The Driving Force

Tom Jamesin Golf

Clubhouse.jpgTucked away amid a parade of plush Epsom properties, off the A24 trunk road in Surrey, lies the 400-acre Woodcote Park estate - home to the famed Royal Automobile Club, a national 'institution' whose history is as colourful and dramatic as the manicured parkland site itself.

The club goes back to 1897 when Frederick Richard Simms and Charles Harrington Moore translated the constitution of the Automobile Club de France (ACF) into English, to create the basis for the Automobile Club of Great Britain and, later, Ireland (ACGBI).

Woodcote Park, positioned next door to Epsom racecourse, was first purchased as a country club in 1913, on the site of a twelfth century abbey. The imposing mansion, built in 1679 by Richard Evelyn (brother of diarist John) and mentioned in his diaries by Samuel Pepys, became the clubhouse.

However, a fire in 1934 burnt it to the ground but it was rebuilt in similar classical style, reopening nearly two years later in May 1936. Throughout the 1970s, the Club underwent a programme of expansion and refurbishment, which led to the restoration of the clubhouse and significant improvements to the two 18-hole courses, an achievement largely the masterwork of one man - the then head greenkeeper, now course manager, Bob Wiles.

BobWiles2.jpgDue to retire in February 2010 after thirty-three years at the club, and one of the longest-reigning head greenkeepers in the business, Bob has fashioned the sporting estate into the premier facility it is today.

In that time he has met golfing legends such as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomery, Lee Trevino and Greg Norman, as well as the late and sadly missed comedian Bob Hope, whom he met during the Club's staging of the Bob Hope Classic in 1980. Today, Woodcote Park still hosts international Pro-Am tournaments, notably the Tesco event run straight after the Open Championship.

One can only admire the professionalism and commitment of golfing's elite when Bob marvels: "Last year's Open champion, Padraig Harrington, was playing here literally the day after winning the event."

Bob joined the Club on 18 September 1977, moving into the post of head greenkeeper the following month, after working in agriculture, then in the timber trade, at Bishops Castle, Shropshire, before embarking on his marathon greenkeeping stint at Woodcote Park.

The estate boasts two courses - the Old, whose 18th hole sits serenely in front of the grand clubhouse, and the Coronation. Both blend mature downland and parkland, so tree management duties are always on the itinerary. The first nine holes of the Coronation course were constructed in 1953 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II taking the throne that year, the others being added later.

The Club also features a sports complex with all-weather tennis courts, four sunken squash courts, croquet lawn, swimming pool and fitness suite, all of which underwent significant improvements ten years ago.

Bob&Bob2.jpgWoodcote Park's first major competition, the Martini International, was staged in 1978, followed two years later by the Bob Hope Classic. "I had a heap of maintenance work to attend to in a very short time to get the course ready for the Classic," remembers Bob, "involving an extension of the course and relaying a number of tees."

Aiding him in the upkeep of the courses is a team of fifteen greenkeepers, nine on the Old Course, six on the Coronation, Bob himself and no fewer than three in-house mechanics, one of which - Tony Worsford - has the job of tending to the club's fleet of vintage cars, as well as an extensive range of turfcare machinery. "We are Toro here," declares Bob proudly, indicating a swathe of red in the machinery shed. "All our greens, rotary and hand machines are that make, but I also run a number of Ransomes Cushman Trucksters - a favourite of mine. They can do anything."

"If I had to put my finger on one machine that's really changed the shape of greenkeeping it would be the Cushman. It's versatile with the ability to use many different applications, allowing us more time to devote to other things," he explains.

"We've been pleased with Toro as well and have enjoyed a good relationship with them for a number of years. I've visited their headquarters in the States twice in my time. That was really enjoyable."

Bob aims to replace machinery every three years and is given the annual maintenance budget - some £350,000 - to allow him to do it. A recent machine update amounted to £154,000. "I'm fortunate in having a healthy figure to work with," he beams.
The view from the balustraded balcony of the clubhouse is a flurry of activity as Royal Automobile Club members busily go about their golf at seemingly breakneck speed.

Some 70,000 rounds are played across both courses annually - 40,000 on the Old, 30,000 on the Coronation. Championship standard, the Old course owes its greater popularity to its longer length (6,724 yards) and more open contours, says Bob.

The Coronation though is hilly and known to be particularly challenging. "We treat both courses exactly the same and do not give particular preference to the Old just because of its championship status. My mission is to make sure that each course is equally used. Recent modernisation of the Coronation, with five new greens and improved bunkering, is setting us in the right direction." Bunkers on the Old though total 96, more than twice the tally (41) on the Coronation.

The pre-World War One-style of bunkering across the Old Course, while a trademark of renowned golf course designer W Herbert Fowler, makes hard work for Bob and his team, he explains.

"Fowler's signature rounded bunkering is a real feature of the course that the club rightfully doesn't want to let go of but, needless to say, this style makes our job as greenkeepers trickier to maintain to the standard we like."

GolfCourse2.jpgBob is "a traditionalist at heart" and a strong advocate of the practices of the famous British agronomist Jim Arthur who believed in the protection of 'the open' courses and deplored 'superficial cosmetic improvements' of golfing greens. "When I first came here, I was nearly sacked after a week when I severely deep spiked the greens and veticut them to relieve compaction and thatch."

Like Jim Arthur, Bob believes in fine turf, arguing against heavy feeding and watering. "The most essential ingredient for good greenkeeping is regular aeration, more crucial, to my mind, than any amount of fertiliser. It's a necessity not a luxury. I'm a firm believer in only watering enough to keep the grass alive, not making it green."

Although not advocating heavy fertilising, he does believe in using products that have proven results, a policy that the club began to reap the benefits of seven years ago when they started using Symbio organic compost tea. It is a natural product brewed in much the same way as beer, then routinely sprayed on the greens. "We were having problems getting our roots down as deep as we would like, so decided to try the tea after seeing its benefits outside the UK," explains Bob.

"We were the first club in the country to use it, and found that, after only a relatively short time, the roots started to go down as far as six or seven inches, and the soil was becoming much more friable - no mean feat in our chalky soil."

GolfCourse.jpgThe year 2007 saw results of the organic treatment reach their pinnacle, demonstrating says Bob, just how effective compost tea proved to be when used with a strict maintenance programme.

"We aerated weekly, topdressed every two weeks and composted every other week combined with the tea," Bob recalls. "Greenkeepers from neighbouring golf courses, such as Walton Heath, would visit us to take a look and couldn't believe the quality of our soil."

But, due to a heavy workload, the level of maintenance was reduced, having an adverse affect on the greens, Bob says.

"We had to cut down on topdressing and tining, which started to undo all the good work we had put in up to that point. However, in 2008/09, we were returned to our good maintenance practices and things are now getting back to how they were in 2007."

Darren Farley, sixteen years Bob's deputy, also witnessed how turf quality can be turned around, as well as the dangers of letting standards slip.

"It took under a year for our greens to regress," he says, "whereas it will take us another three years to get them back to the position they were in then. Symbio has not only given us healthier soil but has also helped us reduce significantly the levels of fusarium."
With new EU legislation due to come into force in the new year banning more pesticides, it appears to be more important than ever for clubs to actively reduce their reliance on chemicals. For Bob and Darren though, this is merely a sign of the times and something they have to move along with.

"We only spray once a year for weeds now," confirms Bob, "in May or June and once for worms in the autumn." Since the change to compost tea, the club has seen dramatic reductions in nitrogen use from 200kg to 70kg a hectare. "With pesticides now far weaker and becoming less effective over a shorter time than previously, it is a good thing we are already reducing our usage," Darren adds.

Bob recalls the days when using "75% proof" products on the greens was part and parcel of the job - chemicals that have long since left the industry. "The mercury-based pesticides would kill everything in the soil for years after," he says. "Today, there's much more of a push on conservation, encouraging wildlife to live and flourish alongside the golf."

Woodcote Park is home to a host of wildlife including roe deer, pheasants, foxes, rabbits, grey squirrels, Canada geese, and 'a medieval badger set'. An English Heritage protected walled garden is also a feature, one that once grew fruit and vegetables.

Its two lawn tennis courts once drew the attentions of Wimbledon players, who used them for practising. "English Heritage now only requires us to maintain the garden," says Darren.

Golf courses are increasingly recognised as hotbeds for wildlife but, with that, comes the growing need for forestry maintenance and wildlife conservation programmes, as Bob explains.

"We are keen on conservation here and do what we can with the course through recommendations from various wildlife bodies. Currently, we leave the semi rough and rough to grow longer."
Bob takes an active involvement in the upkeep of the wooded areas and has planted a good number of trees over his thirty-two years in the job. Memories of the Great Storm in 1987, when seventy large beeches were blown down, bring painful recollections.

"I woke up the morning after to find large beech trees lying across the 15th fairway. I was so distressed at seeing it that I lost concentration and drove into a bunker," he recalls emotionally.

Bob has seen nothing less than seismic changes in the industry during his time at Woodcote Park - moving from what he describes as largely agricultural methods to ones now principally machine and computer led.

He singles out two key changes that have dramatically changed the industry - the quality of machinery and green speeds. "Machine innovations have given us so much more time." he says.

Two machines though stand out from the rest, he believes. "The Triplex mower has made cutting much quieter, whilst utility vehicles like the Cushman Truckster and Toro Workman make topdressing far easier and less time-consuming."

GreenkeeperOffice2.jpgMachine safety is clearly a priority, and one that bleeds into a wider safety initiative, he believes. "The club is hot on safety and gives us all the necessary training on the correct machinery - every man is NPTC certified." But there is a limit to the quantity of red tape the industry needs, Bob stresses. "It's good that the industry is becoming more safety conscious but there's a limit to how far it can go. When red tape impinges on our work, slows it down or hinders it, instead of helping it, then that's when it goes too far."

Bob bemoans the need for speed on greens. "The Augusta syndrome has crept into UK practices with many clubs trying to achieve lightning-fast surfaces. Cutting the sward too severely inhibits proper growth and, in most cases, makes greens unplayable by all but the world's best players."

Working for the club certainly carries its benefits, Bob is quick to emphasise. "We all get a basic RAC membership and can be involved with the contributory pension scheme. It is proof that all the hard work we do here is recognised."

Sign.jpgBob is clearly well respected by his team and many in the industry who have worked under him over the last three decades. Yet, one of the most important aspects of the job that cannot be taught - one that arguably he values above all others - is experience.

"Groundsmanship is one of those professions where you can have all the knowledge and read all the books but, without a good percentage of hands-on experience, you can't really be good at the job. You need to know how each hole on a course works and that takes time, labour and passion."

After gathering a generation of experience at Woodcote Park, Bob is bequeathing a lasting legacy that Darren believes has put the Club on the right footing.

"What Bob has achieved here speaks for itself," he states. "With the greens getting back to their best and our maintenance programme on a good standing, Bob can leave the job knowing everything is in good order."

In typical fashion, Bob talks humbly about his many achievements at the club - ones that bring a sense of pride to him. "I believe that, in my time here, I've managed to greatly improve the courses as well as train up lads that have gone on to take head greenkeeper posts at clubs both locally and abroad."

Darren reiterates: "Man management is one of the hardest aspects of the job. Bob's been a great boss."

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