Set in 180 acres of exquisite countryside, on the cusp of Devon and Cornwall, China Fleet Country Club in Saltash is one of the south west's leading clubs. On the first call of what has now become Lee Williams' annual summer tour of the south coast, he met up with Nathan O'Sullivan - the club's forty-four-year-old Course Manager - who has worked his way through the ranks over the last twenty-one years.
Whilst at school, Nathan played junior golf and would have loved to have made it as a pro golfer. The next best thing, to continue his passion for golf, led him to explore the idea of becoming a greenkeeper. "When I left school at eighteen, I went straight to Yelverton Golf Club Ltd in Devon and started an apprenticeship where I undertook NVQ Level 2 in Amenity Sports. In 1999, after four and half years, I moved here as an assistant greenkeeper at the age of twenty-two years old. Over the years I worked my way up to deputy head then, when my predecessor moved on six years ago, I became course manager. I love my job here and the satisfaction of being a greenkeeper working outside is second to none."
Since Nathan has taken over as course manager, the club has really supported his ambition to improve the overall quality around the course by investing heavily in staff, machinery and increasing communication with members. "There is a lot more understanding now. It has been a long road of writing report after report and producing spreadsheets, to offer a wider understanding of the costs and everything involved to get to where we are today. I will sit down with Ben Waters, our Golf & Estates Manager to prepare our budgets. Ben moved here from St. Mellion Golf Club and has been in the job for eighteen months now since Linda Goddard retired after twenty years in the position. We have built a great working relationship and he is very professional. We will go on course walks to discuss various issues and it's great that he sees things from the same perspective and has a similar vision to me. Once we have put our budgets together, they will go to the Managing Director and then the Board of Trustees. So, there are a few stepping stones, but we are a charitable trust meaning all profits go back into the club."
Helping Nathan maintain the course are: Martin Coe, Deputy Golf Course Manager - NVQ level 2 and 3, PA1, PA2, PA6 spraying certificates, chainsaw certificates, twelve years' experience. Terry Ruse, Assistant Greenkeeper - NVQ level 2, powered pole pruner certificate, twenty-nine years experience. Matthew Frost, Assistant Greenkeeper - NVQ level 2 and 3, PA1, PA2, PA6, chainsaw certificates, six years' experience and Charlie Blatchford, Assistant Greenkeeper - NVQ level 2 and 3, PA1, PA2, PA6, chainsaw certificates with seven years' experience.
From left to right: Terry Ruse, Matt Frost, Nathan O'Sullivan, Martin Coe and Charlie Blatchford
The parkland course is clay based with USGA spec greens, originally designed in 1991 by Martin Hawtree. When Nathan took over, the profile of the greens were in a pretty bad state with a lot of black layer, thatch and compaction. "We have a lot of mature trees surrounding the course which also results in shade and airflow issues. A combination of all these conditions was causing a lot of disease and led us to bring in Laurence Pithie from Turf Master One Ltd, who offered his advice, expertise and implemented a programme to help reduce thatch. I finally feel like we have almost turned the corner."
"In the past, the greens were overseeded with bents, but we didn't have the right conditions. We have now reached a stage where we consider the profile to be at the right stage to do this again. This means that we don't have to stress the greens out, we have lowered the height of cut to achieve decent pace, so they are a lot less prone to disease and produce fewer seed heads. We have managed to reduce our fungicide applications significantly; going from five or six a year to once in sixteen months, which I am absolutely delighted with. We are in a good position and Laurence has now gone from two visits per year, to once every two years."
In January 2015 (Nathan's second year in charge), the club had a new irrigation system installed. "It is a Toro system using the Lynx software package complete with a weather station, which we have never had before. We have the valve-in head sprinklers on the greens, and pop up sprinklers on tees and one approach. The water is supplied through a reservoir at the entrance to the course, which is gravity fed to a pump house. From there, one set of pumps sends it up to the clubhouse and the other to the golf course. At the moment, I'm happy with the water levels in the reservoir for this time of year, normally by the end of the summer it will be almost empty."
Left: Shade on the 9th green back in 2018 and right after tree removal
A lot of the drains on the course run into the reservoir helping to keep it topped up throughout the year. "When the course was first designed, tees, greens, bunkers and fairways all had drains installed, which means it's all now around thirty years old and, subsequently, we are starting to see drains collapsing and just not functioning properly. We are in the process of renewing some drains on the fairways, but we have not really had to update drainage on the greens yet."
Nathan tells me he is seeing a significant change in the weather patterns in the last few years. "We are getting extremely high levels of rainfall; it is becoming the norm now. We are starting to get more warmer mild winters with bouts of hefty rain. Gone are the days in November, when you could just park up the machines, strip them down and paint them up ready for the start of the growing season. That is just not the case anymore; it is a matter of getting out and cutting when you can. Then, we move into summer and, over night, you seem to go into a drought; especially in 2018/2019. It goes from one extreme to another with not much gap in between, which has led us to rethink the way we manage the course throughout the year."
I asked Nathan is there a possibility in the future to extend the irrigation system? "I can't see it on the fairways, but possibly the approaches. However, we would need another three lakes the same size as the current one," he laughs. "There is talk of a borehole, but then we have to be careful as we are so close to the estuary; we would have to make sure the water wasn't too salty. When I visited BTME this year, I spoke to a few companies about wetting agent programmes for fairways. The idea is to not let the fairways get to a stage where they get severely damaged in the drought, leaving us with nothing. Then, in November, it rains for four months without being able to establish grass. With the footfall, it just turns to mud and then you get the weeds and moss coming in, so it is a constant battle. We are just about there with the greens and tees, it's now fairways that have moved up the priority list."
When the 18-hole parkland course was built, it had seventy-two bunkers which were Hawtree-designed, big American style bunkers with steep faces. They have become unsustainable to manage, so Nathan and his team have started to remove and reduce the size of them. "Over the years, we have managed to reduce the number down to sixty-two; ten less. On top of that, the remaining ones have been reduced by half, or a third in places. The main aim for this project was to fill in the bunkers that were not in play, remove the steep faces that cause the general issues of washout/contamination and not being able to keep the sand on the faces, therefore reducing labour costs."
Nathan feels the course has an excessive amount of original trees and is working towards reducing the numbers. "We have put an ongoing management plan together, so everybody is on the same page and understands why we are doing it. We have significant Ash dieback damage, as many of them were planted before we first opened. This has been good in a way, as it as gives us the perfect excuse to thin out these plantations."
"Originally, the designers planted tens of thousands of trees and they expected 60-70% to take, but we had a 100% success rate and, obviously, now they are too close together. Since I started, the priority was to remove the trees which were shading areas around the greens, tees and parts of the fairways and we are now getting to the stage where we are on top of that. So, we are now focusing on looking at plantation and thinning out the weaker trees to leave the stronger trees you know will be around for years to come. It is giving us a more desirable presentation throughout the course and even opened up some views of the estuary, which we did not have before."
Nathan talks me through the general annual maintenance of the greens. "For the club championship, we try and get greens up to nine and a half feet on the stimp which, in the past, has proved more difficult due to a high percentage of poa. Now we are developing bent it is a little easier, so we are not having to stress them out. I tend to cut down to 3mm for a couple of big events throughout the year, but I would say we average about 3.5mm throughout the growing season. I will aim to roll once a week but, when the course is this busy, we can be cutting seven days a week. My view is that, if a visitor plays tomorrow, they do not know that is the day I have rested the greens because they have been stressed out for weeks. I will try and pick a day when I know it is mostly members out on the course, but even on the rest day, they will get a roll with the vibrating rollers. We have midweek roll ups Wednesday and Saturday so, if I can spare the staff, we will cut and roll to put that little more on the stimpmeter."
"In winter, we will average around 5-6mm. This year, with weather being a bit warmer, we managed to keep them at 5mm (until lockdown), then obviously raised them up."
"For verti cutting, we have historically worked with a thirty-year-old set of blades, but recently purchased some GreenTek Thatch-Away units - which perform so much better. We will go over the greens once a month at a few millimetres depth to just get into the thatch layer. If we have time, I will do two passes but, since lockdown, we have not had the chance to get on there. Once a month, we will religiously go over with the Toro ProCore 648 with the needle tines ranging between 2-4 inches and alternating depths, to reduce risk of forming a pan. Then we will add between eight and ten tonnes of topdressing and our yearly aim is to apply one hundred and fifty tonnes on the greens. When we started this process, we managed to get two hundred tonnes on in the first year, which I was absolutely delighted with. We now have the backing of the golfers as they have seen what we have achieved. So, instead of their hands up in the air saying 'jeez, they are topdressing again', they are seeing the benefits of it and have become much more understanding. We also keep them informed of the STRI results we obtain throughout the year."
The Toro ProCore 648 is used once per month
Renovations on the greens are usually carried out three times a year but, with the current climate, Nathan and his team will struggle to achieve that. "We have missed out on the last few months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Normally, in March and Autumn, we will hollow core and also use 12mm solid tines at a depth of eight inches. Although August is right in the middle of the playing season, it is oddly our quietist month, believe it or not, which means it is the most productive for overseeding. This year, temperatures will hopefully allow us to take advantage of a bent application and the process will be to: 12mm solid tines at a depth of eight inches, then we will look at either deep scarifying or sarel rolling to create a bed for the Barenbrug All Bent seed mix. Next, we add forty tonnes of topdressing and brush in."
Throughout the year, Nathan tends to favour a liquid programme on the greens with one application of a conventional 8:0:12 granular feed at the start of maintenance week in March, then will go with a straight N liquid 25:0:0. "A couple of years ago, I started to work with David Bevan from Agrovista Amenity and, with his solid advice, I have gone down the route of using BioMass Sugar, HumiMax, SeaAction Liquid Seaweed and turf hardeners. Historically, we just used to use these products in the winter months, but now we are applying them once a month. One thing I think I do differently to most people, is that I will go half-rate once every two weeks.
I found when we first started the programme, it was a stretch trying to go a month at full rate with all the products. So, I experimented with going three weeks still at full rate and found that; in the last week they just looked a bit hungry and tired. I now have a result which works best for us, which is a half rate of everything but every two weeks, so it is like a drip-feed; they never get to that stage where they are looking tired. ICL Primo Maxx is also in there at 400ml every two weeks, but we have just started to ease back on this as we have got to a stage where the greens are too dense, and we weren't getting enough air in the profile. After the latest STRI report, we have just started to tweak down the amount of nitrogen we are applying throughout the year to help the bent."
As you walk into the driving range (near the club shop), there is the greenkeepers corner board with monthly updates, a picture of the greenkeeping team and information on planned and ongoing projects. I was interested to know if the golfers take the time to read it and if Nathan has had much feedback. "It went up a year ago when Ben joined us. As well as the usual information, we will post any legislation changes on insecticides and fungicides that have been removed from the market, which pre-warns them of what to expect as a result. They are taking notice and we have some good feedback. We also communicate through our Facebook and Twitter accounts and provide similar information, plus weather updates."
Most of the machinery at the club is on lease through various companies, and some smaller items (around £10-15,000) are purchased through CapEx. "We do a lot of business with Devon Garden Machinery. We are mainly Toro, but our fairway mowers are Jacobsen and we have a few John Deere utility vehicles. I tend to purchase whatever machine best suits the area we are maintaining, rather than looking at price or manufacturer."
The mudflats of Victoria Harbour, in Hong Kong, were bought for $2.50 per square foot by a local businessman who began charging for tipping rubble from the growing colony. The land began selling for $25.00 per square foot. Short of buyers for the land, the businessman joined with the personnel of the Royal Navy's China Fleet to raise funds for a Royal Naval Canteen.
The canteen proved to be extremely successful and was soon demolished to make way for a new building. Using the club funds and with a generous loan from the Hong Kong and Shang-Hai Bank, Admiral Kelly (Commander in Chief China Station) laid the foundation stone for the seven-story China Fleet Club building. For the men who served on the China station ('The Old Blue' as it was known), it provided a place for refurbishment and decent accommodation away from the crowded ships.
During the battle for Hong Kong, the Japanese occupied the club using it as the naval HQ. The club was extensively refurbished and returned to its former use after the Royal Marines and Royal Navy liberated the colony. During the Korean war, the club became a major rest and recreation centre for UK and allied sailors. During the Vietnam War, allied and American sailors used the club extensively between tours of duty boosting club profits.
Land values escalated, and the trustees sold the air space over the club. A developer paid for temporary facilities while building a new luxury club on the first nine floors, with 14 more floors of office space above. Fleet house opened and because of the agreement to hand back Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, the search began for a suitable successor to the China Fleet Club in the UK.
A proposal to build the China Fleet Country Club in Saltash, Cornwall was put to the Hong Kong sailors committee and Trustees. The feasibility study was approved by the Hong Kong sailors committee, the land was purchased, and design of the complex began. Building work started on the 180-acre Saltash site. The new China Fleet Country Club was officially opened on June 1st, 1991 along with its prestigious golf course, designed by Dr Martin Grant Hawtree. On 30th November 1992, the Hong Kong China Fleet Club closed its doors for the last time ready for the Chinese to take over Hong Kong.
The China Fleet Country Club goes from strength to strength, opening its doors to civilians in 1994, to constantly extending and refurbishing year on year. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2016 by receiving a visit by HRH Princess Anne the club was rededicated to commemorate this event. The story continues…
What's in the shed
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D greens mower x 2
Toro's Greensmaster TriFlex 3400 greens mower
Cushman Turf Truckster
Toro ProCore 648
Toro Reelmaster 3100D triplex mower
Toro Reelmaster 3100D Sidewinder
Jacobsen Fairway 305 mower x 2
Toro Groundsmaster 4500-D semi-rough mower
Bobcat zero-turn mower
Iseki TK538 with Lewis front loader
John Deere 6x4 Gator x 2
SISIS Variseeder/Sorrel roller
Turfco Widespin topdresser
SISIS Rotorake TM1000 deep scarifier
True-Surface vibrating green roller
Accu-Pro fertiliser spreader
Gambetti 600 litre sprayer
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXI8
Wessex leaf collector
Magnum BR600 leaf blower x 2
Mountfield rotary mower
5-gang ball collector
Ryan Turf Cutter
Stihl M5 251 chainsaw
Husqvarna 135 chainsaw
Chapin Knapsack sprayer x 2
Elite Pro Edger