King's Lynn 18-hole parkland course is believed to be the first fashioned by design doyens Peter Alliss and Dave Thomas when the club moved from its old site in 1975, and nestles in traditional Norfolk woodland right by The Wash.
This labour-intensive course keeps the seven-strong greens team busy year-round, managing the impact of the many thousands of trees, such as Scots pine and silver birch, which line the fairways.
"We are driven to keep everything tidy," notes Course Manager Colin Robinson, conscious that King's Lynn is a highly respected course, ranked among England's top 100.
With its own borehole and seepage ponds, the course relies less on mains water, but the sandy, free-draining soil can create its own problems, given the windswept, isolated location.
The application of science to greenkeeping forms the backbone of Colin's career to date and his commitment shows little sign of waning as recent work has helped him solve what seemed like an intractable problem of disease outbreak. But more of that later.
Like many whose calling is turfcare, Colin felt the primal urge to work in the great outdoors early in life. After leaving school in 1973, aged sixteen, he started work as a mechanic in a local garage, but his heart lay elsewhere. "We overlooked fields and I yearned to work outside rather than in the grimy indoors," he remembers. Two years later, he had left.
Seeking a breath of fresh air, Colin landed at Wheatley Golf Club, Doncaster, as an assistant after seeing their advertisement for greens staff. On applying, he learnt that the head greenkeeper was ill. Desperate for a job at the course, he persisted in his bid for employment and was eventually given the good news to "start Monday. I knew that this was what I wanted to do".
Within two years, he had risen to become first assistant, but he was keen to move up and, during his four-year stay at the parkland venue, qualified with a City and Guilds in greenkeeping.
At just twenty-two, he took the post of head greenkeeper at Town Moor Golf Club, unusually sited within Doncaster Racecourse. More learning on the job followed - Colin completing a course in Horticulture and Agriculture Records and Accounts, Phase 3.
Course Manager Colin Robinson, and the new putting green in front of the Clubhouse
In charge at Town Moor for five and half years, Colin got to grips with clearing some of the dense woodland surrounding the course. His tenure was a decisive period for his career progression. "I attended BIGGA headquarters for a week-long soil science course under their commitment to CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and developed a deeper interest in the subject."
Bath Golf Club was Colin's next rung - he stayed three years, heading up the greens team. "It was hard work, but I was gaining experience all the time."
Then came Scarborough South Cliff Golf Club, North Yorkshire, but the 'seven-year itch' struck, though not before he had completed an accounting course in his own time, winning a student of the year award with a credit and distinction.
Further education followed - Colin completing a BIGGA course in construction of tees and greens in 1994. Still only thirty-something, he couldn't pass up the chance to move to the then 36-hole John O'Gaunt Golf Club in Bedfordshire.
He then added an NVQ Level 4, "equivalent to a BSc", to his educational armoury.
His academic thirst unquenched, Colin began an MSc in Sports Surface Technology from Cranfield University in 2001, graduating in 2004. Then, in 2006, after a twelve year stay at John O'Gaunt and just forty-nine, "I decided to pack it all in and I travelled the world for a year".
But, on his return to the UK, he found his passion with greenkeeping still burned brightly. "I came to King's Lynn and here is where I plan to stay until I hang up my greenkeeping boots," he laughs.
Now nearing a decade at the links venue, Colin continues to pursue knowledge in his vocation, trialing and testing new methods and materials to improve the condition and presentation of the Top 100 course.
"Every head greenkeeper manages budgets, staff and time, but I'm a working one who wants to keep applying and improving the science of greenkeeping," he states, "and feel I'm more experienced and more highly qualified than many agronomists who consult so widely in golf."
New greens and tees
Spreading across some 140 acres, although "not particularly long", King's Lynn is two-thirds to three-quarters woodland and many trees abut the greens.
"I've taken out 250 in the last two weeks alone," he said when we first spoke in early 2016.
"Thankfully, we have no tree preservation orders or sites of special scientific interest here, but I had to apply for a tree felling licence from the Forestry Commission."
Woodland and heather-lined, tight fairways make this a course for extreme accuracy of shot - a challenge for the very best golfer. Four years ago, golf course architects Martin Hawtree prepared a review report for the course, with a host of recommendations, which Colin and his team are gradually putting into effect. "We bring in arborist James Joyce to tackle five or six holes a year, whilst we get busy on the bunkers," Colin explains.
King's Lynn was constructed in the 1970s, but not quite to the standard the club had expected, Colin explains.
"Instead of using USGA-recommended rootzone, the club used the local sandy soil, which, unfortunately, has well over 60% fine sand rather than the recommended maximum of 20%."
"This causes drainage issues, as fine particles create far smaller airspaces which are capillary (water-holding) rather than porosity (water-draining). This means our greens hold on to too much water, especially in the winter months, giving them the consistency of plasticine."
The original greens were not good enough and the contractor was forced to return to construct them properly, he adds. They deposited a pea gravel layer at about eighteen inches depth, then sand, then put on very fine sand on top.
Under a rolling programme of improvements, three years ago Colin and the team began inch-wide drills, adding topdressing (kiln dried sand) down to twelve inches to gradually build up a higher quality profile. "Slowly, but surely, we've developed it to 4/4.5 inches depth, but we really need twelve inches for a decent rootzone and this will take years to achieve. We have a continuing struggle to keep the greens dry and firm. In fact, most of the fairways drain better than the putting surfaces."
"A green tells you if it's suffering. You must get out there and look, but also use the data as a call to action. We're tickling them all the time to improve performance."
"The original work of drill and fill may have cost us up to £15,000, but definitely improved conditions. Pumping plenty of air into the greens has certainly firmed them up." Their Sisis Aeraid tine releases compressed air at about four inches and the team use it throughout the traditional playing season and in winter.
"Compaction was the main problem when I first came here," he continues. "Lots of areas have improved because of introducing air into the ground. So many good things come from aeration. More air means less water in the rootzone and air warms up far faster than water."
However, Colin points out, "Greens are still prone to compaction because golfers are walking on very small diameter sand particles."
Colin admits to having a job on his hands "just to keep up with neighbouring courses like Hunstanton (another Top 100 course ten miles away on the North Norfolk coast) who constructed the course properly."
That said: "Golfers like our environment - the tree-lined fairways and stripey presentation. The pressure's on us to attract younger members and pay and play income, because the average age of players is well into retirement age," he says.
The woodland creates year-round maintenance though. "Sometimes, after strong wind, the course looks like a tornado ripped through it - twigs and branches all over the fairways and trees blown over. A big blower and sweeper are vital kit for keeping the course playable," Colin stresses.
He returns to the issue of shade. "Many greens do not enjoy direct sun and the backs of some have to wait until April or May, so we do suffer from cold, wet putting surfaces. We have a major task to have greens ready for spring and the new season. It's a case of compromising when you have trees and it's the greens and grass that usually bear the brunt."
The sight of upper foliage billowing in the wind, whilst dead calm reigns below and the flags stand stock-still, is a sobering one for Colin because he knows that lack of air across the greens can be the kiss of death.
"It's all about drying them and encouraging air movement over the surface, because fusarium, our biggest headache, loves damp, cool conditions. We have to ensure we remove dew off the sward early on as it would still be there later in the day because there are so many shaded areas. Switching tees and greens helps, as does dragmatting the course."
Alongside the programme of tree-thinning and felling, preventative spraying early in autumn, or even September, helps the team gain the upper hand.
"Fusarium frequency and severity is reducing," reports a thankful Colin, "and we don't apply as much fungicide now. I keep swapping and changing brands, applying a systemic fungicide (Banner Maxx) when the grass is growing as it is taken into the plant. Fusarium can spread quickly under snow, so we apply contact fungicide to stick to the sward and that works well when the grass is dormant."
Since coming to the course, Colin has wrestled with what had, until recently, seemed an intractable problem - outbreaks of dry patch on several fairways.
Despite regular applications of turf treatments, the patches persisted, particularly on the 17th fairway. "Whatever treatment I applied, we could never seem to regain full grass cover," he says.
Even in rain-sodden 2012 when, in one month alone, the course recorded a whole year's precipitation (eleven inches), the dry patch stubbornly stayed firm and reseeded turf failed to thrive. Soil tests only confirmed Colin's worst fears. "Half an inch below the surface the rootzone was bone dry."
Whilst searching for a new way to tackle the outbreaks, Colin cast his mind back nearly ten years to his time at John O'Gaunt, where he had trialed a wetting agent as part of his thesis on 'Water Management on Fairways'. In 2015, Colin applied a wetting agent to the 10th hole, with similar outcomes. "I like the convenience of only having to apply it once to gain year-round protection," he notes.
"Application of the wetting agent across the course has brought environmental gains too," Colin adds. "I estimate that we now apply up to half the water we used to."
In the midst of a three-year course improvement programme that includes bunker/tee upgrades and woodland management, Colin can look back on how applying science helped solve a real bugbear on his fairways. "Members tell me they have never seen them looking better."
"We've extended the programme across more of the course now. Lack of rain this spring has encouraged dry patch unfortunately, so we've targeted the worst areas, successfully treating the side of one fairway under the tree overhang. The team is driving the whole course checking for outbreaks."
The seven-strong groundstaff
The seven-strong team retained at King's Lynn enjoys a full programme of continuing education - as you'd expect with Colin at the helm.
Deputy course manager Dale Morley, 41, is a veteran of twenty-five years at the links course, whilst assistant greenkeeper and qualified mechanic Shaun Carroll, 50, handles all the machinery needs. "He worked for Hunters and is highly skilled," says Colin, "tackling bottom brake and cylinder grinding among a host of other jobs. There's not much he cannot do."
Assistant greenkeeper Alan Cawstone, 54, also loves working here, clocking up nearly twenty years on site.
Colin took on Tim Race, 22, as an apprentice five years ago and has seen him train up on chainsaw operations.
Sam Clark, 26, also joined the team as an apprentice, in November 2015, and has recently gained his NVQ Level 3.
Colin has taken on another apprentice, Danny Gallagher, 18, who is finishing his NVQ Level 2 and trained up on most of the machines.
"I work closely with the College of East Anglia," says Colin, "and have taken four or five apprentices from them. The system works really well, far better than block release I find."
Keep the customer satisfied
Many a greenkeeper has a moan about members. Some curse under their breath when 'do-gooders' pass comment about the course condition, others turn a threat into an opportunity to inform and educate. This is Colin's stance and that's hardly surprising given his lifelong commitment to learning.
Communication with members is key to keeping relations sweet with those whose membership fees keep the club in business, he believes.
"I've tried various ways to keep members abreast of our work," he says, "from monthly reports pinned on the clubhouse noticeboard, presentations to as many as 100 members and even conducted walks across the course."
"I have an open door policy and invite members to come and talk to me about greenkeeping and tell me if they think we are doing something wrong." Isn't that inviting the kind of criticism that gives greenkeepers the shivers? "If they tell me something is rubbish, I'll tell them how we are trying to improve things," he responds.
His quarterly management board report and a monthly brief report on course conditions and maintenance all help the communication flow, as does his club diary, particularly during maintenance week in August. "The idea is to give the committee and members as much information as we can to keep them in the loop."
"But the disdain can be deafening if they fail to hear the word," he adds. "The loudest moans come when they turn up and do not know that maintenance is underway."
Colin knows "presentation is everything" and traffic management is a major factor in that philosophy. "White lines, markers and ropes around the greens channel golfers along stretches away from heavily used areas, before the team move everything once more to even the wear and tear. "I'd estimate that 60-70% of players stay 'within bounds'," he says, "leaving more room for improvement."
"Presentation is massively important to golfers and I love making everything look just right, but we have to be careful to balance appearance with what's right for the course to avoid long-term damage. Any greenkeeping team will work round what you have to do to get the course as presentable as possible, even if that means working on Sunday evenings."
Fast response is critical too, especially if play itself is in jeopardy. "When we hosted the English Boys County Finals in 2015, it was panic stations when rain hammered down on the last day. We were all out there with squeegees and, after just an hour, play resumed, thanks partly to better drainage and prompt action."
Ecology and the environment figure strongly in the management programme, Colin stresses. "Clubs have a responsibility to look after flora and fauna, and we do everything we can to run self-sufficiently," Colin explains.
"Our environmental policy covers the ground to the tree tops. We've called in the Forestry Commission for advice on treating the disease affecting our ancient oaks and sweet chestnuts. Thankfully, the silver birch and Scots pine are healthy."
Mallard ducks mass the seepage ponds, woodcocks nest on site (well out of play), muntjac deer thrive (mesh keeps them from chewing where it's not wanted) and hares cavort about the course, whilst the few rabbits tend to stay out of trouble.
Pest controls are in place however. "Chafer grubs were a problem a few years ago - they love our sandy soil and pheasants were ripping up the fairways searching for them. I began applying Merit Turf [since banned] and treated three or four hectares each winter for a couple of years."
Worms are another minor headache. "Only two or three species make casts and one of those populates golf courses. Casts do appear, but they are not that bad really, as sandy soils are not as watery and are more abrasive than clay, their first love - anyway, we have no treatment for them since Carbendazim was banned as a fungicide. The hunt is on for a replacement."
Daisies are the only troublesome 'weed', adds Colin, "taking up two or three percent cover on fairways. Worm casts encourage seeding too. A couple of applications with a selective weedkiller in spring tames them."
Although irrigating far less now, thanks to the turf treatment regime, Colin is replacing numbers of the ageing Impact sprinklers, fitted nearly twenty years ago, which are starting to fail. On the 8th hole, gear-driven sprinklers have supplanted the old pop-up units.
Upgrading the fairways is a continuing task - one or two annually at present, "depending on budgets". Bunker refurbishment and tee levelling are completed in house, whilst Colin brings in contractors for major construction projects.
In the bid to improve drainage, a 4in auger has been brought in to drill 450 to 600 holes in one of the greens - "looks like a piece of Swiss cheese initially, but is ready for play after a couple of weeks. If you played on it, you'd get a hole in one every time!" - down two or three feet to the subsoil, before the team backfilled with kiln dried sand at three-foot centres. "If we see a major improvement, we'll do more but," Colin notes, "the process is labour intensive."
A Verti-Drain devotee, Colin undertakes end of season work across the course in September and October, when winter tees come into play. He then overseeds all the tees after hollow tining them down to a 10-inch depth.
From November to March, more hollow tining, overseeding, aeration and verti-draining follows, including aprons. "We hollow tine right out to twenty or thirty yards from the green, before overseeding, letting the cores break up on the surface. It's necessary, because of the golfer traffic they sustain, but the marginal gains bring results over time."
Any scarifying? "Don't believe in it and I agree with the STRI's 'disturbance theory'. I'm controlling the growth of the grass using retardant and letting the grass break down. Also, we began using compost teas - which break down organic matter - about six years ago and were able to reduce the quantity of fertiliser we applied."
"Scarifying breaks up the surface and allows Poa to populate the sward as it is the first grass to germinate afterwards. Besides, fescue and bent don't like too much disturbance."
Regular topdressing helps the team keep on top of organic matter build-up. "I overseed only with pure bents on the greens as they hold on to too much moisture and fescue hates its roots in moisture and will not grow."
But bents have done the trick for him. "They have really taken off and, on some greens, account for up to 60-70% of the sward now."
"Sowing good quality ryegrass on hard play areas such as tees, where there are shade issues, does the job. The finer leaves are hard-wearing and quick to recover, sending out rhizomes and spreading to bare patches and weak areas. The fairways are mostly fescues - they grow well there and they drain well despite the fine sand."
- Greens, not below 4mm in summer and 6mm in winter
- Aprons, 10mm all year round - become part of winter greens
- Tees, 12mm in summer and 16mm in winter
- Fairways, 16mm in summer, 18 to 20mm in winter
- Semi-rough, 50 to 60mm all year
- Heather, two to three times annually at 150mm
Colin continues his active involvement in greenkeeping affairs. As a long-standing BIGGA member, currently of Anglia region, he chaired various sections of the Association when at John O'Gaunt - all part of his lifelong commitment to the importance of education and the cause of greenkeeping within golf.
"The course manager's role is changing as members and golfers continually expect higher standards," he points out. "The importance of educating greenkeepers in soil science is paramount, as is effective communications between the greens team and committees."
Developing a career structure is critical too in attracting "clever young lads" into the sector rather than school-leavers "drifting into greenkeeping by default".
"The snag is that, generally, we are undervalued and members often view us as an inconvenience. Course managers certainly do not command the respect that superintendents do in the US. I know several colleagues who have made the jump across the pond."
More clubs are appointing a director of golf to manage club and course, usually PGA members - it's an appealing move for them because the club saves salary overheads "but also this is a potential problem," claims Colin, "as they know very little about greenkeeping. A recipe for disaster."
What's in the Shed?
Though not wedded to any brand, Colin favours John Deere machinery, buying new and used through local distributor, Norwich-based Ben Burgess. "They are happy to supply replacement parts as needed, rather than us taking on five-year packages," Colin notes, "as the deals they give us are so good and the kit lasts well anyway."
- John Deere greens mowers x 3
- John Deere 2653 ride-on triple mower ride-on to stripe around fairways
- John Deere fairways mower with cab
- John Deere Roberine 500 cylinder mower for tackling tees
- John Deere rough-cut mowers with outfront rotary decks x 2
- John Deere tractors x 3
- Lloyd Paladin pedestrian greens mowers x 2
- Toro 648 pedestrian aerator
- John Deere 950 rotary ride-on cutter and collector - "handy for picking up leaves fallen near the greens. Our older mowers work on the aprons"
- John Deere Gators 4x4 - 2 x diesel, 2 x petrol
- Team 400l sprayer used for the fairways
- Tractor-mounted slitter
- Power brushes and rollers
- Redexim Verti-Drain
- Sisis Aer-Aid aerator
- Toro ProCore aerator.
- Strimmers x 4
- Flymos x 4.
"The Pro Pass rotary disc topdresser is a major boost, as is the greens roller we acquired recently to smooth surfaces and raise green speed.
We hire kit when the need arises - the 360-degree small excavator, brought in to dig trenches, for example - but the augur was purchased.
We use it quite often and buying it made sense. I don't hire that much now because we have a good spread of equipment. On a site as labour intensive as ours, we rely on equipment that can blitz the course quickly.
The team dread the onset of autumn as millions of leaves prepare to descend on the course - but we are well armed with the tools to tackle the 'storm'. Our Wessex leaf sweeper and tractor-mounted Tornado blower together keep the course playable at this time of year. A lot of man hours are spent blowing and collecting leaves - we are out there three or four times a day with our four backpack blowers.
The stump grinder and chainsaws are also essential kit when you manage such a huge hectarage of woodland."