As editor of Pitchcare, I am fortunate to interview many greenkeepers and groundsmen at all levels. The one uniting factor is their dedication and commitment to producing the best quality playing surfaces they can, with the resources they have available.
Quite often, I am amazed at what is being achieved at the lower levels, often with the bare minimum of equipment and staff.
So, when I got asked to visit Aqualate Golf Club in Newport, Shropshire, just down the road from 'Pitchcare Towers', by their Head Greenkeeper, Dan Groome, it was another opportunity to see how a facility on a shoestring budget was coping. [and it kept the travel expenses down!]
Dan has been at the club for fourteen years. The layout is somewhat unusual in that it has ten greens and eighteen tees, providing a 5,659 yard, par 69 course, made up of two par 5s, five par 3s and eleven par 4s. A scattering of bunkers and water hazards, plus new tree planting, has increased the difficulty of the course. The team are currently building a new 2nd green. There is also a driving range on the site.
Aqualate occupies a fairly flat area of land to the east of the town, on the junction of the two main road arteries, the A41 and A518.
The course was created without a lot of fuss, simple self build greens laid down on the natural local soils, ranging from free draining sandy soils to local deposits of clay, and anything in between. Therefore, the performance of the greens is dictated by the underlying soil types, with some drying out quickly, whilst others retain water.
Dan knows every inch of the course, and is well aware of the differing maintenance needs of each hole in terms of watering and fertiliser requirements.
For the first eleven years, Dan had the assistance of Mike Thomas and, although now way past retirement age, Mike still helps out in the summer; "I'm such a good boss he just doesn't want to leave," jokes Dan.
Three years ago Dan was joined by Sam Mullinder, who had been taking Media Studies at a local college, but fancied a change of direction. "I'm glad he did," says Dan, "as his help and willingness to learn has been invaluable." With the addition of Joe Daws six months ago, Dan now feels he has the staff to continue to improve the course.
Greens maintenance is the big issue here," explains Dan. "With each one requiring something slightly different from the other, we have to have a degree of flexibility. I have set up a liquid feeding programme utilising a variety of products, with some finely tuned tank mixing. We mainly tend to use Headland products, but are not averse to using other branded products, if they are right for the job. That includes different forms of nitrogen, seaweed, tonics, humic acids etc., all applied on a weekly basis."
"On average, we apply between 50 and 80 kg/ha of N and double that of K. Headland do leaf tissue samples to help us monitor nitrogen levels and other macro nutrients."
"A 'typical' summer feed will consist of 40kg/ha N46 urea, 15lts/ha Seamac Proturf and 10lts/ha Seamac Ultra Plus. This gives a consistent clipping yield for the week, enough growth to recover from wear and exceptional colour. Other products we use include Turf Complex, N46 urea soluble and 15:0:25."
"We aerate in the spring and autumn, using our Wiedenmann G160, utilising a combination of 8mm, 12mm and three quarter inch tines."
Greens are mown at 4mm in the winter and 3mm in the summer. Tees are kept at 14mm in winter and 10mm in the summer. Fairways are mown at 17mm in the summer and raised to 20mm in the winter. Approaches are kept at 10mm, whilst the semi rough is maintained at 50mm all year round.
Dan has built up a reasonable shed of equipment, over time, that includes a John Deere 2500E Hybrid electric cylinder mower, John Deere 2653 tees mower, John Deere 3235C fairway mower, a John Deere 1600 turbo rough mower, a Propass topdresser, and the aforementioned Wiedenmann G160 deep aerator.
Machinery maintenance is undertaken by Dan. "We do all our machinery servicing in-house. It's more of a case of necessity than anything else. I'm very much 'self taught, picking up things as I go along. I always say that, if you approach problems with the right attitude, there is nothing you cannot learn or, indeed, fix yourself!"
"I am fortunate that, four years ago, the club agreed to buy me a set of Bernhard's cylinder and bottom blade grinders, after looking at how much we spent on having our grinding oursourced. This decision was based on a return of investment in five to six years, but I believe we have already broken even, as we did not consider the fact that we can get the full working life from a bottom blade, against when we sent the cutting unit away in January with two or three months life on the bottom blade."
"I regrind the cutting units on the tees, greens and fairway mowers two or three times a year to ensure a consistent high quality of cut all year round, and carry out weekly backlapping to increase the life of the bottom blades."
"This winter, we have undertaken some bunker reconstruction work, some clearing of ditches and crown lifting some tree plantations. With only a team of three we are always kept busy. There's always something that requires our attention, or something I want to do to improve the course."
Dan considers presentation to be of paramount importance. "I want people to really enjoy playing golf at Aqualate. Because we don't have the mature trees, water hazards and mega bunkers that other courses have, what we do have, I always want presented to the best of our ability."
With a healthy membership, and a committed head greenkeeper, Aqualate Golf Club appears to be in a healthy position. "I'm aware that we will never be much of a rival for the larger courses in the county, but we do, however, offer local people the opportunity to try their hand at golf via the pay and play route."
Dan seems very content with his role and enjoys being left alone to get on with the job in hand. He is to be commended for his dedication to the club.