Working with nature at Surbiton Golf Club

Jane Carleyin Golf

Not far from the roar of the M25 and the bustle of the commuter belt, Surbiton Golf Club is a verdant idyll, bounded on three sides by its own woodland. Established in 1895 and designed by Tom Dunn, the par 70 6075yd course attracts competitive, dedicated members, but as Course Manager Andrew Kerr explains, the focus is now on ecology as well as golf.

"With the challenges presented by extremes of weather and the loss of chemicals for pest control, we're aiming to manage the course to meet the high standards demanded by our members, but with respect for our environment. We're lucky that our committee is highly supportive of these aims and provides me with the resources to use measures such as cultural controls. We also want to take a more ecologically-focused approach to course improvements which will benefit the landscape as well as the golf."

An example of this was in evidence at the time of Pitchcare's visit, with a 22 tonne truck- mounted tree spade manoeuvring carefully around the course to transplant oaks alongside the 12th fairway.

"We're replacing conifers planted in the 1980s with native trees, which will come from donor sites around the course," Andrew explains. "We were keen to remove a mound on the 12th fairway, but retain the challenge of this hole; planting nine oaks to one side will require members to play straight!"

At the bottom of the seventh fairway, newly planted trees and a hedge will be joined by more transplanted oaks to screen development on adjacent land, again replacing conifers.

Working with nature will become increasingly important for golf courses as chemical options become fewer, Andrew suggests.

Left: Course Manager and Master Greenkeeper, Andrew Kerr

"Turf needs to be more resilient, which can come from using different grass species, but also from increased maintenance. We now cut and collect on the fairways as well as greens and tees; we still cut and drop on the rough, but this may change in the future, as a way to tackle thatch and organic matter that can lead to disease."

Starlings offer natural control of leatherjackets with their fine beaks more turf-friendly than those of crows or blackbirds; as sociable birds the best way to encourage them is to offer nest boxes close together, hence the Surbiton Starling Hotel!

Long grass which grew during Covid restrictions attracted owls and other wildlife so has been retained where possible; badgers are gently encouraged to favour the woodland rather than damage the turf.

The hard buggy path (installed in 2022) runs around the fairways rather than through them, offering better access for machinery and preserving those sweeping views.

Ecological improvements are taking place alongside golf's 'silly season' - spring renovations on tees, greens and approaches.

"We renovate in March, August and October, but will push the spring programme earlier if the weather allows," he exlpains. "Although the course is still plenty busy enough, members are more accepting of the work before spring arrives."

Due to the hectic schedule, contractor SJK comes in with his tractor and Weidenmann Terraspike for the spring work, while Andrew and his team spread sand, brush in and then hollow tine with a pair of Toro Pro Cores.

The greens team does the lion's share of renovation and construction work in-house, and Andrew's canny purchase of an ex-demo Blec Sandmaster means that low lying areas can be sand banded in optimum conditions. This has significantly improved the predominantly clay fairways.

After 40deg heat in July, 2022 offered one final twist with a wet and mild November, the trees hanging onto their leaves until the end of the year, which delayed the labour intensive process of leaf clearing and put paid to some of the planned development works. However, a project to upgrade the seventh tee did go ahead (pitcured above), replacing the worn turf with SIS grass as part of a pilot scheme.

"The par 3 tees get heavy wear, and we believe that using SIS grass will stabilise the surface. It's still possible to make a divot, but the fibres protect the crown of the plant. Rather than using mats, we get the best of both worlds as it offers a firm and flat surface for teeing off. It's been very well received already, and the grass will mature and grow through in the spring."

Requiring less vertidraining than a natural turf tee due to the open structure of the strands, the SIS grass surface is maintained in a similar way to a stadium pitch.

"We will need to koro off less often, maybe every two to three years which will prolong the life of the fibre," Andrew explains. "We'll mow a little tighter than the rest of the tees, to 11mm rather than 12mm. If this one is successful, we'll add more SIS grass tees in subsequent years."

As he points out, the intensive greenkeeping programme requires plenty of labour, and a recruitment drive has seen the team boosted to ten greenkeepers and a part time gardener this spring.

"One of the new starters has greenkeeping experience and the other worked in grounds maintenance and has transferable skills that we can add to with training. Recruitment is still very much an issue in this industry and we would have struggled to get two trained greenkeepers."

The club invests significantly in training, with two members of staff taking chainsaw qualifications and two more chemical application certificates this spring.

"It's the strong team that we need to look after this course to the standards required; the costs are high but the committee understands that."

Andrew has been at the club for six years, and has a background in agriculture which shapes some of his views on machinery and techniques. Hailing from County Antrim, he began his golf career in Northern Ireland and was awarded the title of Master Greenkeeper by BIGGA in 2018.

Potential plans for the future include reducing Surbiton's reliance on mains water by harvesting rainwater to use for irrigation, he explains.

"We are considering options such as collecting drainage water from two outlets from the land drains, as well as from building roofs and store it in a pre-cast tank which will be located under the car park. We may also be able to take water from the car park itself, although it will need treating. Phase one is to quantify the amount of water that can be obtained and the savings it will make."

The club is also exploring power generation: "We are considering the installation of solar panels that will go to battery storage, and as we are in the unusual position of having the clubhouse and workshop in close proximity, it will be relatively easy to share the power between the two. We're also looking to the future and the need to charge electrically-powered course maintenance machinery - we've just had some battery mowers on trial."

Another project is to build aggregate bays to store sand and other materials away from the car park, which was bursting at the seams with golfers even on a chilly February weekday. The club has taken the slightly unusual step of developing a private driving range for its members and academy.

"Phase one is complete and it's been warmly welcomed; there's one concrete pad in place and a second pad with grass tee is phase two."

"We have installed a 100m long, short game practice area in 2021 and we have upgraded the driving range in 2022. Pro Peter Roberts has plenty of facilities to help develop golf at the club, with enthusiastic and successful Junior section offering bright prospects for the future. They also hope to have a swing studio in the future."

"It's hectic - there's lots going on, but we just want to keep moving forwards," says Andrew.

Article by Jane Carley.

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