Donaghadee Golf Club is one of those courses that just oozes charisma, and it has the luxury of being situated in a picturesque area overlooking the Irish Sea. Not only that, it is steeped in over 117 years of history, having been founded way back in 1899. Chris McCullough caught up with Assistant Course Manager James Devoy to find out about the course
Donaghadee Golf Club looks out across the Irish Sea and sits just at the top of the Ards Peninsula on the County Down coast of Northern Ireland.
Being so close to the sea presents its own problems, both for the staff looking after the grounds and the golfers, but with perfect views over the Copeland Islands and a healthy sea breeze, this a course well worth a visit.
The club was founded in 1899 by Stephen McCausland and is part links and part open parkland in design. Some major course refurbishment works have taken place over recent years, adding many new bunkers to the site.
Strong sea breezes can challenge the very best players, especially on the 18th hole, which is a finishing hole with out of bounds on both left and right. This hole is testing but, for those who have played it before, it is always the one they look forward to. The 16th tee is an excellent vantage point and the hills of south west Scotland are visible in the distance on a clear day.
Aaron Small is the man with the task of looking after the course with his staff, including Assistant Course Manager, James Devoy. James has worked at Donaghadee for the past eight years and rates it as one of the best in the country.
James said: "I started on a work placement scheme as a trainee at Scrabo Golf Club in Newtownards and, from there, I moved to Clandeboye. I then spent some time at Knock Golf Club in Belfast before moving on to the club here in Donaghadee."
James has undergone extensive training over the years to keep him up to date with modern greenkeeping techniques and grounds management skills. "I have my NVQ level 2 in sports turf as well as the BTEC certificate in advanced sports turf management," said James. "I also hold the NVQ level 3 certificate in advanced sports turf management, as well as the PA1, 2 and 6 spraying certificates."
Donaghadee is part links and part parkland, providing 18 holes on a total area extending to 90 acres. The medal tees are 6,160 yards and the men's tees are 5,904 yard with a Par 71.
Along with Aaron and James, there are a further five staff who assist with the daily maintenance of the course. "Aaron has been here for nine years," James comments. "Then we have Stewart Wallace who has been here twenty-six years, Philip Snellin, six years and Matt Hardy, who has four years service, two of which were spent as a trainee."
"We can also call on Gary Irvine for part time help as and when required and Owen McCleary, who helps out during the summer. All of the staff are excellent workers and get on well together in the team."
"Just recently, we had a member of the greenkeeping team retire after thirty-eight years service," said James.
There is no dedicated workshop technician employed at the club, but James can turn his hand to look after the machinery as well. "The main servicing is carried out in-house by me. We do not have grinders, so the cylinder sharpening requirements are outsourced, as well as some of the more complex repairs that are needed."
"We also have outside contractors that come in as required to help out on the course. Horta Soils Ltd would be the main company we use as and when they are required."
"For example, if we were to fall behind with the verti-draining of the fairways due to unfavourable weather, then the contractors would be brought in straightaway to assist us. They also supply excavators or any other larger machinery that is required for any construction work we want to carry out on the bunkers or the greens."
The course changes from pure sand on the holes that run alongside the shore to heavy clay on the inland side of the course. "Actually, half of the course is built on a former brickworks," James confirms. "The greens are clay based but, in recent years, some have been lifted and relaid to a more USGA specification construction, mainly to improve drainage."
Even in Northern Ireland, where high rainfall is often the case, there is a need for irrigation at certain periods of the year. "We have an ageing irrigation system which requires a lot of maintenance every year to keep it in good working order. We've replaced the sprinkler heads around the greens, as the older impacted heads gave us a lot of trouble. The newer, modern ones certainly cut down on our labour from looking after the old ones!"
As with the majority of golf clubs in Northern Ireland, the Donaghadee venue has its own set of challenges to contend with each year, flooding being one of them.
"Flooding does occur here, more so in the winter time, and there is also a main stream that runs through the middle of the course. The club is surrounded by residential areas and it seems, as more new houses are built beyond the golf course, the more times the course floods. To try and rectify the flooding as much as possible, the main drains are checked regular and kept free from blockages."
"Dry weather also presents problems as the links half of the course always burns up quickly in a dry spell and a good north wind also contributes to this problem. The site is very open, with very few trees surrounding the greens. As a result, there is super airflow around the course, which means dew does settle on the greens, but doesn't last for long."
"Temporary greens are used in winter, mainly when it is frosty. On a few of the wetter greens, we may use temporary greens for a short period, but our goal is to use the main greens as much as possible throughout the entire year."
"In the past year, greens have been lifted and rebuilt in order to improve drainage to make them more playable all year round."
There are constant upgrades and changes being made at Donaghadee to keep it ahead of the competition. "In 2009, a new practice facility project got under way. It was designed by Swan Golf Design and cost just over £130,000. The new facility consists of nine mini golf greens, two new practice tees and a large putting green."
The team run a straightforward maintenance programme. The greens are cut to 2.7mm for most of the summer period, whilst tees and aprons are cut at 10mm. Fairways are cut at 12mm and the rough areas at 40mm; semi rough is maintained at 24mm.
Aeration is carried out in spring and autumn by hollow tining, using different sizes of tines depending on the weather and season. A John Deere tractor mounted aerator is used, and needle tining is also carried out throughout the playing season to allow air to travel deep down into the soil structure.
James added: "The only weed control programme we have is for spraying herbicide on fairways and rough areas to improve presentation."
"Scarifying is carried out throughout the season to improve the putting surface by removing the lateral growth."
"All staff have their own role to play on the course. This is the best way to maximise the presentation on the course as each member of staff knows exactly how to carry out their own specific tasks. Presentation rates very highly indeed here, as it is what members pay their money for. They expect high standards throughout the course, in all areas, and that is what we aim to achieve on a daily basis."
"At the end of the main season, we attend to bunker renovations; more so on the links side of the course as the sand based bunkers tend to have more problems than on the parkland side."
"Renovation works are, of course, governed by budgets but, thankfully, we can carry out this work in the majority of cases."
In order to keep the members abreast of the work going on around the course, the team place regular newsletters on notice boards. More recently, they are taking to social media to keep them informed.
Staff receive regular training from the latest courses that apply to them. All greenkeepers are trained in first aid and safe lifting and handling techniques. They also receive training for the use of all the machinery at the club.
"All machinery required for the course is bought on hire purchase, which gives us the advantage that they can be changed when necessary," said James.
"We use local dealer Laird Grass Machinery in the main, as they have the dealership for Toro and Kubota machinery. We try and stick with these two brands generally because they are so durable and reliable. I guess this is the reason why we do not need to employ a full time mechanic as the machinery is so bullet proof."
"We have a good range of modern machinery, but we could do with a new sprayer and a greens iron, if I was to choose and had the budget to do so."
The main pests at the club are rabbits and crows, with the rabbit population being controlled.
"With the course being very open, and consistently having a sea breeze flowing across it, we have very little disease on the greens. If any appear, they are sprayed after topdressing, but we are very lucky in that aspect."
"I believe greenkeepers are much undervalued, but having good, well educated greenstaff that want to be in the job for the right reason bring professionalism to the job," concludes James. "Professional bodies do help to raise the profile of greenkeepers though."
What's in the shed?
Toro 3300 TriFlex hybrid
greensmowers x 2
Toro 5610 fairway mower
Toro 4700 rough mower
Toro 3550 tees/aprons mower
Toro 3500 rotary mower for around trees
Toro 3500 cylinder mower for around bunkers
Toro 1000 hand mower
John Deere aerator
Wiedenmann Terra Spike
Kubota 5040 tractor
Kubota 4600 tractor
Kubota 2410 tractor
John Deere Gator
Cushman with core harvester
National mower - tees, banks etc
Greentech poa busters, scarifiers and speed rollers