Set in beautiful parkland, in the Vale of Glamorgan, Brynhill Golf Club is a picturesque 18-hole course. Managed for the last fourteen years by Course Manager Iain Grant, he talks us through his career and the maintenance of this stunning course.
Apparently, farmers don't make good greenkeepers, possibly due to differing philosophies, however Iain Grant made that transition and proved to be a bit of an exception.
Iain's greenkeeping journey started in 1990 at Alyth Golf Club, when his father retired from there. His dad was a big inspiration and brought Iain up to be hard working and honest, which has stayed with him ever since, and provided a good foundation for career progression. Iain worked at Alyth for nine years, before moving to his first Head Greenkeeper position at Strathlene Golf Club in Buckie and then on to his current position at Brynhill Golf Club.
There are a lot of challenges to deal with on this 6354 yards, par 72 course. For the golfer, the course is very undulating and underground it's heavy blue clay, which presents a lot of drainage issues. In summer, (in the words of Iain) it produces a grass factory and, in winter, it's obviously very wet and creates many issues and challenging conditions to deal with.
The course covers approximately 80 ha; 1 ha of greens, 2 ha of aprons, 18 ha of fairways and an estimate of 40 ha of semi-rough. The rest comprises tree sections, woodland (which is designated SSSI) and ponds.
Meet the team
Helping Iain with the daily tasks and challenges are a team of just three, with varying degress of experience. Cain Rees, 26, NVQ level 2, with seven years experience; Joe Hawkins, 20, NVQ level 2, with four years experience and unqualified Matt Nethercott, 20, who has worked on and off for around three years. Iain himself has a National Certificate in Greenkeeping and a HNC in Golf Course Management, obtained at Dundee College, as well as Spraying Certificates, Chainsaw qualification, First Aid certificate (making him responsible for all aspects of health and safety on the course) and he's also an Industry Assessor with a D32/33.
Until June this year, the club employed five full time staff but were reduced to four when one of the guys moved to another club and wasn't replaced. Last summer, they reached a team of six with a temporary guy for the summer months. Iain commented "I guess it's a sign of the times that staff are cut back, and I must admit that, in my time in the job, it's probably tougher now than it ever has been."
Back on the course, the current hole layout was designed by David Thomas, famous for the Ryder Cup design of the Belfry Brabazon Course. Greens are divided between ten traditional push-ups and eight sand based greens. "It was initially quite a challenge to get similar playability in both types of green due to different nutritional needs, but I think we are pretty close now," said Iain.
"The push-up greens need a lot more aeration and are slit and verti-drained much more frequently than the sand based greens.
We do spring maintenance in March, which is usually hollow coring and topdressing, followed by a similar regime in September, but we also verti-drain then too."
"We have been installing drainage in and around our push-up greens over the past few years, and have recently placed an order for an AFT Sandbander to improve playability. We also have an irrigation system on the greens, which was originally installed in the early 1970s, but in the last few years we have had a new pumping system and tank installed by AV Irrigation. It has also been rewired with a Hunter controller and the team have replaced almost all sprinklers and valves in the past few years. It is a continual work in progress."
Iain continued: "We have had problems with our 12th hole, due to lack of light, but tree thinning has made a huge difference on that hole. On the whole, we are fairly lucky that we don't suffer regularly from any natural occurences, although the river at the bottom of the course does flood now and again. Luckily, it doesn't cause much damage."
It comes as no surprise that, during the season, cutting takes up the bulk of the time given such a small team and such a large area to cover.
Greens are cut daily at heights of between 3mm-5mm, depending on conditions, with a Toro 3250D. Tees and approaches are cut twice a week at 10mm with a Toro 3100D. Fairways are cut twice a week with a Toro 5610D at 14mm. Semi-rough is cut at between 37-50mm, again depending on conditions. It's cut shorter during spells of heavy growth and use a Toro 4700D. This machine is also used in tree sections periodically, as they do not have a suitable smaller machine to carry this out at the moment.
"Both our smaller, ageing machines are out of service and beyond economic repair," says Iain. "It's a case of make do with what we have, and I'm sometimes very envious of clubs with an abundance of equipment at their disposal. Especially as visual comparisons are made between clubs with little regard for what they have to present the course with."
"In regards to annual regimes, we have two maintenance weeks per year; March and September. We core and vertidrain greens in September followed by topdressing.Overseeding is generally carried out during the September aeration week, using all bent seed. Aeration is very much kept to autumn/winter with as much regular slitting being carried out on greens, tees and the approaches."
"Weeds are sprayed on fairways and surrounds once a year, and I leave this as late as possible so that we only have to do it once. It's a combination of necessity, due to lack of funds, and I'm not a heavy user of pesticides. I tend to spray diseases as a last resort and only if other methods don't work. Weeds are also sprayed annually, in spring, on fairways and surrounds. Anything appearing on greens is hand weeded. We spray twice a year with chlorpyrifos for leatherjackets, but that has now been withdrawn so I'm looking into alternatives that don't cost the earth."
Diseases and Ecology
The main disease outbreak on the course is Fusarium, although they have also had a few instances of dollar spot over the last few years, in certain hot spots.
There is an abundance of wildlife on the course ranging from small birds to insects and butterflies. Iain considers that, generally, butterflies are a good indicator of how well balanced your ecology is. The ponds are also full of wildlife with newts, toads, frogs and all sorts of insects. There is a lot of dragonfly and damsel fly activity in summer too.
"Luckily, we don't have much of a problem with pests, but worms are a problem on tees. And moles can be a bit of a nuisance near the perimeter of the course where they come from farmland around the edge of the course. I control the worms using carbendazim, as required, but it's just a 'spray when I have to approach' rather than a programmed one."
"As far as pest control goes, we are lucky in the fact that we don't have a rabbit problem and we control moles by trapping and using Aluminium Phosphide."
"Control of diseases is generally cultural, through aeration and trying to keep the soil healthy. I'm a great believer in using seaweed products and it goes on almost every time the sprayer is out. I generally spray a fungicide once a year and I will monitor a disease outbreak rather than spray immediately. I usually verti-cut and use an application of iron first, then use a fungicide, but only if the iron doesn't work."
"In terms of changing weather climates, I don't think it affects what we do but it certainly can have a big influence on when we do it. I'm finding that no two years are the same or, in some years, not even similar, and a great deal of flexibility is required in working practices."
This is when an 'all hands to the pump' approach comes in handy and Iain's team are able to turn their skill set to everything. This gives them more variety in their job and provides Iain with the much needed flexibility. However, Iain also commented that it's getting more and more difficult to get funding for training, so this is mainly done in-house and also the main reason why the club is not in a position to currently offer apprenticeships.
Iain said: "I do try to send the guys out to shows and exhibitions whenever possible, but not as often as we once did. I think reduced staff and budget cutbacks make it more difficult to get time to attend these."
Projects helped by members
Over the past couple of years, the tees have been rebuilt and these were completed last year with the final six.
The club is just about to embark on secondary drainage and are currently awaiting delivery of an AFT Sandbander which was funded by a levy on the members and other fundraising events in the club.
Members are always keen to interact and find out what's going on and Iain is always more than happy to talk to them and notify them of news, developments and plans through notice boards posts around the clubhouse. Iain recognises that social media is really important and reaches a large number of club members and wider target audience via Facebook.
Finance and budgets
All of the maintenance work, be it annual or day to day, is heavily affected by budgets... even down to depths and hole spacings of aeration, which is determined by how much topdressing Iain can afford.
Iain continued: "I used to have a budget, which I presented to the Committee for approval, but more recently, due to the difficult times and cutbacks, money has become fairly tight and it's now an ongoing discussion with my greens chairman."
"I am responsible for controlling spending on all aspects of the day to day running of the course which includes wages, machinery lease, course maintenance, machinery maintenance and fuel. I have become very resourceful and pretty much everything now is done in-house. We beg, steal and borrow equipment to carry out our work. We have an arrangement with a neighbouring club where we share equipment and I think this is the way forward when times are hard. In my opinion, presentation is everything but it's difficult to achieve targets due to pressures on finance."
"In general, I think that golf has been hit very hard by the recession and recovery is slow, if at all! Many course managers face the difficulty of slashed budgets and staff cutbacks while expectations of course conditions are still as high as ever. It puts a lot of extra pressure on people to achieve the almost impossible."
"I find that, although some clubs are doing well, many are struggling to keep afloat and I personally think it will be quite a while until we see good recovery."
"There are few youngsters coming into the game and the average age of members is increasing. Younger golfers seem to be playing pay and play due to various reasons, whether it is lack of time or cash. Clubs need to realise that it's no longer the club that dictates the market, as in the past, but the golfer is now dictating and they will play where and how is convenient to them."
"We are very much undervalued! I hear similar stories regularly from greenkeepers and course managers of high expectations with little gratitude or support. All too often, we are expected to produce the almost impossible TV standards, with little or no budget and are being 'guided' by committees who have very little understanding of what is involved in the job."
"In order to raise the greenkeeper's profile, I would like to see governing bodies, such as the R&A support greenkeeping more strongly. BIGGA could also have more input, but they are so often thought of in a similar light to greenkeepers and aren't listened to by clubs. It's also difficult with so much isolation and so many different employers to get a mass message across. This is why I think that the R&A could help greatly."