Royal St George’s - Open for business - at last!

Phil Helmn MGin Golf

On the 15th July, The Open Championship will return to Royal St George's for the first time since 2011, when an emotional Darren Clarke fulfilled his boyhood dream of becoming Champion Golfer of the Year. It is an event postponed by a year due to the Covid pandemic and one that has left Course Manager Paul Larsen eagerly anticipating the event. Phil Helmn MG caught up with him for a chat.

The Royal St George's Golf Club was founded by the surgeon Laidlaw Purves in 1887 in a setting of wild duneland. Many holes feature blind or partially blind shots, although the unfairness element has been reduced so that a good shot hit in the right place means you see the green after several 20th century modifications.

As you can imagine, the club is steeped in history as the club's Challenge Cup testifies, dating back to 1888, and is classed as one of the oldest amateur events in golf. It has been contested annually over 36 holes since then, except during the war years. A 19-year-old Jack Nicklaus won the tournament in 1959, shortly before going on to win the first of his two U.S. Amateur titles.

The Royal St George's Golf Club, as it is officially called, is located in Sandwich, Kent, and is one of the courses on The Open Championship rotation. It is the only Open rota golf course to be located in Southern England and has hosted fourteen Open championships since 1894, when it became the first club outside Scotland to host the event. Past champions include Darren Clarke, Ben Curtis, Greg Norman, Sandy Lyle, Bill Rogers, Bobby Locke, Reg Whitcombe, Henry Cotton, Walter Hagen (on two occasions), Harry Vardon (on two occasions), Jack White and John Henry Taylor. It has also hosted The Amateur Championship on thirteen occasions.

Paul Larsen, the course manager, has been custodian of the 18-hole, 7,224-yard (off the champ tees) links course since 2012. If anyone knows Paul, they will appreciate he is definitely 'one of a kind' (I mean this as a friend in a nice way) and his rise to his current position, as the busiest course manager in the country at the moment, has been varied to say the least!

When Paul left college after completing his A-levels, he began working for Redbridge council as a general groundsman. The work involved mowing and caring for football and hockey pitches, sports tracks and everything in between. Whilst there, he began an apprenticeship, studying for his City & Guilds level 2 Amenity Horticulture at Capel Manor College; all pretty standard you might muse, but then things took a career twist!

Course Manager Paul Larsen

Disillusioned with poor wages in the industry (a hot topic now), he decided to earn more money and become a postie working in the West One area of London, a job which he admitted he thoroughly enjoyed. After five 'happy' years of treading the pavements of London, he decided to hang up his post bag and replace it with a backpack and embarked on backpacking around Europe which eventually morphed into working his way around the world! Paul explained, "I did various jobs from building a roller coaster ride, admin, landscaping, growing grapes and even speed planting trees before returning to London to work in a solicitor's firm! I always knew working outdoors was my true vocation, so I left London and moved back home to Folkestone where I got a job as a greenkeeper in 2000 at Sene Valley Golf Club".

Paul then got his lucky break, a move to Royal St George's in 2005 as an assistant greenkeeper, but then another twist saw him leave to work in Holland as Head Greenkeeper at Westerpark Golf Course. Four years later he returned to Royal St George's just in time for the 2011 Open and, in 2012, was appointed Course Manager!

Many head greenkeepers will be able to appreciate, with having to prepare their own club championship competitions, the considerable pressure that Paul and his team must be under at the moment to produce perfect surfaces for this year's Open competition.

Paul explained preparations began back in the 2013/14 when we went on a conversion of grasses from predominantly rye grass, Yorkshire fog and poa to fine leaved fescue. In conjunction with the sward transformation programme, Paul and his team embarked on a burning management programme for their dune and natural areas, with the support of Dr Graham Earl, to revert in a positive way the golf courses SSSI status, in an unprecedented three-year period.

Paul remarked, the success of it was astounding! "It was amazingly quick, so saved the team months of cutting and collecting. The whole process is incredible to witness as you see everything burn out apart form little strands of marram. It looks devastating and completely black and desolate for about six weeks, but then you see it come back to life - amazing. You lose that lush thickness but regain the marram plus we have never seen so many wildflowers on the course with a massive increase in Lizard Orchids. The land is now in keeping with the dune lands."

"We also had a bunker review which identified the need to create new, more natural shapes and more strategic bunkering across the course. The fourth 'Himalayas" bunker was a good example of changing the style of bunkers to a more sustainable natural look."

"Up to the Amateur championship, we built forty-three bunkers with the plan to complete all 104 bunkers a year before the Open in 2020. The bunkers look very rustic now and I am confident that they will look great for the Open! We also took the opportunity to create a few natural bunkers on holes 4, 6 and 7 and replaced a few more with grassy swales. I think the bunkers are now more in keeping and frame the course within the dune surroundings."

Whilst discussing the lead up preparations to the Open, we touched on the effects of the devastating summer of 2018. A summer which affected every golf course and greenkeeper up and down the country, but in the lead up to the Open on such a sandy, coastal environment must have taken its toll on not only Royal St. George's but on Paul and his team.

Paul, confessed, "It was heartbreaking for us all. Leading up to that moment the course was in the best shape it had ever been. The course held up really well, however, by late summer, the lack of rainfall and heat got worse. This was compounded by our abstraction issues and running seriously low on our water supply. I'm pleased to say we've now built our own reservoir so as to reduce the risk, but we still need to be mindful of usage."

"We lost so much fescue from our fairways and semi rough that it was upsetting. We had a terrible autumn for the area with unseasonal, damaging high temperatures lasting for weeks. By the time we received any significant rainfall it was late into November, by which time we lost growing conditions to help us with recovery. Since early 2019, we have been overseeding with fescue and topdressing everything by hand. This has been a time-consuming job, but I felt it was the best policy to get the fescue back gently. In fact, we have just been doing this continually and will continue to do so for the next couple of weeks, which hopefully, will provide complete coverage. I'm delighted to say, the fairways have recovered amazingly well and the semi rough is almost there. All other major playing surfaces are ready and look great, and dare I say, look even better than before the drought. It's a testimony to the team's hard work and commitment."

"I have fifteen greenkeepers including two mechanics and a gardener who all help on the course. We do a lot of hand mowing which, as you can appreciate, takes a lot of time. We try to hand cut greens daily but also hand cut all our tees. This can be a challenge as we are one of the largest courses (in square metreage) on the Open circuit. So, fifteen may sound a lot, but it really can be a push to get everything cut that is required as well as daily hand raking the 100 bunkers!"

"All the staff have separate areas of the course that they specialise in. I encourage the team to come up with any ideas for making improvements for the course. By doing this, I feel the team have ownership of the course thereby making it a team effort. I want them to be proud of their work as it's all down to them how good the course is."

"All my staff are encouraged to do training courses. We have put four apprentices through since I have been here with them getting distinction. We have had quite a few do their NVQ Level 3 as well. We have always sent our staff to Harrogate over the years. One of the biggest ways to learn, in my mind, is to visit other courses as you can learn way more this way. I am incredibly lucky that the team are very dynamic and always suggesting new ideas. In doing this, the team feel that the course is theirs and have ownership."

Paul and I discussed the ever-growing issue for more 'intelligent use of water'. Paul explained; "After the drought of 2018, we really had to rethink our water supply and moisture management. We started using wetting agents monthly, which really helped, plus the use of different fescue cultivars like sheeps fescue. We built our own reservoir with a water holding capacity of 32,000 cubic metres and owned a 21,000 cubic metre abstraction licence, but later reduced this for a lesser 13,000 licence which helped the Environment Agency. I constantly measure water moisture and check levels every day. I have a pogo and this has become a big weapon in our arsenal. The course is very exposed, and I always must consider ET rates lost during the day, but always try to keep a rootzone moisture level of between 16% to 20%. Any mistakes can lead to drying out of surfaces which, in turn, will lead to fairy rings appearing. I am lucky my irrigation technician does an amazing job. We will never, knowingly, waste water as it really is an unbelievably valuable commodity."

"Royal St. George's has also just installed a full Toro Lynx central controlled irrigation system with over 1,000 heads to all greens, tees, approaches and fairways. Paul is very particular about his water and is focused on only targeting areas which are needed. We don't water the rough as they need to remain natural and 'wispy', by maintaining low water levels on these areas they have a better chance of retaining fescue, sweet vernal, crested dogs-tail, bedstraw, broom rape and lizard orchid."

Paul runs a predominantly Toro fleet with all his grass mowers being red. However, he explained his philosophy that he chooses machines which are deemed best for the specific role on his course regardless of colour. "We buy the best machine for the best job, Toro, Wiedenmann, Vredo, Reco, Turf Tidy, Baroness, John Deere and Kubota - a mixture of colours really!"

"I am really proud of what the team have achieved and, to be honest, they are just a great bunch to work with. Their sense of humour keeps me laughing most of the day. Work must be fun, and I love the banter we have, even if it's been in our smaller bubbles this year. I guess that has been one of the worse things as, for me, it's much better when we were all in the mess room together."

"Our biggest achievements so far must be the change of grasses on the course, especially the greens. Our in-house bunker building has been fantastic and I'm proud to say the team have taken them to another level."

"I'm particularly pleased with achieving our SSSI status and hope we can carry on improving our ecological diversity on the course. We feel there's still so much more to achieve but pleased with our achievements to date. I guess, like most greenkeeping teams, we're our own biggest critics!"

"On a personal level, one of my biggest achievements was the setting up of The Links Club (TLC) with Rhys Butler, Richard Whyman, Ian Kinley and Craig Boath. We did this to encourage the exchange of ideas and knowledge of links courses in the UK. We meet up regularly, have a game of golf during the day, then an evening dinner to chat, followed by some education on a course walk the next day. As well as the invaluable education it provides, it's also an important support network for us all. It was actually The Irish Links Initiative that really inspired us. So, I have to say a huge thank you to those guys as the TLC has gone from strength to strength."

With the spotlight on Royal St George's for the Open I asked Paul how he was preparing himself personally for the event and what did he want to achieve from the Open and the experience? Paul replied; "As long as we have prepared everything in advance, I think I will be quite relaxed. I have a great team behind me and they all know what they have to do. They know the expectation level required so we hope to showcase their skills."

"As for me, I hope I can enjoy the experience of seeing the world's best golfers at first hand and the excitement of a British winner or perhaps even a Spieth win! Deep down, my goal is to hope the players and fans just enjoy the course for its beauty. I love the course and hope that the sun comes out so they can enjoy it at its best. I know I have been praying for rain these last few years, but I really hope we can enjoy four days of beautiful sunny weather!"

What's in the shed?

Toro Triflex 3420 x 6
Toro Flex 2120 x 7
Baroness LM56 hand mowers x 3
Toro Greenspro 1260 x 2
Toro Reelmaster 3555 x 2
Toro Groundsmaster 4700
Toro Groundsmaster 3500
Toro Sidewinder 3100 x 3
Toro 5800 sprayer
John Deere ProGator with HD200 sprayer
John Deere Gator TX turf x 12
John Deere 4720 tractor with loader and forks
John Deere 3720 tractor with loader and forks
Kubota M5111 tractor with loader and forks
Kubota L5040 tractor
Kubota L2501 tractor
John Deere 4520 tractors x 2
Vredo super compact disc seeder
Wiedenmann Terra Air seeder
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GX6

Wiedenmann GXI 8
Toro ProCore 648
Toro Workman with ProPass dresser
Turf Tidy 3000 flail mower
Fabricated water bowser
Tractor mounted Reco rotavator
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