Just four years into the life of Ashton-in-Makerfield Golf Club's original clubhouse, it burned down. It took them just three months to build a bigger one in its place. That was typical of the attitudes of the men who founded the club in its incepted state circa 1902, almost all workers at the Garswood Hall Collieries - they only moved from their first location in the sixties when Lancashire County Council forced them out via threat of litigation. Jake Barrow reports.
That move was in 1965, and the new course was extended from 9 holes to 18 starting in 1974. Thankfully, they had compensation of then an impressive £28,900, and when they purchased the current site's original 9-hole Garswood Hall Estate, it set them back just £5,000 of that.
Since the 1974 conversion, it is a 6,223-yard, par-70 course when playing its standard layout. But, these days the club has two extra holes known as 12a and 13a, which can be used to relieve a combination of the existing 18 in times of repair or renovation.
The course also features two chipping/putting areas, one which is more focused on putting and one more chipping-oriented. It also has a pitching area, which can become a full-length shooting area adjoining the 10th fairway, if accompanied by a club professional, and a mid-iron max practise area with flagsticks up by the high 8th fairway.
It is a course on the rise, and has ascended through the northern ranks since the recent joining of Head Greenkeeper Rick Sinker, 32, and his Deputy Ian Taylor, 49. They are part of a five-man team which also includes Greenkeepers Mike McGrail and Philip Roberts, as well as Student Greenkeeper Kevin Robinson.
Left; Rick Sinker and right with his team Philip Roberts, Ian Taylor, Student Kevin Robinson and Mike McGrail
A dense clay base with deep hollows lies under much of the front, newer nine. This is because the land purchased in that upgrade was slag-based mining land.
After this, the club suspects it may have been intentionally capped with clay in some areas. Deep down, they have identified what they describe as "spoil" from the mining industry which dominated the landscape there for so long.
Rick described the clay as "rock hard", and says that the golf course as a whole needs mechanically draining to provide any sort of 365 day a year surface. He suggested that even at most parkland courses, there will be the odd area that drains naturally, but on the ex-quarrying holes at Ashton this is unanimously not the case.
He told us of the time when he first learned this: "During my first drainage job here, I was digging a sump down to an outfall, and I was using a 12 inch bucket."
"After the first 8 inches, I hit a seam of clay. The clay was so hard and dense that I had to hit the bucket to get it out. Each bucket full was literally a solid block of clay."
The old release caverns are still present, and rise so close to the surface. As with many areas, the potential for root growth on the higher points of the course can be as shallow as 3 inches. Below this, digging only results in the striking of clay or shale.
But, it varies wildly across the course. That 3-inch rootzone can be an ordinary depth beneath parts of the back nine, and is over 10 inches on parts of the front nine holes. The constant variable is that it is never completely predictable for the staff.
And at the very highest point of the course, primarily holes 5, 6 and 8, it only takes a few days of dry weather for the grass to burn off.
However, Rick does not mind that at all. "I love that look," he told us, "That's the look I've been brought through with one of my previous clubs, and I think it looks amazing when things start to burn off a little and show a nice bit of colour change."
"Besides that, it's something we couldn't do much about if we wanted to anyway. We'd be looking at a serious budget increase for the likes of wetting agents and loamy dressings, because we can't change the land."
"But really, I think it adds to the diversity of our site because it quickens the fairways, sharpens them up, slows the growth down a little for tightness, and gives additional colour across the landscape. I think it looks beautiful and plays fantastically."
It is also very parkland-based, under Rick's description: "As with any new course, loads of trees were planted to define it in the early days, but the crop's never really been managed as a crop. It's just been left to its own devices."
"Last winter, we started some serious tree removal. It wasn't any of the big ones; more like trees that were growing incorrectly or diseased, largely amongst the smaller copses, to allow some of the nicer oaks and pines to really get flourishing."
"The plan over the next few years is to really get into some of these areas, not necessarily to fell everything and open it up, but fell the things that aren't doing well and allow the ones which are surviving to flourish."
"There are a lot of areas that aren't allowing light and air in currently, the second green being one of them, and the 11th green is pretty tricky as well. They're just sat under shade all day."
"The difference between walking from the 6th green after you have mown it to the 11th green is massive. I mow the 6th in just a t-shirt, and have to put on my jumper to mow the 11th."
Right: Beautiful copper birch unearthed when clearing trees around the par-3 13th
There is strong member interaction and they even help with the improvement works: "We have a group of between three to six members, depending on the week, who do jobs around the course: bits of edging of paths, flower beds, trimming hedges, scrub removal, things like that."
"They're building a path now by the 18th hole. At the moment, the path comes and finishes by the start of the 18th fairway. It's going to follow on from the existing one, and lead around to the greenside."
Rick left school in 2004, wanting to get into agricultural work, so he took a year out to help on his father's farm. Were it not to work out, he would then go on to study at university as his father had hoped for him.
He had been at this for a couple of months when his father, who at the time was also Greens Chairman at Lymm Golf Club, came to him with a proposition.
Rick's father told him that the club had 'a mountain of turf' to lay, and that he had told them Rick would head there the following morning to help them.
He spent the week laying that turf, and other jobs. Then, the staff asked him to stay on for the remainder of the month. That was extended then to three months. And finally, it was extended to a year's contract.
At the end of this twelve months, he suddenly realised he was really enjoying himself. However, the club weren't in a suitable position to offer Rick an apprenticeship so, in 2005, he headed to Elmwood College close to the 'home-of-golf' St. Andrew's district of Scotland, to study for an HNC in Golf Course Management.
This followed his GCSEs and A-levels, which he studied for whilst chasing this traditional route in farming that he had always dreamed of, at Altrincham's North Cestrian Grammar School. During his training, he also gained his spraying and chainsaw certificates.
Upon his return in 2006, he was disappointed to learn that Lymm GC were still unable to offer him a position, so he headed instead to the high-end Delamere Golf Club in Cheshire.
He told us: "The rest is obvious. I was in it then. My dad's farm wasn't big enough anyway. I was enjoying this job, and I'd got into it. I was half-decent at it, so I just stuck with it, and that's ended up with me being where I am now. So, it was no bad thing."
He was a Greenkeeper at Delamere GC for seven years, before being offered his first HG position with municipal Trafford Leisure Trust, which ran the recently-closed William Wroe Golf Club, and still runs the extant Altrincham Golf Club.
He spoke extremely highly of Andy Ralphs, who was and still is Course Manager at Delamere during his tenure there, and jumped at the opportunity to give him a positive mention. "He is the best greenkeeper I have ever come across - best I've ever worked for, best I've ever worked with."
"The course speaks for itself. It's stunning. As a fine turf manager, I couldn't have asked for a better start, because I have never met anyone better at what we do."
"He produces very slick, very true, very tight fine surfaces. And everything he does is traditional. It revolves around low inputs, but he does it so quietly and smoothly that he never appears to be doing anything huge to make something happen; it just happens."
"It's hard to explain why he's so good, but the course is always so immaculately presented and the greens are so true. He is just very naturally talented at the job."
This approach to greenkeeping, which has been passed onto Rick in a demonstrable way, results in a lack of interest in being the victim of salesmanship.
Rick told us that he feels very intimately knowledgeable about his work, and believes in his own ability to do it properly. With this, according to him, comes a reluctance to have potential errors highlighted by salespeople.
In his words: "If someone comes to me and says they know what will make my greens better, I will never buy anything from that person. I would never think of tracking down a plumber and saying, 'That's wrong, mate. I've got a revolutionary way of plumbing. You should do it like this, and use this to help you,' because I'm not a plumber. I don't know how to do their job."
"I enjoy the trip out, when I make the decision to visit trade shows and the like on my own initiative. But, being sold products I haven't already decided I need winds me up a bit."
The major current project at the club is a drive to renovate and improve the bunkers. They have recently done work on two bunkers on the 8th hole, one on the 3rd, one on the 7th, and have started to improve one on the 5th.
Initially, they check whether the bunker has a drain - if not, they install one, or if so, they ensure it is running as it should be by flushing it.
Then, the old bunker shape is demolished and a new one constructed over the location of the old one. On the base of the newly-shaped hole, they have been laying a revetting turf upside-down and spaced slightly apart to allow seepage.
In these is Tarmac TopSport bunker sand, which Rick calls 'excellent'. His summary is that the colour is attractive, and that the density allows comfortable drainage, reduces washdown and resists compaction.
Rick has also been the instigator of tee re-construction course-wide. So far, the team has completely rebuilt a couple, and intend to undertake similar work on the rest. He is an advocate of larger tees than were typical of the time Ashton was finished, to allow each area an occasional rest from divots.
When he arrived at the club, he made it clear that some new equipment would be necessary to achieve his aims. On a 5-year hire purchase agreement, they recently took charge of a plethora of John Deere kit: a 7700A fairway mower; 9009 rough mower; 2500E greens mower; TE Gator utility vehicle.
They also purchased a trio of walk-behind hand mowers, also from John Deere. All were the 220 E-Cut Hybrids.
The team also took the old rough mower and, after a refurbishment, 'demoted' it to become the semi-rough mower.
Of fondness for the John Deere products, Rick said: "I am loyal to them. Amongst other things, I like that they're easy to sit on and drive. Anyone can sit on one and use it, because they're not complicated."
"We've got a lad with us now - he's very good at what he does anyway, and has taken to it easily - but I can imagine if my apprentice was slower to take things up than he has been, it would be even more useful to have something so easy to understand and use."
"I find them good on fuel, very reliable and I find them easier to repair when it comes to that, which makes them especially valuable to me as the member of staff who does all the repairs."
The back up support from Turner Groundscare and in particular Kevin Pickering, is fantastic. They are very reliable and accommodating which has proven priceless during busy periods.
With these, the greens are taken to 4mm during the growth season and 5mm during winter, occasionally reaching 5.5mm depending on conditions.
Collars, tees and approaches are cut as partners at 8mm in season, and fairways are at 13mm year-round, with 18-20mm semi-rough (this cut with a rotary mower) and 2-inch rough length.
Rick describes his aeration technique as: "As often as I can, but with the lowest amount of disturbance I can manage."
"We do two deep tines a year, with a 12mm solid tine. But, we go full depth at 250-300mm. We'll do one at the beginning of the season as we start to show decent signs of growth, then another around this time of year (late August/early September)."
"Other than that, aeration-wise, we use 8-10mm tines with a ProCore to perhaps three or four inches, and we do that monthly across the playing season."
Right: The bunker lining can shed excess wool
"On top of that, we star-slit fortnightly, weekly if we can. We also throw in, every now and then, a sorrel roll. I've also started using the Air2g2, which I do the week after I've done a deep tine, so that's just twice a year as well."
"We work on the principle of doing work little and often. If we star-slit, cut behind, when we hand mow, you can't even tell we've been there. No scarifying or anything like that. We haven't got a thatch problem. Don't do what we don't need to do."
Rick has also taken a strict and self-disciplined approach to the treatment of disease around the course: "When I first came here, it was common to spray up to nine times that year. Damp, shade and lack of air are real issues for us that we're working hard to tackle."
"When I arrived, I decided that at some point the cycle had to be broken. We're not going to have the chemicals we're used to in future, and we can't keep going on as if we will. I stuck my neck on the line. At the first sign of disease, we resist the urge to spray it. Let's try to manage it."
"So, from that point onwards, when there was an onset of disease, we'd put down an application of soluble iron and star-slit the greens, or de-dew them in the morning very early, then cut them a couple of hours later."
"Then it got to summer. I've never used a preventative before, but I used one then. That was 12th August 2016, and that was the last time I sprayed a fungicide, to date."
"After that, we started to change step-by-step. Over winter, I worked to reduce turf stress as much as possible. I'd only cut when it was dry. Whenever there were any signs, I was straight out with a small amount of soluble iron, a light star-slit, shallow aeration, anything non-intrusive."
"And now, the whole culture at the club has changed. Where once we'd find something and immediately spray it, now when we find something, we monitor it and try everything culturally we can first."
"Gradually, it's begun to work. That first year, when we got a disease outbreak, it would be anything around the size of a side plate. Now, they tend to be around the size of a 50p coin, and it will remain at that size which fill in very quickly during the growing season.
"With good cultural practice, scars fill in really quickly. There's no detriment to the surface and no detriment to the golfer due to the low intensity of outbreak. It keeps them happy."
However, his optimism about a world without chemical aids only extended so far: "The worms are a different story. The products we used to use on them, we don't have adequate replacements for. We do everything we can culturally and, after that, it's a case of hoping for the best."
"That's something I'm researching a lot currently, trying to figure out the best things that we can do culturally."
"It's not long that we've been without these products, and I think many of us haven't yet seen the real effects and what's going on under the surface."
"The results are still to be seen by all. I think this next year or two will really start to show us how bad it could be and how hard it's going to be."
"It seems like there's a little turmoil to me, these days. I'm not sure at all where the industry's going, in terms of replacing all of the tools we've recently been losing."
"There are so many different philosophies and budgets in greenkeeping that there's no one correct way to move forward. It's difficult to work under the outward pressures that come from all the indecision."
"Eventually, the problems that we are dealing with in our industry will transfer into the clubhouse, and we may end up getting grief from players. Suddenly, doing this work has gone from having peaks and troughs to just being one big trough."
"I love the job, and there are so many great things about it. But take this year for example - so wet and miserable - these problems have been heightened. It's been a tough one for us here this year."
"Just now, amidst these problems, we've got a generation of young guys who are going into managerial roles whilst the men who taught them are retiring. And we're left with, at the moment, no answers to all the questions which a previous generation have not had to deal with."
"I don't know what we're going to do about leatherjackets in the future. I don't know how we're going to permanently deal with worms. I, by which I mean we, all of us, just don't know categorically yet."
"My generation, coming into this period, are at a particular loss. We're picking up those problems that the generation before mine never had to deal with - the solution to all of their problems was in a bottle or a bag."
What's in the shed
John Deere 2500 E 11 blade greens triple
John Deere 220E-Cut 11 blade greens hand mower x 3
John Deere 2500 E 7 blade tees and approaches triple
John Deere 7700A 7 blade fairway mower
John Deere 3245A 5 deck rotary semi rough/tee banks mower
John Deere 9009A 5 deck rough mower
John Deere E gator
John Deere 6 x 4 gator
John Deere 2030 pro gator (Allman 300ltr Sprayer/Tycrop propass topdresser)
Toro 648 Procore
John Deere 4520 (with loader) tractor
John Deere 3720 (with loader and Lewis Landlord back arm) tractor
John Deere 1026R compact tractor (with rotary deck and collector)
Sisis deep fairway slitter
Sisis Star slitter
Sheldon 3 tonne gravel bander
Lewis 800mm drainage trencher
4 tonne tipper trailer
250kg fertilizer spinner
Tractor mounted blower
Toro 3250 mower (brushing, verti cutting, sorrel rolling)
Stihl strimmers x 4
Stihl chainsaws x 2
Flymo's x 2
Pedestrian fertilizer spinners x 2
Stihl pole saw
Stihl back pack blowers x 2
Read Getting Personal with Rick here