Laid out on a massive limestone outcrop formed 360 million years ago, Southerndown Golf Club, located near Bridgend, South Wales, offers golfers part sandy links, part acid-heathland, a combination which makes the course one of the driest in Britain and a fine test of golf. Southerndown provides a good test also of the greenkeeping skills of course manager, Andrew Mannion, and his six staff, as Mike Bird discovers
Founded in 1905, Southerndown Golf Club is described as a hidden gem both by members and the many visitors who have admired its natural contours, fast greens, pot bunkers, and gorse and bracken lined fairways over the years.
Add to these features splendid views of the Bristol Channel and challenging, prevailing south-westerly winds and one has a golf course that is quite unlike any other in the country.
The word "unique" needs to be used with caution but, in the case of Southerndown, it is unlikely that anyone will find reason to disagree.
Although climate, location and geology have a major influence on the care and maintenance of Southerndown's eighteen holes, the course's setting on common land offers an additional year-round challenge to the greenkeeping team.
"Sheep have been grazing Southerndown's native fescue and bent grasses long before golf arrived," points out Course Manager, Andrew Mannion. "The commoners' association has grazing rights stretching back to the Middle Ages. It is my job to manage the course in harmony with nature and the graziers, whose sheep numbers can double to 600-plus over the summer months following lambing. It's a challenge, but I would not want to be anywhere else."
Andrew arrived at Southerndown Golf Club in February 1995, having previously been at Warrington Golf Club, a traditional parkland course located three miles south of the Cheshire town.
"I joined Southerndown as deputy head greenkeeper to Gary Johnstone," recalled Andrew. "I was keen to work on a links course and, although not true links-style throughout, Southerndown was being tended by Gary using management practices that he had learned working with John Philp at Carnoustie Links."
When Gary moved on to Portmarnock Golf Club in 2007, Andrew took over as course manager, applying his own greenkeeping style to a golf course which, he says, is best described as a downland links, situated seventy metres above sea level.
"Grasses growing on the front nine overlooking the sea are predominantly bents and fescues, all well-established on undulating and springy links-style terrain formed by centuries of sand deposits carried in by the westerly winds," he said. "The remaining holes, located further inland, overlie rocky, silty soils, much like the remainder of Southerndown's 2,800 hectares of common land where sheep freely graze."
Because these soils offer higher nutrient levels than the impoverished sands found closer to the sea, they display a higher incidence of Poa annua, which has been steadily pushing out the fescues on the golf course in recent years. The result is grazing conditions which, due to regular mowing, appear to be preferred by the sheep over the longer, tougher, more straggly grasses growing off course close-by.
The high incidence of sheep, primarily on the back nine, has resulted in costly damage to greens, tees and bunkers as well as the continuous year-round task of clearing-up sheep droppings from a large part of the eight-five hectares of land utilised by the golf club.
Andrew estimates that this operation alone is costing the club between £12,000 and £14,000 a year in labour and machinery utilisation, involving dragging an inverted grassland chain harrow across the turf most days to move the droppings away from the main playing areas.
"Being common land, no part of the golf course can be fenced, so a programme was implemented in 2010 to improve those areas of ground lying within the course boundary that were densely covered with gorse and rougher grasses," explained Andrew. "The aim was to provide improved grazing for the sheep, encouraging them to stay off the main playing areas using wholly natural methods."
Utilising the club's own tractor and heavy-duty flail mower, around twenty hectares of formerly impenetrable rough ground has been cleared by golf course staff over the past three years to provide a series of level, open, paddock-like areas, bounded by gorse.
Three cuts were taken in 2010 and 2011, with just two cuts possible in 2012 due to poor weather and ground conditions. The treatment, says Andrew, has proved very successful, with sheep definitely preferring to graze and lie on grass that has been allowed to grow longer than on the main playing areas of the course just a few metres away.
Persuading the sheep to stay off the actual golf course has had a positive effect in reducing the damage to fine turf by their hooves and urine. It has reduced also the erosion of bunker sides and faces caused by sheep and lambs exiting sand traps as golfers approach.
Andrew pointed out that, prior to 2011, many of Southerndown's bunkers had needed rebuilding every three years on average, including revetting of the front and side faces.
However, the "favourite" bunkers of sheep and their lambs would require rebuilding every year due to the very h igh levels of wear and tear they experienced.
Such bunkers tended to be the deeper, more remote, south-facing ones where lambs could lie snugly in the sun out of the wind. When animals exited bunkers, Andrew said that the preference always appeared to be at the steepest point, eroding and exposing carefully revetted faces to the wind and rain.
The winter of 2009-10 proved particularly expensive for the club. Between November and March, Andrew and his team rebuilt thirty-four bunkers at a total cost close to £20,000.
"It is a good job we established our own turf nursery some years ago, otherwise the cost might have been considerably more," he commented.
Determined to find a way of reducing the time, energy and expense involved in continually repairing and rebuilding bunkers, Andrew said that several options were being considered, including replacing sand with grass and reducing the angle of bunker faces. However, such actions would not be popular with golfers as it would adversely affect a notable and long-established feature of the course.
An event then happened that appeared immediately to offer a better and more acceptable alternative for revetting, retaining the shape and content of the bunkers while greatly extending their durability and longevity, as Andrew explained:
"I n late 2010, the club was approached by local company, Envirosports Ltd, who offer a sustainable, patented bunker renovation and repair system known as EnviroBunker. It uses recycled synthetic turf for revetting, helping prevent bunker face erosion to cut-down on repair and maintenance."
Andrew was invited to visit a nearby golf club to inspect a bunker that had been repaired using the system. Impressed with the results which, he says, appeared virtually identical to those that he was achieving using slabs of natural turf, Andrew discussed costings with the golf club's committee.
The decision was taken, in January 2011, to trial the method on a practice bunker. The speed and ease of using the recycled material, instead of natural turf, convinced Andrew that the system could prove a useful and cost-saving solution for Southerndown.
Although the company offers a full contractual service for installation, Andrew decided that he wanted to manage and carry out all future bunker rebuilding projects himself, under licence, enabling work to be undertaken at short notice, as and when course maintenance staff were available.
Having calculated the amount of material needed for those bunkers on the course requiring most urgent attention, Andrew arranged for his first delivery of recycled synthetic turf. Stacked neatly on pallets, the material arrived pre-cut to identical dimensions for ease of handling and laying.
Each slab of "turf" measured 500mm long by 200mm wide by 20mm deep, enabling handling and laying just like normal turf being used for revetting.
"The major difference is its resistance to wear and damage," he said. "I reckon that we'll get at least twenty years' life out of our rebuilt bunkers before the faces need any attention," he said. "There are also environmental benefits that we are keen to highlight to members of the club."
All of the material now being used for bunker repair has previously been employed as a sports surface for activities such as hockey and football training.
Having come to the end of its useful playing life, the existing synthetic turf is lifted and replaced. Previously, the removed material would have been sent to landfill or stacked unwanted in a corner of a yard.
Spotting a sound business opportunity, Envirosports is putting the material to excellent use and, over the past three years, has supplied their bunker system to an increasing number of golf clubs including Turnberry, Addington Palace and Sand Moor, as well as Southerndown, which has now committed to using the method on all eighty-four bunkers on the course.
With a further twenty renovations completed last winter, Andrew says the club is on target to have all of its bunkers repaired and upgraded by the end of 2015.
With regard to cost, he is finding that materials and labour are very similar to using natural turf for the job. The big saving comes in not having to continually repair bunkers, due to the system's high stability and the exceptional resistance it provides against wear, tear and the elements.
The turf nursery established at Southerndown Golf Club more than ten years ago is still in regular use, providing turf for the top surrounds of bunkers, for tee extensions and for the repair of ground damaged by sheep or rabbits.
Meanwhile, the greens on the course are receiving special attention of their own. Approximately six years ago, Andrew and his staff noticed a number of localised bare patches appearing on the greens, accompanied by increasing levels of Poa annua and inconsistency in turf growth.
Discussed at committee meetings, there was even talk at one point of digging up the worst-affected greens and starting afresh.
Feeling that this was a step too far, Andrew sought advice from agronomist Andy Cole. He confirmed Andrew's diagnosis, namely, that the underlying structure of the greens was fine, but the native fescue and bent grasses formerly populating the greens were being steadily pushed out by more dominant species.
Andy's recommendation was to establish a leaner, meaner management regime on the greens. This involved a number of key actions.
First, switch to a pure sand topdressing instead of the 70/30 mix that had been used for the previous fifteen years.
Second, use a high quality surfactant to move water quickly off the surface and achieve a balanced air-to-water ratio within the soil profile.
The ultimate target was to produce drier, firmer putting surfaces and consistent, more uniform rootzone moisture levels which, it was reasoned, would encourage re-establishment of the native bent and fescues.
To achieve this, Andrew decided to use Aquatrol's Revolution, a product developed and proven to work equally well both in wet and dry conditions. Applied every month from March through to November or December, it has helped create a better rootzone environment under all growing conditions, giving healthier, stronger turf whilst encouraging particularly the finer grasses.
Assisting in this action is the monthly application of Farmura's Porthcawl liquid feed, which commences each year in March and continues into October when temperatures are above 7OC.
Applied at a rate of 10 litres per 1,000m2 mixed in fifty litres of water, the blend of organic ingredients includes seaweed, iron and trace elements designed to feed, condition and green-up the sward.
"The results have been very effective again in encouraging the re-establishment of finer grasses," commented Andrew. "The final link in our application chain is Primo Maxx, a liquid growth regulator that is helping produce and maintain more consistent and truer playing surfaces. By boosting sward density, Primo Maxx is proving a useful additional aid in the management of Poa annua."
Recognising that the finer, native grasses needed additional assistance in re-establishing themselves strongly across the greens, Andrew instigated a course-wide species exchange programme in 2011.
The first season involved 15mm hollow-coring of all greens and the broadcasting of Johnsons J Fescue, a 100% fine fescue blend, applied at a rate of 35gm/m2 and then brushed-in, the complete process being repeated three times over the growing season.
In 2012, the entire schedule was due to be repeated, commencing in April. Having carried out one hollow coring and broadcast seeding operation across the whole course, Andrew was asked by the committee if it would be possible to reduce the level of disturbance being caused to the greens and find a way of speeding up the work, which had been taking almost a week to complete.
Knowing that local contract business, @turf, was operating the only Vredo Super Compact disc-type overseeder in South Wales, Andrew asked business co-owner, David Pearce, to bring in his machine for assessment.
The results were so effective that they were brought in to overseed all of the greens in July, August and October last year and are booked in for six further visits during both 2013 and 2014.
"The Vredo machine not only produces less disturbance and faster turf recovery, but it can overseed our twenty-one greens in a day and a half, making two passes per green," commented Andrew. "It is also having a very positive impact on our grass species exchange programme, which we hope will be further encouraged by our new fertiliser campaign."
For the first time since Andrew took over as course manager, fertiliser will be prepared traditionally on-site using three basic ingredients: sulphate of ammonia, sulphate of potassium and sulphate of iron, all delivered in 25kg bags by ALS, the club's favoured materials supplier for more than six years.
"We'll be adding a sand carrier and applying the home-mixed fertiliser using our truck-mounted Dakota topdresser, which had previously been under-utilised on the course," explained Andrew. "Making our own fertiliser not only gives us more control, but is also fifty percent cheaper than buying-in a proprietary product. In today's economic climate, that saving will be extremely helpful to the golf club."
What's in the shed?
3 x Toro Greensmaster 3250-D greens mower
1 x Toro Reelmaster 5410 fairway mower
1 x Toro Greensmaster 1000 walk mower
1 x John Deere 4520 (2002)
1 x Kubota 5040 (2011)
1 x Iseki 4290
JCB 2CX Excavator
TRUCKS and UTILITY VEHICLES
1 x Mitsubishi L200 Pick Up
3 x Toro MDX Workman
1 x Toro HD Workman
TRACTOR MOUNTED EQUIPMENT
2 x 2.5 tonne trailer
1 x 4 tonne trailer
1 x Wessex 185 flail mower
1 x Hardi 600ltr sprayer
1 x Dakota 410 mounted topdresser
1 x Wiedenmann Terra Spike XD6
1 x Blec disc over-seeder
1 x Toro Pro Core 864
1 x Wessex rotavator
1 x set of chain harrows
1 x Cambridge roller
1 x lute/leveller
1 x greens slitter
2 x chainsaws
1 x Flymo
1 x auger