For twenty-two and a half years, Mark Broughton has resided as Course Manager of Suffolk's Aldeburgh Golf Club. It takes something special, and perhaps someone special, to stay at a club for over two decades, and on the drive towards the Suffolk coastline, it is plain to see the attraction.
Mark Broughton, the retiring Course Manager
On arrival at Aldeburgh Golf Club in mid-September, the early morning mist is still hiding much of the gorse lined course, with only the Edwardian clubhouse in full view. During a walk of the eighteen holes with Mark - a well spoken, funny and passionate greenkeeper - the mist soon lifts and everything England's second oldest heathland course has to offer comes into sight. The view of the Alde Estuary and the course characteristics, such as the snaking sleeper faced bunkers come to life on this warm, cloudless morning. With two coffees on the clubhouse terrace overlooking the course, it's time to find out precisely what has kept Mark here for so long and why now is the right time for him to retire.
"I think what has kept me here is that there has always been another challenge," Mark begins. "The club has always had the attitude of wanting to develop and move on, so in twenty-two years we've never sat back and gone that's it, job done, this will do us. There has never been a thought of that, it's always been what can we do next."
"There have been various course reviews over time, with construction work, lengthening the course and tightening it up in places. So you get the challenges with that and then you have a big event on the horizon and you have a couple of years building up to it. So there's always something to look forward to."
"This year, in the absence of Covid-19, would have been a fairly quiet year, at least that was the plan," Marks says, laughing. "I gave a year's notice so I could have a year where there wasn't much on, and I could quietly drift off towards retirement. But we got one of the biggest challenges that I've ever faced, which is dealing with the Covid-19 situation. Especially going through lockdown trying to keep the course in good order with a very limited number of people."
"The other thing is that I fell in love with the place. Opportunities have come to move on, but I've always wanted to stay and carry on with what's going on. It's a lovely place to live, it's a beautiful site, the members are lovely which is comparatively rare when I speak to greenkeepers at Harrogate and other golf clubs. Many people are living in a world of constant hassle and unreasonable demands. At Aldeburgh, I'm very lucky to be working for a very nice bunch of people who know how to do it right. Discerning golfers who know what they want and are very clear about it which makes the job of being course manager comparatively simple because, in all of the time that I've been here, the philosophy of the club in terms of the conditions and presentation of the course has remained the same. Obviously, the goalposts are moving in that the standards we are trying to achieve are going up, but the basic philosophy of it being firm, fast and true all year round golf hasn't wavered in all of that time."
"Then you get to the stage where you think I'll happily stay here until I retire and, in two weeks, that will be it. I suppose as much as anything, the time seemed right. This is a demanding job, and I find myself more and more being utterly exhausted at the end of the golfing season. It's a combination of all sorts of things. I've got lots of things that I want to do during my retirement, so it's not like I fell out of love with greenkeeping or anything like that. I still like getting up in the morning, and I love being out here doing it. But we won the Golf Environment Award in 2019, and we had the Jacques Leglise trophy with the R&A, and it just seemed like a good time to bow out."
"Although, whilst going through this handover process over the last four weeks with Nick Nottingham who is taking over as Course Manager, I've questioned why I'm leaving. Especially now that there are some course developments with golf course architects Mackenzie and Ebert in the pipeline and possible changes to the golf course and exciting times ahead. But then Nick is twenty-odd years younger than me, and the difference in energy levels is plain to see."
New Course Manager Nick Nottingham
"So there's no doubt that you can sort of get to a stage..." Mark stops to consider his words before continuing. "At one point I considered working part time, maybe three days a week or something like that, but I don't think I could because I'd end up just doing five. It is a job that you think about all the time. I wake up in the morning, and I'm thinking about the golf course... and very often waking up in the night thinking about the golf course. You can't get away from it. And that's part of the joy of it, that it's all consuming, but it can be exhausting, and you can get to the stage where you think your health might suffer if you keep going."
Sitting overlooking the course, there is a lot for Mark to be proud of. During his interview for the role, the club outlined their ambitions to host top level amateur tournaments, and that ambition has been achieved. To do that, certain aspects of the course needed to be improved, but the club were keen for Mark to follow the low input methods they had been using.
Fortunately, Mark's previous experience meant he was just the man for the job. After completing his OND at Myerscough College, he worked at Royal Lytham before joining Henbury Golf Club as First Assistant in Bristol where his family are from. At the age of twenty-five, he took on his first Course Manager's role at Filton Golf Club where a small budget helped him hone his low input methods. Ten years as Course Manager at Morecambe Golf Club followed before he swapped one of the wettest areas of England for one of the driest.
"For me, and for the golf courses that I've worked on and certainly the ones that I've managed, low input has either been forced on me through budgetary constraints, or it was a choice because it was what worked for that particular golf club, and it certainly works here. If there's ever a golf course where you could apply Jim Arthur's principles, Aldeburgh is it."
"We work with relatively low inputs of everything. On average in recent years we've had between thirty and forty kilos of nitrogen per year on the greens, and possibly a similar amount on tees, and virtually nothing on fairways and other areas. However, we've started boxing off in recent years on the greens surround areas, so they get a little bit of fertiliser to compensate for that. So, low fertiliser, very few pesticides, and bit of selective weedkiller because, on courses like this, you tend to get quite a lot of clover in the fairways if you're not careful. Again, maybe one application a year of selective on areas that need it. Fungicide use, just no. I've been here twenty-two years, and we've never applied fungicide for fusarium, although we've applied it for things like fairy rings on little areas to try and deal with that."
"Irrigation-wise, we tend to keep things very dry. And, again, the sort of figures we'd be looking at before we start irrigating would be well down into the single figures percentage-wise. So, we'd get down to five or seven percent moisture before we started thinking about irrigation. Generally speaking, we are trying to run with the moisture between about ten and fifteen percent if we can, and that works very nicely. A lot of golf courses' greens would be a disaster area at that sort of level but with deep rooting fine grasses, lots of fescue, it works for us."
"It's very niche and something I'm very well aware will not work at the vast majority of golf courses in the country. Starting here, I needed to develop a feel for the place. When I first arrived, I was lucky in that there were members of staff here who had been here a long, long time and were able to steer me in the right direction. It is so out on a limb that you're not going to get the experience of doing these sorts of things apart from on a tiny number of golf courses around the country that have got similar sorts of conditions and can get away with the same things. So I'd see the greens getting a little bit brown and think do we need a bit of irrigation now and I'd be told by the experienced staff that we could keep going a few more days."
"And some of that is understanding the needs of the agronomic side of things, but it's also understanding the requirements of your particular set of golfers because what the Aldeburgh member sees as great conditions, firm and fast, at many golf courses they wouldn't accept it. The greens would be too hard and too firm, and in lots of places they want them to be receptive, so the ball stops reasonably easily. It's a double whammy really, you're looking at the members' requirements that are a little bit different from the average golf course and what actually works here. It takes a little while, but once you're into it, you get to a stage where you know that you can go a few more days without irrigation and everything will be fine."
"The other low input side of things is the frequency of cut and heights of cut because it all relates. If you are cutting really low on your greens, it is probably going to compromise your rooting depth and you're probably going to need a bit more water and fertiliser, and you're almost certainly going to need some more fungicide. So, we tend not to do lots of aggressive verti-cutting on greens or any of those sort of practices that are stressful on the turf. It's sensible heights of cut, minimal brushing, minimal verti-cutting and grooming."
"We don't use a roller much. In fact, we haven't used one at all this year which is slightly odd because, in recent years, we've tended to use it a bit more for tournament prep. But then, even for that, we've looked at other ways of getting the greens into tournament condition, but they're never really far away from it anyway, and that's part of the key. You don't have to do too much work to get them in tournament condition. You generally only need to up the frequency of cut and do a bit more hand mowing."
For Mark, bringing the course on the way he has is all about everything gelling together. Everything from the type of fertiliser to how wide the greenkeepers turn when cutting makes a difference, and it isn't just the golf specific areas such as fairways and greens that he concentrates on. The club was named the Environmental Golf Club of the Year in 2019, and maintaining the wider ecology of the land is important to the members, the club and Mark.
The course is situated between two nature reserves, Hazelwood Marsh and North Warren RSPB and hosts annual course walks for members that are always oversubscribed. Despite the link between wildlife and golf performance not being initially obvious, Mark believes that every aspect has its part to play when it comes to the success of the course.
"We do invest a lot of time and effort into it, so it is nice to have it recognised, but I certainly don't do it for that. I always took part in the Golf Environment Awards because I thought it was good for the industry. It's a showcase for the good environmental work that is done and that is the important part about it. It's not whether you win or not, it's about the fact you are demonstrating to people outside of the industry that golf can be really, really good for the environment."
"And we have a great working relationship here with the Wildlife Trust and others. Suffolk Wildlife Trust come along and give us some advice, and we are a county wildlife site, so they are very interested about what goes on here."
"To me personally, it's very important and, to the club, I think it is important too because it's a heathland golf course and it's part of the character of it. There are a lot of members here and lots of them are very interested in the wildlife and there's always quite a bit of chat about what's around, especially when the nightingales are singing along the woodland edge in May. Everybody loves it."
"Even those golfers who would profess not to be interested in the wildlife and things like that, you can be sure that at some level they are enjoying the bird song in the spring and the fact that there are some wildflowers in the rough and semi-rough. So, again, it's a different focus. Our semi-rough in the spring will be full of sheep's sorrel, which a lot of golf courses might say is a weed, but for us it's part of the spring look of the course, that red tinge to it, and it plays well."
"You get good lies in it, it's not like its big cabbages you're dealing with. It's part and parcel of running a place like this, it's about everything adding up, it's not just greens, fairways and bunkers, we are maintaining the whole site to create an experience for the members and visitors. It's another example of how things are interrelated in that if we don't manage the gorse, then rabbit numbers increase dramatically and then we'd get a lot of rabbit damage on the fairways and scraping in bunkers and all the work that is involved in that."
"I don't really separate out the environmental side and the golf course maintenance. You are maintaining a heathland golf course and, if you're doing it right then you're doing the environmental side of it as well; it's just part of it. And almost all of it has some agronomic benefit or a golfing benefit. So the work we do to cut and collect in the roughs gives us the wispy rough that enables a golfer to find the ball, but for it also to be a bit of a challenge to make that choice whether they are going to play towards the pin or go out sideways. You want the rough to be wispy enough that you're tempting people to take too much club out of it with a five iron when really they should be taking an eight iron or a wedge."
"It could be defined as environmental work with golfing benefits or as golf course maintenance with environmental benefits. It's the same for gorse thinning and the removal of saplings, but that's looking longer-term where you're looking at golf in ten years' time. By taking a sapling out by the side of the green you're ensuring that shade and lack of air movement isn't a problem in a few years' time. You're often juggling everything, and there's almost too much to do on a site like this, there's no doubt you could have twenty staff here and still have everybody busy all the time. But most greenkeepers would tell you they could use fifty percent more staff than what they've got!"
As an hour-long conversation on life as a greenkeeper draws to a close, Mark's enthusiasm, dedication and love for the profession have shone through. A lot of what he speaks about regards how the industry and those around him can improve and develop, and so it comes as little surprise when he cites the development of the people he has worked with as something he is particularly proud of.
"When I arrived, the course was in a bit of a state. The greens were already pretty good, but the fairways were shocking, and the bunkers and tees needed a lot of work, so the improvement has been general. There's been new construction work, tees and bunker developments with golf course architect, Ken Moodie, that we've been doing over a number of years that have really transformed the course. But I think it has been that steady improvement which is the way things tend to go on a heathland golf course. You don't get rapid results at a place like this, the growth is slow, so you're in for the long haul."
"That's what I like, the general development of the course over time and, of course as part of that, the development of the staff over time, and the joy of seeing a deputy course manager going on to get a course manager's job elsewhere, it's just great."
"I'm lucky at the moment because I've probably got the strongest team that I've ever had. We were talking on the walk earlier about how the job has changed and how there's a lot more office-based admin type work now, but one of the things I've always really enjoyed is the training and development side of it. Developing a team and their individual skills and getting everybody working together to lift the whole place. You can have all the best machinery, a decent budget and all that sort of thing, but if you haven't got a really good team, then you won't have a great golf course."