Whitstable Golf Club - The Suttle approach!

Greg Rhodesin Golf

Steve Suttle has trodden a rocky road from early aspirations as an assistant pro golfer to head greenkeeper of challenging Kentish courses. Greg Rhodes hears how he survived and thrived.

From his early teens, golf was Steve Suttle's first love. "I must have had some ability," he states, "as, despite having had no tuition, I managed to get down to a 4 handicap at 15 (and won the under-16 Surrey Championship in 1974), moving to East Kent in 1975 following a family relocation."

"Then, in early 1978, I was horrified to view a video recording of my swing and, after some soul searching, decided that the years of practice that it would need to remedy my rather unconventional action wouldn't be a viable option, as I love playing but not practising."

Therefore, after a few days' consideration, he resigned his position. By chance, there happened to be a vacancy on the greens staff at North Foreland which he took up.

Now heading a greens team of just two at 9-hole Whitstable & Seasalter Golf Club, Steve recalls his journey of transformation.

He had been an assistant professional at various clubs in East Kent, including North Foreland Golf Club in Broadstairs for two and a half years. "North Foreland is a prestigious course, he explains, "hosting the final qualifying rounds for the Open Championships on four occasions, when it was held at Royal St George's."

"I knew nothing about greenkeeping then, of course, but soon developed a keen interest in how the golf course was maintained."

"I read many articles by R&A agronomist Jim Arthur and realised we were not doing what he advocated." Steve held a few lively discussions with head greenkeeper Peter Wisbey; "a very knowledgeable guy".

"He had the humility and courage to change the way he managed the course and that's when I learnt the art and skill of proper greenkeeping."

The team stopped fertilising the fairways and started deep-slitting the greens. "We soon saw the benefits - healter turf," Steve recalls. Eventually, he rose to deputy head greenkeeper and Peter started encouraging him to seek head posts elsewhere.

The course's proximity to the sea causes salt issues

"In 1984, I decided to leave North Foreland having secured the position of head greenkeeper at picturesque Sene Valley."

"I'd gone from a free-draining clifftop chalk downland at North Foreland to drainage issues at Sene Valley, where the lowest of its three levels was often waterlogged during the winter months. When I cut the holes, I unearthed five different types of construction in the greens!"

Steve had to adapt the irrigation to allow for the different types of construction, which meant a lot of hand watering in the summer months.

After introducing proper greenkeeping practices at Sene Valley, Steve left after five and a half years. "It was a difficult course to manage but excellent experience. During my time there, I had the pleasure of an advisory visit from Jim Arthur who assured me I was on the right lines."

In 1989, Steve returned to North Foreland as head greenkeeper. "Peter had left in 1987 to manage San Lorenzo course in Portugal, prior to a spell at the English Golf Union's two courses at their Woodhall Spa complex. Peter gave me the opportunity to learn proper greenkeeping and I will always be grateful to him for that."

"Jim Arthur's principles of greenkeeping are based on good practice and sustainability, and these principles will always hold true."

"Greenkeeping is all about encouraging the right grasses," Steve states, "the bents and fescues - and ridding the course of poa annua where possible, to develop an infertile, well-structured and drained soil."

Steve manages courses to favour fine grasses because these will improve the course over time and that's the strategy at Whitstable. "It's an austere regime but is working, and that means more quality golf for more of the year here."

Steve Suttle with his 'team' Seth Divine (left)

Steve spent sixteen and a half years as head at North Foreland, overseeing the Open final qualifying rounds held there in 1993 and 2003.

He left in April 2005 "for non-greenkeeping reasons" at a stressful point in his career. "I was on medication but that didn't do the trick so, in spite of North Foreland's best efforts, I could see no way out at that point, so I resigned and started tending private gardens. That was the road to recovery I needed."

After two years out, Steve began to miss greenkeeping but then had a chance conversation with a member of North Foreland who knew the secretary at Whitstable.

"One thing led to another, resulting in my acquiring the position when the incumbent greenkeeper reached retirement age. This is a modest, unpretentious and friendly private members golf club. There's been no resident professional here since the 1970s."

Whitstable's ground is diametrically opposed to North Foreland, Steve reports, "from clifftop, free-draining chalk to low-lying London clay."

Positioned just yards from the seafront, Whitstable serves as a link from the promenade to the town via a causeway running across the course, skirting the old sea defences.

In his early days, after vandals had damaged one of the greens sited near the London main rail link that runs along the perimeter, Steve was using a 9in turf renovator to repair the putting surface when "to my horror, I saw that blue clay - the kind used to make pottery - lay underneath."

The causeway remains a cause for concern for Steve. "Kids pinch tee markers, and flags are thrown in the dykes lining the course. That's why we don't have expensive flags and tee markers."

Aerial View of the course / Beach huts fringe parts of the course

Steve lives fifteen miles from the course with wife Christine, his two daughters Jennifer and Abigail having now flown the nest. His work is paying off though. "I've been amazed how much the greens have improved, bearing in mind they are push-up clay, mostly with poor natural drainage."

And the club can rightly claim that it is part of a national resurgence in 9-hole courses, as demand grows for fast-track golf squeezed into busy schedules.

Steve's austere regime is one of choice. "I have never oversown the greens at Whitstable," he states. "I find it doesn't work long term. I don't believe in gimmicks - you don't need to if you manage the greens in the right ecological manner. It's all about creating the right conditions to give the fine grasses a competitive advantage."

When an STRI agronomist assessed the course in 2014, her verdict brought good news. "The greens turf was predominantly agrostis with fescue on all greens with diminishing poa annua and deemed very healthy. That was music to my ears."

When we spoke, Steve had just suffered "the three wettest months I've ever known here". As many as five of the greens become unplayable for short periods when they become saturated in winter. "We have pre-prepared temporary greens for these occasions. We use winter mats as the ground is too wet between December and the end of February. Some golfers want to play year-round, but it's just not practical when the course is waterlogged."

"Saltings existed here, when the land was farmed - mainly potatoes. The ground is original ridge and furrow. Across the fairways, when the ground reaches field capacity in the winter, these furrows collect water when it rains hard."

Weather extremes only serve to aggravate matters. "Last year, we had an incredibly dry March," says Steve. "In the summer, the clay baked and split. Areas where we had slit started to gape."

The new clubhouse opened in February 2020 - just in time for lockdown!

The greens are kept very firm and dry due to the minimal watering regime during the season, and making a pitchmark is difficult unless substantial rain falls!

"When artificial irrigation is being used, if a ball breaks the surface it is a sure sign that it is being overwatered. Overwatering is the cardinal sin of greenkeeping."

The Stimpmeter Steve bought in the 1980s is still in its box. "I've never used it," he admits, "because it would be a rod for my back if I did! We never cut lower than 4.5mm in season and I go up to 6mm in winter."

"You hear about clubs cutting to 2mm. That's not healthy for sure and there is probably only Poa Annua as a result. That's not proper greenkeeping to me."

The greens are cut daily in the season and verticut weekly; "just deep enough so marks show for a week", says Steve. "A fair amount of ryegrass is present, which shouldn't be there I know. I manage it as best I can. From April to September, we apply monthly applications of Seamac ProTurf, Revolution wetting agent and PrimoMaxx growth retardant to encourage a denser sward. It works for me."

A fan of Fendress - one of Jim Arthur's old faithfuls - Steve has used it since 1984. "The best, in my view," he states. "Mixing in a little 8.0.0 fertiliser gives me the perfect mix for spring and summer application, but I don't apply fertiliser in the autumn."

"We slit when we can during the autumn and winter," Steve explains, "deep slitting with the Huxley multi-depth aerator, with 9in tines. Maintenance week is mid-September, when a contractor vertidrains all the main playing areas - 10-12 inches on greens, tees and surrounds, less depth on fairways." His preferred divot mix is a Banks sandy loam with fescues, bent and smoothstalk meadowgrass seed.

Then there's the fairy rings he has to contend with. "Marasmius oreades - grade one rings produce bare patches and lush growth on the edges, luckily appear mostly in the rough. We had small ones on greens and surrounds. We dug out the infected soil and replaced with fresh soil and returfed the areas. Fungicides didn't really work, even before they were banned."

Whitstable Bay showing the railway line that dissects the course

"We knuckle down to the task every autumn/winter, digging out the affected soil. We dump the infected soil on an unused corner of the course," Steve explains.

The rings are much more apparent in dry than wet weather, rain disguises them to some degree, he continues, adding: "We even had to reshape some fairways to avoid them."

Drainage issues strike at the heart of Whitstable's upkeep. The course lies on 95% London clay, and 5% shingle at the furthest point, under the 5th and 6th double green, featuring a ridge. "That end of the course drains extremely well," notes Steve, "but we've had to add drainage across the course, including the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th fairways, with more planned in the future."

There are plentiful dykes and channels on and around the course. "A great boon to drain into", declares Steve. Golf maintenance week includes the vertidraining and additional drainage installation in the worst-hit areas.

In the past, the course would have been closed for weeks on end after heavy rain in the winter, but that is no longer the case.

"This is a flat site around about sea level and, because of the lie of the land, we can only lay drains [usually 100mm diameter] in the furrows present when the course was seeded over one hundred years ago."

As Steve's priority is good husbandry, the course policy document emphases leaving more long rough areas; "better for wildlife," he states.

"We spray only once or twice a year for disease on the greens, with Instrata Elite, or Dualitis fungicide to tackle the annual outbreaks of fusarium. Any Red Thread - a sign of infertility - I put less emphasis on."

Around the shed, car park and perimeter fences, the team applies total herbicide with a Cooper Pegler CP15 knapsack sprayer twice a year to control weeds and vegetation.

Seth and Steve outside the clubhouse

Trees generally fail to thrive, "but eucalyptus certainly does". White poplars, planted in 1980, predominate but they do have one drawback. "Their white leaves can hide the ball. We've planted gorse between the first and second holes in the deep rough. It took ages to establish itself but has finally done so."

Wear management is a priority in the winter months. "It's one of my most important tasks and there's a real need for it here, and anywhere with high wear," he notes. "Prevention is better than cure as they say. Every course suffers wear but you have to search it out on the better ones. As soon as we spot wear, we tackle it, putting out white lines, hoops, stakes and ropes for traffic management in that order."

He also runs a tier system for buggy use. "When the ground's too wet, we initially ban the large buggys then the smaller ride-ons and the electric trolleys, then finally the pull trolleys which mean, as a last resort, the golfers have to carry. This is not a popular policy and my popularity tends to wane at these times!"

He accepts that daily decisions on whether to impose course restrictions "can be stressful and can rebound on you from members."

"We leave a message on the club answerphone in winter. Someone will pick it up and they can then contact members via social media. Some may say it's an unwieldly system, but it works."

Whitstable's greens 'team' is Steve and his assistant Seth Divine, in his mid-40s. "He's been here almost as long as I have and had very little greenkeeping experience on arrival, just a local cricket club in Canterbury and a short work experience at the local Chestfield Golf Club."

"We both have PA1, 2 & 6 spraying qualifications. We make a very good team together and, in all these years, we've barely had a cross word which I think is a pretty good record. Seth is reliable and hardworking, I hope he gets the opportunity when I retire to replace me should he so wish. He knows exactly what we do, and why, and can carry on the greenkeeping practices that are slowly but surely transforming course playability."

"I do love my job but it can prove very difficult in winter. When the course is wet, sometimes you can only take a wheelbarrow out. I have changed the holes using that very tool!"

"We were both furloughed alternately on a weekly basis from last November to the middle of March, with little impact on the course condition, despite the long record breaking wet winter."

Steve has been running competitively for forty-one years

Wildlife diversity is uplifting, says Steve, but can bite back. "Plenty of foxes and rabbits, moorhens in the dykes and green woodpeckers returning every year. Seagulls persist in attacking the 2nd green, near the clubhouse. Only that one - peck, peck - takes hours to repair. The crows like to pull up any freshly laid turf too. We've bought hawks on poles for £50 a go and stick them on the green, which I can recommend as being 95% effective."

"The 1953 exceptionally high tides and bad weather left the course flooded to 8ft deep, leaving a residue of salt and, because of that, we have less of an issue with worm casts, which is just as well since Carbendazim was banned."

All Steve's turfcare machinery is second hand. "Virtually all my machinery is Toro as they stay on cut and their durability is incredible. However, last year, the club were able to purchase a Jacobsen fairway mower for a knock down price from a private sale," he states. "Lister Wilder service and repair the machinery. They do an excellent job keeping us up and running and will always help us out with any breakdowns."

A mere stripling at 63, Steve stays fit and health conscious. Living a walk away from North Foreland, where he is an honorary member and occasional player, Steve plays off 12 handicap. Steve also took up bowls a few years ago and now concentrates more on bowling than golf in the summer months. He runs year-round, partaking in races, usually throughout Kent.

"I'm in my 41st consecutive year of competing as a long distance runner," he says, "and still manage 30 to 50 miles weekly - it used to be 60 to 70 miles. I like to compete. As long as my joints are still sound, I'll carry on. I don't buy confectionery or snacks anymore and feel fantastic all the time." Surely testimony to the feel good factor that raised endorphin levels foster.

Steve returns to his favourite theme of Jim Arthur as we end our conversation. "I try to tweak maintenance in line with his methods and, to that end, I'm always learning and seeking to know more."

The course is still work in progress, Steve concludes, "but we like to think we provide the best possible playing conditions for as much of the year as possible". You cannot say fairer than that.

Seth Divine atop the Jacobsen TR3 - bought for a snip!

What's in the shed?

Toro 3250D Triplex greens mowers x 3
Toro 2300D fairways and semi-rough mowers x 3
Jacobsen TR3 diesel fairways mower - "bought for a snip from a private homeowner
Toro 223D outfront rotary for cutting rough at 100mm or semi rough at 50mm cut
Cushman Turf Truckster x 3 of varying sizes. One is an original 3-wheeler
Kubota L3250 tractor
Ford 1710 tractor
Huxley multi-depth aerator (fitted on the Cushman)
Hardi Boss 300L boom sprayer
All housed in a purpose-built shed erected next to the clubhouse in the 1990s

Fact file

Whitstable lies on the north-east coast of Kent, just along from Reculver village, where the Barnes Wallis 'Bouncing Bomb' was tested before 617 Squadron dropped it on Germany's Ruhr reservoir dams in the WW11 Dambusters raid.

The town's renowned native oysters, collected since Roman times from beds lying beyond tidal low water mark, graced many a fine restaurant, whilst the Saxons produced salt here.

Once a manor owned by the church, Seasalter suburb lies at the west end of the town, lending its name to the golf club, which opened in 1911 after creation from salt marsh and quickly drew local attraction.

Many a golfer may believe low scoring looks easy at Whitstable & Seasalter, which plays to 5,300 yards over 18 holes. However, this well-bunkered links course proves as tricky a prospect as many longer, more closely sand-trapped ones, thanks to blustery winds and the accuracy required to shoot the flags.

Lack of greens hazards makes it extremely difficult to judge the strength required for any approach shot, the club declares, while the springiness of the fairways makes the course play far longer than the card would indicate.

"There is little run on the drive except in the driest weather during summer," the club website states, adding: "accuracy is of far greater importance at Seasalter than mere strength."

Official opening of the new clubhouse

Signature hole is the Par 4 fifth - at 446 yards, it's long for a nine-hole course and Whitstable's hardest. It shares its green with the 6th, shortest, hole, and the double green is the most contoured on the course, with a large hogsback spine, splitting it into the two separate sides featuring humps and hollows.

This is a busy, friendly private members club, currently running some 400 members, who can enjoy a spread of golfing activity.

Ladies play on Tuesday mornings, with social golf on Thursdays. There's an active Mid-Weekers schedule, Sunday competitions and plenty of opportunity for the burgeoning juniors section on summer Monday evenings, social golf on Tuesday evenings during BST, club matches and captains' charities. Over-60s members qualify for the Old Salts, who play on Thursday mornings and compete in the Kent Veterans League

After a four-year project, begun following sale of a small parcel of land to facilitate planning permission to complete the initiative, Whitstable & Seasalter's impressive clubhouse opened February 2020 to wide acclaim for its architectural merit, before Covid lockdown cruelly slammed the doors shut.

However, Steve states that Covid-19 has played a "minimal" part in the course maintenance side of things.

After extending the old clubhouse - originally a small bungalow - over the years, the club decided it needed to start again from the ground up.

Clever, stylish, spacious design features a large glazed frontage facing west and overlooking the course to heighten natural light levels, even in winter.

Club rules forbid use of mobile phone calls inside, on the patio facing the 1st/10th tee and 9th green, and out on course.

"Silent browsing of texts and emails is permitted within the clubhouse," the rules state, however those with the urge to tech talk can seek the haven of the changing rooms, where they can indulge their habit.

Modernising Whitstable & Seasalter is timely indeed, taking advantage of the transformation of this stretch of Kent coastline to attract a varied demographic, who can pit their golfing wits against a compact though challenging course overlooking the sea.

The club attracts members from some distance away, while closure of a local course also helped swell numbers.

Article Tags: