The perfect balance for me

Blair Fergusonin Golf

Stanmore Golf Club in North London has always considered itself to be among the metropolis of London. Over 129-years, the course and London's city that surrounds it have evolved considerably. Blair Ferguson met with Course Manager Barry Neville on a cold and frosty morning to find out more.

As it is now, the course at Stanmore Golf Club resembles little of the original 1893 design but still holds some of the characteristics given to it by Alistair MacKenzie during a reconstruction in 1921. This 6,025-yard par 69 course still contains the challenges instilled in it by the famous golf course architect, whilst providing one of the most scenic walks in golf with views across the London skyline as far as Wembley Stadium, Harrow School 'and used to be able see' Windsor Castle.

Stanmore is at its scenic best on this clear and cold mid-January morning, but the course itself is covered in a thick frost. Undeterred, the greenkeeping team is out in force maintaining trees, completing building projects in front of the clubhouse and grinding blades in the workshop.

Orchestrating these events is Course Manager Barry Neville. The highly experienced man in charge has been developing Stanmore for the past twenty-eight years, first as Deputy Head before making the step up into the leading role two years later in 1996. Over two and a half decades, and with significant experience at the core of his team, Barry has worked with the club to provide consistent improvements course-wide from reconstructions, greens drainage and a new irrigation system, with much of the work done by his team of six.

Using the mechanical skills at his disposal has become a cornerstone of the Stanmore greenkeeping operation. Barry grew up on the family farm in Hertfordshire and started working on machinery at thirteen years old. A desire to earn a bit more money before going to university saw him work at another local farm where they were building a golf course. A qualification in Manufacturing and Engineering at Kingston Polytechnic was short-lived, with Barry realising working indoors wasn't for him. Instead, he returned to the already constructed nine holes on the farm and, from there, his greenkeeping career took off.

"I enjoy being outside, so after a year or so of being back at the farm and golf course, I asked if I could go to college because I wanted to learn why we did what we did," Barry explains. "I didn't just want to go out there and do it and not understand why, so I went to Oaklands College in St Albans, and that was the start of it."

"I like to think I was a little bit lucky, but I worked quite hard at college, and they nominated me as their top student, and I went on to win the Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year Award in 1994."

"I like the outdoor life, and I did pretty well at school and started further education, so education just came quite easily to me, I suppose. And when you've got the interest and passion for it, then it does come quite naturally."

"It was an amazing experience spending two months at the University of Massachusetts when you're twenty-four years old. American education is very different to ours. They've had degrees in turf management for years, head people are all known as superintendents rather than course managers out there, and tend to have degrees. The higher level of education is relatively new over here, but it is coming in more and more."

"The course we did was the winter school for turf managers, and it was basically a refresher for guys that had maybe done it years ago in the past. It was very intense, and they were long days and covered a lot of ground very quickly, but it was a great experience."

In a few short years, Barry had grounded himself in practical and theoretical greenkeeping knowledge. After a six-year stint at Whitehill Golf Club, he knew it was time to move to a deputy's role, and in 1994 he joined Stanmore, which was to be his next learning curve. With two years already under his belt and knowing the team, the transition to Course Manager was made easier despite being initially daunting.

Looking back at what has changed in the twenty-eight years raises several topics from machinery and the course to staff. The core knowledge of Barry's team comes from Deputy Course Manager Ian Creswick and First Assistant Martin Coombs, who have over fifty years of Stanmore experience between them.

Having this knowledge and expertise allows the team to complete a lot of major works themselves in a bid to control spending and expand the range of projects that can be done in a year.

"When I look back and see the progress we have made up until now, it's good. We are not the wealthiest of clubs, so we have to work towards things. We do most of the construction work ourselves, which is good experience for the guys because they get to do something different for a few months and, with the age of the course, there are plenty of projects for us to do."

"The course was originally constructed in 1883, so she is an old lady. Alistair McKenzie did the redesign, so we are part of the McKenzie club along with courses like Augusta, and a couple of our greens are very, very typical McKenzie."

"We do think some of the greens out there are original. We are on London clay, so we can be quite wet at times, but it does drain, it just takes its time."

"We've got one USGA green that has been rebuilt over the years, but with the others, you've just got to nurture them and live with them. We have put drains into many of the greens now. We had White Horse Contractors come in and do four for us initially, and we worked with them to save a bit of cost, and we gained a lot of knowledge from that. We then bought our own trencher and some other equipment and we have drained the rest of the greens ourselves."

"The difference that has made is huge. The greens are much firmer. They are soil push-up greens, so they will always be a bit softer than USGA greens, but the difference is night and day."

"Golf over the winter now is constant. Maybe twenty-five years ago, only the diehards went out, but with Goretex, the golfers can go out and play in any conditions, and they do. But years ago they didn't, and the course has got to be there and available for them most of the time, so it had to be done."

"Because they are drier and firmer, we don't use temporary greens, so even if play was out there in the frost today, they would have been playing on the greens. I didn't like the idea, and I was sort of half forced into doing it, but I've been very pleasantly surprised by how little damage it does."

"All of my training, even the training now, is look after the grass plant in the frost, don't let them on frosty greens. We used to have small winter greens, which we started cutting out in September, so when the frost came, we just had a hole in a very small bit of fairway that was cut down a bit lower. It was never popular with the members, but the idea is you rest the greens. The leaf basically freezes with the frost, and you can crack and bruise it, which makes it more susceptible to disease without any doubt, but we've not seen any long term damage."

"The first few touches of frost you get, you see quite a few black marks, particularly around the pin where everybody congregates, but later on I think the plant becomes attuned to it, so you don't see as many marks later in winter."

"The one real problem can be if you can't get out and change the hole because the ground is frozen solid. So you can have one hole taking play weeks on end, and you tend to get wear rather than anything else, and it is the wear damage that I think can be an issue in long term frost, but we rarely get that."

Given the frost cover on the course, it's easy to concentrate on the colder conditions, but the most significant change during Barry's tenure really takes effect during the summer months, and that is the new Rain Bird irrigation system. It was installed in the winter of 2017/18, along with a weather station which has proved invaluable for providing factual course updates to members, raising course quality and saving labour time on keeping the old system up and running.

As the largest single investment in Barry's time, he spent over a year researching the system, trialling pop-ups and speaking to manufacturers to ensure he was getting the best for the course. He also used it as a learning opportunity for greenkeepers in his role on the London Greenkeepers Committee. As part of the BIGGA London Section, various educational events are scheduled when the opportunity arises to give greenkeepers practical experience they might not otherwise get and is an extension of Barry's desire to train people to their highest level.

For Barry, having staff capable of servicing and repairing their own machines equals productivity. A recent example of this is bringing grinding in-house to maintain a high quality of cut and prevent any machinery downtime during busy periods.

"We bought some used grinders about 18-months ago, and we wanted to learn the way the manufacturers recommend them to be used to get the best out of them, so Bernhards came down a few days ago."

"It was something we planned to do a year or so ago, but again, with the pandemic, it just never happened, so over winter is ideal because we can spend a bit more time on it without the pressure of the course."

"We do, and have done for many years, most of the servicing and repair work on our machinery. Again, labour costs are £70 or £80 an hour for a fitter to come in from one of the main dealers, so every hour we can do, we are saving that money."

"If a machine goes wrong and we can fix it ourselves, as well as the money, which isn't always the be-all and end-all, we can quite often get it sorted and running quickly. I've got Martin, who is very mechanically minded, and between him and myself, we can do most of the work like changing clutches in tractors and things like that."

"So, getting the grinders was a natural progression. With the cutting units, we've done the servicing of the units ourselves for years, and then we'd send them away to be sharpened, and then we put them back together. We've done all the work in the past other than the grinding, so it was the last piece of the puzzle for us."

"Now we've got them, it will make us more efficient, and the golf course will improve because we'll have sharper blades more often. If you've got to pay for things to be done, and again it doesn't always come down to money, the machine might be down for two days. Whereas now we can get the greens cut, take the units off, and they can be through the grinder within two hours and back on the machine on the same day, ready for the next morning. And that is in the busy time of year when you really want sharp blades because, if you've got sharper blades, your quality out on the course is improving."

In two and a half decades, machinery has changed almost as much as the landscape around Stanmore. Barry has watched as the twin towers of the old Wembley were torn down and replaced by the new Wembley, which is now all but covered, barring the arch, by hotels, flats and shopping centres. In that time, mowers have gone from hydraulic gangs on a tractor to dedicated units for fairways and roughs.

Toro dominates the shed at Stanmore, and hybrid greens mowers signal the technology shift, but for a team that operates by servicing and repairing, the inevitable move to fully electric mowers presents an issue.

"I think with electric mowers coming in, some of the mechanical knowledge we have here will almost become obsolete. Electricity will be different from what we have now, without a doubt. So many industries, like automotive, plug them into a computer, so you've got to have the specialist tools to do it."

"Even what we have now are very basic computers, but they've all got a black box in, and if something isn't quite right, you've still got to interpret why the black box won't let it start or why it won't engage the units. So now there's a bit of both, but probably the electric side of it is our weaker side because you can't see electricity!"

"The power unit of a greens mower is not only one part of the machine, so you've still got the cutting units. The machines we use you can put those cutting units on an electric power unit. So they'll still need grinding and sharpening, and they'll still need new bottom blades, but you will be losing the engine and hydraulic side of it as well, so you'll always need someone, and there is still an amount of fairly basic mechanical knowledge needed. There will be less servicing because you don't need to change the engine oil or the fuel filters and things like that. But there will be times, because everything goes wrong at some point, where you will have to employ specialist knowledge from the dealers to fix it."

"But it's going to go that way. Twenty years ago, there weren't electric buggies or electric cars. We tend to feed off what happens in everyday life, so it's coming in. Hybrid mowers have been about on our course for eight years now, and we weren't the first to get them."

"Looking back, the technology on a greens mower now compared to twenty-eight years ago when I started is chalk and cheese. We're up to fourteen bladed cylinders, cutting lower than we're used to, but then we've also adjusted the aeration we use on the greens. We're up to a 1.8m Wiedenmann Terra Spike, and we can get all of our greens deep spiked in a day, whereas before the older Verti-Drains were very slow, and the surface they left wasn't great. It did a great job, but it's about playability and the condition of the greens. The finish the newer machines leave is fantastic, so we can get the work done quicker; it's leaving a better result and it is a win-win."

"We have to do it now because of the volume of play. We want drier and firmer greens, so we've got to aerate them. And we probably aerate them more now than we ever have done, but we've got the right machinery now to get on and do it. We want to work better, quicker and more efficiently and leave less disturbance from the golfer's point of view."

All of this progress, from a new irrigation system, extending holes, moving tees, and countless other projects has been a life's work for Barry. And even today, on a freezing cold morning, he still counts himself as lucky. He is still enthusiastically planning his next steps with bunkers to be renovated, a new sprayer to buy and new staff to teach.

For him, anyone who stands still goes backwards. That's why he's always looking to improve things with one eye on what's happening and another on what is going to happen.

"I still enjoy my work. It's not a chore getting up in the morning and coming here. I'm quite lucky, and I think I'm fortunate that I get to plan work and execute it in my position. My workload is quite different, so it's really enjoyable, and I still love it."

"Even away from the course with the staff that we've had through the years. One of the lads we took on as a trainee is now a Course Manager just up the road, two others also have become Deputy Course Managers, so that's quite pleasing and rewarding in its own right."

"It's hard when you've spent the time and effort getting them to learn your ways and how you want to do things, and it can be hard when they leave, but at the end of the day, I've done it, and life moves on. You're happy for them really because they have achieved something."

"With all the different aspects to this job, we can pick up and learn something new every day and, because of that, I think I've got the perfect balance for me."

Article Tags: