon) Gamble, is high-altitude, free-draining and features lots of four-legged, woolly hazards.

And it shares a common feature with many hilly and dramatic golf courses found in the country's higher regions: it has a signature final hole which requires an obscenely accurate tee shot.

The fairway travels almost horizontally, right-to-left, hundreds of feet below the tee box. To hit the front-right takes a semi-safe long iron.

But, to hit the middle and leave oneself with a makeable second, the golfer will need to hit a full-powered drive and have it stop in a 30-yard drop-zone - even before the dogleg complicates things.

The views are incredible from up around that 18th tee and include vague blurs of Mid-Wales and Shropshire's other finest mountain courses.

The course was designed by the iconic James Braid, and golf writer Bernard Darwin OBE was awed by its uniqueness of location and terrain, describing it thus [as sourced from the club's website]:

"The fact is that it is almost as impossible to describe the course as to describe the view; it is so unexpected, so unlike anything else, perched on the roof of the world. It is a beautiful place and I realised how incomplete had been my golfing education until I had seen it."

And the club isn't only successful in its course design. Its staff have won notable awards in recent years too, including Jon having just been awarded an R&A greenkeeping scholarship.

Its stewardess has also been honoured with The Food Awards Wales 2018's 'Mid Wales Café/Bistro of the Year'. Perhaps most impressive of all, the club is the 2012 Welsh Golf Club of the Year.

The course is built on Moel Y Golfa (or Golfa Hill), the name of which is purely coincidental and not named after the sport, which dates to 1930 with the club having previously been nearby from 1894.

This hill is part of an extinct volcanic area of prominence. The range of five hills in which it resides is the site of an iron age fortification and, like so many hills in central Wales, a quarry.

Like nearby Church Stretton, the UK's second-highest golf course (while the journey between the courses takes an indirect hour in the car, it is only 20km as the crow flies), Welshpool is a self-described moorland course. And Welshpool itself isn't exactly low at 1,120ft above sea level.

"When you're on the top here, you can see all the views over towards Shropshire including Church Stretton to the east, and Snowdonia over to the north west, with mid-Wales and the Brecons south," said Jon.

Jon and his co-greenkeeper, 31-year veteran Mark Richards, 53, have the 5,700-yard par-70 to themselves, as the moorland is maintained in the old way with minimal inputs and a lot of sheep, which are allowed on because the course is built on common land with grazing rights.

"The course where I'm doing my placement is at Elmwood College, Scotland, and they take a field trip to a similar golf course as ours; they have one greenkeeper maintaining 18 holes, and sheep to help."

They pride themselves on their ability to run the course on an ultra-tight budget: "It's one of the slimmest you'll ever hear of in the UK. It remains the same each year."

"For course materials, our budget is £14,000. That's for Bathgate topdressing, fertiliser, Limagrain MM10 and MM22 seed, contracting and all that other stuff that comes with it."

"That can be chalked off pretty quickly if you're not careful. Out of our £14,000… the greens mower was £900 to service and the same for the tees and fringes. That's £1,800 gone."

"We've not sent the fairway mower for service this year, but when we do next year, and that'll be another £1,500. Two new tyres on our tractor just recently was another £450."

"You just work with it. In the eighteen years I've been here, we've only ever been over that budget once. Last year was a little over £13k - in fact, we do usually come in just under rather than exact spend."

"I had an interview for my R&A scholarship the other day in front of a panel of three. One of them was an R&A sustainability manager."

"He was asking me questions about sustainability. They were shocked. I think I can count on one hand how many times I've sprayed up here in my eighteen years."

"He told me: 'You boys are miles ahead in terms of sustainability project planning'. And I said to him that we're going to try to introduce wildflowers and a couple of other things too."

On a greenkeeping philosophy, Jon said: "I stick to the old techniques that have been used for hundreds of years. They work well here because we're on bent/fescue greens. And they'll work well at the links course on my placement, because they're on the finer grasses too."

"My philosophy is exactly aligned with sustainability: minimal input; look after nature; look after the environment; look after ecology; stick to proven techniques; move forward from there. I'm working with the R&A because I'd like to try to promote that wherever I go."

These policies and constraints mean the club needs to take an unusual stance on whether it's necessary to retain products and tools in-house:

"We only fertilise the greens three or four times per year. I've just done so with a granular and accompanied that with a wetting agent. Then, we'll do it once more in July and once with a turf hardener around October."

"We only, therefore, have to purchase products when we use them. So, we very rarely keep stock. Because then, the club can keep those finances in the account rather than sitting around as assets."

"We still spend a lot of our days cutting like most. Presentation is still the number one priority. It's very important to us that the course be easy on the eye."

"One difference for us is that we spend quite a lot of time shovelling sheep dung as well. It naturally can't be on the tees or greens, so we keep an eye on that."

"That isn't too bad at this time of year, because only one of the three farmers who has access to the land allows his sheep up here. In summer, it can be more like 250 total, which is when the workload from that increases."

"Realistically, because the site is 300 acres across and the course only uses 170 of those, there is room for them. But, they are attracted to the short, grassy fairways more than they are the gorse and bracken beside the rough areas."

Their time switches more towards a focus on aeration during the colder months: "We do at lot of work to keep the surface and profile dry."

"But in the summer, because it drains so quickly and we don't have an irrigation system, we avoid doing too much of that."

"The greens are old clay push-ups, so some of them do get wet. Underneath the four inches of topdressing, the pure clay is always going to be a stopper. But, it's great for CECs, which makes up for that. The clay holds onto the nitrogen and other nutrients which would otherwise run away."

"Others with very good drainage and 6-7 inches of topdressing can be constricted by that. In the summer here, it's brilliant, because we get the best of both worlds."

"Shading isn't an issue for us up here, because British trees very rarely survive at this altitude. You'll see looking around that all that have done are self-setters."

"We planted some along the edge outside the clubhouse and they became windswept and ill, like you'd see on a cliff edge at the coast."

"Some trees which tend to survive are silver birch, mountain ash and oak. We tried to plant some hawthorn too. But, across the plantations, it was about a 90% failure rate."

"The fauna has a good time up here, though. We get stoats, rabbits, lapwings, and a lot of others. We're also making a rare butterfly protection area at the side of the course near the main road."

"You have to time it very accurately to the weather. The same is the case with the fertilisers. As we haven't got the water to spray, we aim both to the rain forecast."

This doesn't mean, however, that they always relish even winter rains as is the case with some extremely quick links courses:

"It can become wet. If the rain is heavy enough to cause surface water, it usually takes about an hour for full drainage. It's a Catch-22. The rain is too light when there's none of it and too heavy when there's any."

"So, whilst it's been hot these five days or so, we haven't been doing a rain dance - we know we can cope with it either way. We don't need any temporary greens or tees either. If it was July, then perhaps we'd be praying for it…"

Jon looked young, so I was surprised when he said he'd been with Welshpool for eighteen years: "I've worked here since I left school. I just turned thirty-four last week."

"I used to play for Shrewsbury when I was younger. I realised at about fifteen that I didn't want to play far from home alongside people I wasn't that close to. I wanted to play against my mates."

"I was playing football down here and golfing at the same time. This is my home course and has been for twenty-one years. When the job came up, it fitted with how and where I wanted to live."

He clearly enjoys maintaining the unique land, which may be another reason he decided to stay. As high as it is, the grass types and growth rates are affected too.

"If you look at the farmers' fields around the hill, the grass is like this [he plays charades, echoing long grass with his hands]. Up here, even without the sheep, you'd never get growth like that."

"The soil temperatures take longer to warm up, so they're low more often. It means the inputs are lower and the growth is comparatively slow."

Jon studied for his Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications at Walford College and is currently undertaking an HNC via distance learning.

"When you study your HNC, you have the option to apply for one of these R&A scholarships I've won. There are 280 in the world."

"They show you a half-hour presentation and request that you apply in writing. They assess you via that application form, followed by a Skype interview stage."

"They ask you what you see in your future, where you'd like your career to head, what you already know about the R&A and its work. Then, they called me. There were two or three of us who were selected from my intake."

"Once selected, they provide you with £600 funding for the academic year to use at your discretion. Another perk is the opportunity to work on major tournaments as greenkeeping staff."

"I received a list of possible avenues and chose to do four days at Murcar Links and one day at Royal Aberdeen, working on the R&A Amateur Championships."

"They take you on for as much as you can commit to and, realistically, that's why I applied for the scholarship. It wasn't for the 600-quid."

"It was all about the opportunity to work on tournament golf and to get out there networking with key professionals. I've never done tournament golf. And I love links golf."

"I loved the course when I viewed it online. I think it's about £145 per round, which shows the kind of level they're working at and the quality of the course."

"Looking at the presentation, everything on the course is just awesome. It seems as though there is a kind of aura around their golf club. I'm hoping they'll offer me a round once I'm finished."

"I know I'll love doing it. I'm confident in my own abilities, so I'm not nervous at all; just excited. The ultimate goal for me is to be the course manager at a high-quality links."

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