"It's been a quiet evolution rather than a revolution. I'm mindful that golfers still want to play the course"
With a father who was, for many years, Course Superintendent at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, regular venue for the Irish Open, it is little wonder that Alec MacIndoe holds course presentation in such high regard.
Alec began his career at Stockley Park Golf Club, where he spent four years learning his profession, before moving on to Monkstown Golf Club, he then returned to Stockley as Course Manager for a further four years, before moving to Donnington Valley as Course Manager.
When he was appointed Head Greenkeeper at Newbury & Crookham Golf Club in 2005, he discovered a course that was in need of some serious TLC, and the work ethos he inherited from his father, David, has proved invaluable.
Newbury & Crookham sits between Newbury Racecourse and the old RAF Greenham Common airbase where, in the 1980s, it became the site of CND's Women's Peace Camp following the deployment of close to one hundred USAF cruise missiles. It is still possible to see a number of the old silos and command structures whilst walking the course, although the airfield has now returned to public open space and forms one of the largest SSSI sites in Berkshire.
Newbury & Crookham is one of the oldest golf courses in the county, having been laid out in the early 1870s through some of Berkshire's finest woodland and heathland.
"With seven golf clubs fighting for business in the area, competition is always going to be high," explains Alec. "I was mindful that the club needed to invest in their major asset - the golf course - with the emphasis being on improving the quality of the playing surfaces, enhancing the golfing landscape and investing in machinery."
"One of my first priorities when I arrived was to get to grips with the greens, making sure they would remain playable all year round. This involved a lot of cultural work to control thatch levels and improve porosity on soil push up greens, using up to 150 tonne of sand p/a."
"To help achieve this, I put my case to the committee for new machinery and a new irrigation system for the greens, tees and fairways. I also recommended undertaking some localised drainage work. To complement this work, I also instigated the refurbishment of all the bunkers out on the course (forty-six in total). This involved reshaping, revetting, draining and re-sanding."
" In truth, it's been a quiet evolution rather than a revolution. I'm mindful that golfers still want to play the course, even when there is work going on," says Alec.
With a healthy and growing membership, now nearing five hundred, Alec says that the club are now reaping the benefits, and he was keen to show me around to see the hard work he and his staff have put in and the results of their labours.
The club employs five full-time staff. Michael Cox is Alec's assistant head greenkeeper, with Jeff Drake, David Bartholomew and Jack Andrew completing the team. Mechanic Brian Levington is employed on a part-time basis, two days a week.
My first port of call was to see one of the latest projects currently being undertaken, the reconstruction of the tees on the first, for which Alec had employed the services of Speedcut Contractors to work alongside his staff.
" My team have helped to prepare the site by stripping off the old turf, which we'll reuse on other parts of the course, repairing bunkers, returfing worn areas and the like."
Work was well underway, with Speedcut's Andy Tidy and Martin Franks undertaking the primary soil modelling, power harrowing and setting the finished levels using their laser guided Blec grader.
"We purchased 800m2 of big roll turf which we laid ourselves, with the aim of getting all the work completed in four days. We were lucky with the change to drier weather, which was certainly a bonus, and enabled us to transport the sand and materials to the course without too much damage."
Alec and I then began our course walk so that I could see, at first hand, the layout and views of the course. What immediately struck me was the consistent colour of the greens and approaches. Alec explained that they had recently received a good dose of iron to control some moss, and to set them up for the spring renovation programme. I could also see the benefits of some previous deep aeration work, with new grass growing in the tine holes.
I was surprised to see how much winter work had been achieved considering the poor weather and ground conditions Alec and his team had faced throughout the winter. They had been busy clearing ditches, felling large trees and clearing out rough scrub areas to help regenerate the heather and gorse plantations.
"This work will certainly make a significant difference to the course," enthuses Alec. "The felling of a number of trees to enhance sight lines will have the biggest impact, but will also help to encourage and develop the natural environmental balance of the course. We are working closely with local wildlife and environmental agencies, and also looking at entering a partnership with The Conservation Volunteers [formerly the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers] to achieve this."
"We've also been refurbishing and rerouting paths and buggy tracks, using a range of materials including reinforced mesh systems, rubber crumb, redgra clay and clean stone. When I took over, there were winter trolley bans in place, however this is not the case anymore. It was simply a case of rerouting and diverting the paths to better areas of the course and then encouraging golfers to use them. It's certainly helped speed up play and also reduced damage to the course."
At the time of my visit, Alec was about to begin his spring renovations. "This will revolve around our tried and tested robust programme of aeration, topdressing and fertilising. All the greens will be hollow cored with 19mm tines, topdressed with ninety tonnes of sand and fed a liquid spring fertiliser."
"Tees get a similar renovation; hollow coring with 12mm tines and applying forty tonnes of topdressing before oversowing with a Barenbrug bent and fescue seed mixture, whilst the approaches are hollow cored and topdressed every three years."
The greens are mown on a daily basis and turf ironed once or twice a week in the growing season. "I prefer to hand cut the greens all year round," explained Alec. "We use John Deere 220 cylinder mowers for this, only using the triple greens mower at weekend or at particularly busy times. I keep them at 5mm in the winter and 3mm in the summer."
"Tees and approaches are maintained at 12mm in the winter and 10mm in the summer and mown two or three times a week depending on growth. Fairways are kept at 14mm all year round and mown twice a week, whilst the semi rough and rough are kept at 40mm and 75mm respectively. Areas of deep rough and rough are thinned out with a cut and collect regime on a two year cycle."
"My feeding programmes are centred around a regular liquid programme using a combination of different tank mixes depending on the time of the year and the needs of the grass plant. I've had a portable, lightweight sprayer boom made that connects to the bulk tank sprayer on the John Deere Gator; this reduces the impact of running heavy machinery on the surfaces when spraying."
"Aeration is carried out regularly," continues Alec. "The greens are aerated every month using our Wiedenmann XF Terra Spike fitted with 8mm solid tines. We also slit knife during the winter on a weekly basis (weather permitting) to keep them open. We'll run the Terra Spike over the tees and approaches - and certain areas of the fairway - when either time allows or conditions dictate."
"The installation of the irrigation system has certainly given me more control out on the course, although it wasn't needed that much last summer! It is designed to cover tees, greens, approaches and fairways. The system is fed from a large borehole from which we can access up to 20,000 cubic metres of water p/a, storing it in a large reservoir that holds 1.2 million cubic metres."
Alec reports regularly to the club's manager Edward Richardson and Greens Chairman Tony Hammond both of whom, he says, work very hard to support him and his staff.
"This is a very important aspect of my job," states Alec. "Without their understanding of the work required to improve the course, it would have been more difficult to get the members to understand what, why and when the work was required. Their support and patience in allowing me the time to turn the course around has been invaluable. Now we are starting to see the fruits of our labours, with the greens performing really well. They are now playable for most of the year and I rarely have to use temporaries."
"Bunkers and tees have improved immensely and the fact that, on average, around one hundred and fifty golfers are seen playing the course on a daily basis is testament to how far we have progressed."
"The aesthetics and presentation of the course has altered considerably, with attention to detail being at the forefront to promote the course in its best light and to increase the diversity of flora and fauna seen out on the course. It all helps to enhance the golfing experience," states Alec.
On top of this, the club, at the beginning of this year, took over the management contract of the Newbury Golf Centre at the racecourse, as part of a major redevelopment plan. "I'm thrilled to be part of this," enthuses Alec. "Currently, they have 18 holes and the only driving range in Newbury. It is a very busy spot and is the perfect starter course for all categories, as well as an easy walk for the slightly older generation!"
"There's a team of three greenkeepers, well managed by Richard Holmes. My role will be to oversee the current greenkeeping team, whilst trying to introduce some subtle differences to help create a golf course that can act as a feeder to Newbury & Crookham. There will also be some design and construction work carried out as part of the improvements, so it really will be a major project for all concerned."
It goes without saying that the two courses are in very capable hands and the future looks bright under Alec's leadership.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 220SL PrecisionCut mowers x 3
John Deere 8800 TerrainCut rough and semi rough mower
John Deere 7700 PrecisionCut fairway mower
John Deere 2500E Hybrid greens triple mowers x 2 (greens/tees/approaches)
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D Sidewinder
Toro 3250-D Greensmaster (cassette system)
Wiedenmann XF Terra Spike aerator
John Deere 35 tractor
New Holland 75 tractor
Hunter Jupiter Grinder