The Cavendish Golf Club in Buxton, Derbyshire, is a private members club with a current membership of 450.
The course was designed for the 9th Duke of Devonshire on his Buxton Estate by the renowned Dr Alister MacKenzie in 1923 and opened in 1925. It was sold to the members in 1953 following the death of the 10th Duke.
Cavendish was one of Alister MacKenzie's last UK commissions before he gained overseas contracts in Australasia, South America and the USA. In the early 1930s Alister made his home in the USA and died there in 1936. Two of the gang who worked on Cavendish also emigrated and worked for him at Cypress Point in California. It was after playing the latter course, and meeting Alister, that Bobby Jones invited him to design Augusta National, the home of the Masters.
By modern standards Cavendish is short at 5,721 yards; the golfer's shotmaking skills, not his power, provide the challenge that keeps players returning time and time again. In 1994, American golf course architect, Tom Doak, placed it amongst the top 100 courses in the world with a par under 70 - it is currently 68 - and also reckoned that the 10th was one of the eighteen best holes that weren't in anyone else's top 100 list!
On the club's website they proudly claim that "there are only two types of golfer; those who have played Cavendish, and those who wished they had" so, when an invitaion came from golf course architect, Jonathan Gaunt, to walk the course with Head Greenkeeper, Peter Smith, I jumped at the chance.
Also joining us were club historian, Richard Ratherton, and head professional, Simon Townsend, holder of the course record of 65 - just three shots under par. That suggests that the course, even though it is short, is a considerable challenge. Jonathan, himself an eight handicap, says that he finds it a major challenge.
We met in the bar (where else) and, whilst waiting for one of many rain showers to pass, talked about MacKenzies' design, the impressive layout that used the contours of the terrain to great effect, the small, undulating greens (a MacKenzie favourite), the sloping fairways and the positioning of tees. Throw in bunkers, out of bounds and rough close to greens, and the unpredictable Derbyshire weather, and it is no wonder the course can be a challenge.
A prime example of this is the 17th, a 160 yard par 3. The green nestles in a gorge, surrounded by bunkers and water. It is approached from an elevated tee where the wind seldom drops below force 5. Good golfers would be tempted to take a wedge or a 9 iron - they would be the wrong choice. It is a card wrecker of a hole!
Having said all this, the major factor that influences the golfer is how the course is set up and maintained. The smoothness and quality of the playing surfaces are essential, especially on these Mackenzie greens. Green speed is deliberately kept at under nine on the stimp most of the time.
Peter Smith came to the club two years ago from Selsdon Park Hotel Golf and Country Club, having previously worked at Birch Grove Golf Course and Bradfield College Golf Club.
Peter takes over and explains how he manages the course and how, like many clubs, the current recession has put pressure on budgets.
"When I took up the position at Cavendish two years ago it was very apparent that the course was not in the best condition. There had been little or no aeration or overseeding for four or five years and, as a result, most of the surfaces had thin, weak swards, the tees were uneven and there was little definition to the course.
What I find really unprofessional, and unnecessary, is a golf course that lacks definition. When I first arrived here it was typical of many that I have seen, but one of the simplest problems to rectify
There were about five different heights of cut that left the golfer wondering if he was on the fairway or semi rough, semi rough or rough, green or apron, and apron or surrounds.
Most of the golfers that I know like to see clearly defined fairways that lead nicely up onto a green which has a clear definition between green and collar, then another clear definition between collar and the next cut. As a greenkeeper this suits me as it means that I can simplify my maintenance regime to present this.
At all my previous courses, and here at Cavendish, I have kept the cutting heights simple. These are as follows: greens 4-6mm, tees, collars and approaches 10-12mm, fairways 14-16mm and rough 50mm.
Following this simple cutting plan means that I only have four cutting heights on the course, the fairways go straight into the rough, as do the tees, collars and approaches. So far, I have not had anything other than compliments on how well defined the course is and, as I have said, it has a major bearing on how easy it is to maintain.
Due to the relatively simple presentation of the course we are able to get by with a comparatively small fleet of machinery.
We have three triples with varying units that cut the greens, tees and approaches; these are 2 x John Deere 2500 and a Jacobsen Greensking VI. We also have a Toro 5410 for cutting our fairways and a Toro 4500 for cutting the rough. In addition we have a New Holland TC27 tractor, Kubota 4150 tractor, John Deere 6x4 Gator, a John Deere Pro Gator with HD200 spray system, a Dakota 410 topdresser and two Ransomes Super Certes.
Leading on from the machinery, and again linked into our simple maintenance plan, is our staffing. Even in the height of the growing season we are able to cover all mowing operations with just three full time staff. This includes, at its peak, cutting the rough, fairways and tees and approaches twice a week and the greens cut or rolled six days a week.
We are supported by two seasonal staff from May to October to help with the extra work that includes all the extra presentation such as strimming, flymo-ing, weeding and edging.
With the implementation of the new course development plan we will be looking to increase our full time staffing levels by taking on a trainee. As somebody who holds the assessor award, and with a good track record of training staff, this is something that I very much look forward to.
Cavendish, due to Buxton's unique climate, has a very short growing season. Temperatures generally only become consistent enough to support growth from mid May through to the end of September, another reason for only requiring three full time staff.
As an example, in the last two years between Oct and May, I can probably only recall having to cut the fairways three or four times and, as a rule, the rough mower will not get used during this whole period! I must say that, as an active manager, and having come from the slightly more temperate south east, I am not sure whether I like the long periods of inactivity during the winter but, hopefully, with the major projects that are planned this will soon change!
Cavendish is not a long course, but it is widely recognised that it is the greens that are its test. MacKenzie designed, and not altered since the building of the course, they are a true example of his work. You really have to think about where to position your ball on the fairways, to be able to get close to any flag and, once on the greens, there are so many subtle borrows and breaks that nothing can be taken for granted! Anything above nine on the stimpmeter, and they really do become unplayable!
This situation on the greens when I arrived was not dissimilar to the situation at the course that I had just left, Selsdon, and the action taken would be the same. Firstly, we had to get the slight thatch problem addressed. We intensively hollow tined with half inch tines, three times in six months, with dressings of 60 tonnes of sand after each tine, and this was supported with applications of Symbio's Green Circle to help boost the populations of beneficial fungi.
In slight contrast to the STRI's Disturbance theory, rather than waiting until we had controlled the thatch, we also overseeded heavily with traditional fescue and bents. I was probably able to achieve this as the thatch wasn't that excessive and seed was able to take and establish in the tine holes. I felt it was important to do this, as the season is so short for our members that the last thing the club needed was a long period where the greens were in 'transition', which could have had a major impact on our revenue levels.
After eighteen months we have achieved an acceptable level of thatch and created a much denser sward. In my view, the key element to getting good green speed and consistent roll is to have a dense sward, where the ball rolls across the grass rather then through it. It should also be remembered that, without a good grass coverage, a ball cannot grip, hold and spin.
As we have now established a good sward I feel that I now have something to work with, which means I can concentrate our efforts into reducing the coarser grasses that dominate on some greens. I wanted to wait until we had a good level of grass coverage before we started to verticut and groom regularly, so at least there will still be grasses left on the greens afterwards!
As with most of what we do as greenkeepers on golf courses, I believe we must always put the members and visitors first. If I had been verticutting regularly on a thin sward I would not have expected our members to wait any longer for us to improve the surfaces, and then we soon would have seen a decline in members and visitors, impacting on our long term plans for the course. So much of what we do in our maintenance operations is a fine balancing act, between long term benefits for the quality of grasses and short term financial gain!
Moving on, the future at Cavendish is looking good, we are still two to three years away from producing the top quality playing surfaces that I feel is acceptable to this course, but we are moving in the right direction.
We have a board that are as dedicated to improving the course as the greens staff, a machinery replacement programme has been implemented and a development plan put in place. The first stages of this plan will see most of the bunkers restored to the original MacKenzie design, and the greens drainage improved."
Having walked the course with Peter, it was heartening to hear a young greenkeeper talking with such passion for the job. His grasp of the history of the club, and his desire to return it the true MacKenzie design is commendable. It's a challenge he seems to be relishing, with the aim of offering the MacKenzie experience to the next generation of golfers at the Cavendish.
Peter's July newsletter to the Cavendish members.
Warning!! So as not to tempt fate, this report contains no mention of the weather!
As it is now July I felt that it would be appropriate to let you all know how things are progressing with the course and, as always, we start with the greens and an insight into how we are trying to manage them to promote finer grasses.
Trying to put how we are trying to achieve our objective in a simple understandable sentence is very hard but, if you are interested, then let me indulge you.
The best and finest grasses, such as fescues, grow best in the most stressed conditions where there is no fertility. For example, it may be windswept, barren and dry, and the grass is hardly ever cut. Think of any links course or at the top of any peak.
The same principle applies to growing finer grasses on golf courses, more fertility and water creates competition, which only encourages coarser grasses that have a larger leaf surface and can harness more energy from the sun for production of chlorophyll - and a bigger root system which can uptake more water and nutrient.
Therefore, what we need to do is limit the fertility and water (if we can) and stress on the finer grasses, which is the fun part! There are literally two kinds of stress, good and bad. Put simply, good = low fertility and little water, with little surface disturbance makes the plant hungry and scavenge for food. Bad = high fertility, lots of water and lots of surface disruption (scarifying) favours weed, grasses that are adaptable and can survive continually being disturbed.
I am very happy with how the greens are progressing. If you remember, our aims were to reduce the amount of fertiliser used and discourage the poa and coarse grasses that are present on the greens. This year, the poa has been a lot less noticeable, and there is a significant reduction in the amount of coarser grasses. However, as with all these things, it takes time to achieve our goals and, strangely, although the situation is getting better, it is as the poa and coarser grasses get less prominent that they become more visible.
Again, as we reduce the fertility and put the poa under stress, I need to be vigilant for diseases, especially anthracnose that attacks weak poa. We are also starting to see some type 1 fairy rings (the yellowish roughly shaped circles). These are normally caused by warm moist conditions at the surface and should disappear quickly as conditions improve. The green speed has been around eight on the stimp which, I feel, is an acceptable "friendly" pace. It is our intention, for open week, to try to push these up to around nine which, in a trial run, we achieved four or five weeks ago.
Rough and Bunkers: What can I say, I am in it more than most of you! The deep rough in certain areas has now be bailed and will be left to grow again. Over a few years this process will help "thin" the grasses. In the meantime enjoy it before it starts growing again!
The cut rough, or "semi rough", is cut, in places, twice a week, and even then it is very hit and miss as to what kind of lie you will get. There is a lot of Yorkshire fog in our semi, and a ball tends to nestle down into it, which creates a bad lie. As yet, there is no way of getting rid of this, short of killing all the rough off and starting again!
There is talk within the industry that there is a product being developed that will kill only Yorkshire fog but, until that arrives, it might be best to try and keep your ball on the fairway!!
I, along with all of you, find the bunkers in a poor state. We are trying to spot treat the worst bunkers with new sand, but without overdoing it. This is because we may soon be entering a phase of complete bunker renovation and, by replacing large quantities of sand, we could be faced with having to remove it all within the next twelve months.
An additional problem is, if we replace too much sand, this will dry and create more problems with the "poached egg" type lie. We are also in a position where we simply cannot edge the bunkers any more, as some already have six inch high lips on them, which are in danger of collapsing and undermining the banks around the greens
I hope this brief report has enlightened you, and I will see you out on the course, probably looking for my balls in the deep rough, or repairing bunkers that I have spent an hour trying to get out of!!
Writing in his book Golf Architecture, first published in 1920, Dr. Alister MacKenzie wrote the following on 'Course Construction and Greenkeeping'.
As the truest economy consists in finality, it is interesting to consider the essential features of an ideal golf course. Some of them are suggested now:
1. The course, where possible, should be arranged in two loops of nine holes.
2. There should be a large proportion of good two-shot holes, two or three drive-and-pitch holes, and at least four one-shot holes.
3. There should be little walking between the greens and tees, and the course should be arranged so that, in the first instance, there is always a slight walk forwards from the green to the next tee; then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.
4. The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing.
5. Every hole should have a different character.
6. There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots.
7. The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.
8. There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but the course should be arranged so that the weaker player with the loss of a stroke or portion of a stroke shall always have an alternative route open to him.
9. There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes - viz, interesting brassy shots, iron shots, pitch and run-up shots.
10. There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.
11. The course should be so interesting that even the plus man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots he has hitherto been unable to play.
12. The course should be so arranged that the long handicap player, or even the absolute beginner, should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score.
13. The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect, and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens.