Nine years ago, Alun Hughes was a member at Blackwood Golf Club when the Head Greenkeeper position became vacant, so he took the risk and applied for the job, hoping that his contacts and experience would enable him to improve the course he loved to play.
It was a calculated risk given Alun had spent the last twenty-five years in Grounds Maintenance, with the last fourteen as a Supervisor for Gwent County Council and, latterly, Caerphilly Council. This mainly involved supervising up to forty members of staff with general maintenance, but he also supervised twelve bowling greens and eight cricket squares along with football, rugby, athletics and artificial surfaces, hence, he was no stranger to fine turf.
When Alun first started out, he acquired a City and Guilds qualification in Fine Turf at Usk Agricultural College and also attended various courses throughout his career in the council. Now, since joining Blackwood and, at the age of fifty-four, he has continued his education through becoming a BIGGA member and attending various seminars and training days.
Alun's aim is to fulfil his ambition of providing members with a better understanding of how difficult and varied a job is done on the parkland course. This is achieved through offering walks with the new Captain every year and a monthly programme of works put on the notice board in the clubhouse, but Alun finds the best way is to stop and have a quick chat with members whilst out on the course, on the tee or in the bar. It certainly helps that he is still a playing member with a handicap of eight.
In 2014, the course celebrated its Centenary and covers around twenty acres, 5,500 yards and is nine holes (par 66) with eighteen separate yellow and white box tees.
The soil profile is medium loam and Alun describes the greens as push-up. "They have clay bases, which are over one hundred years old, with varying levels of rootzone, and are mostly poa annua and bent grass. Tees were constructed in the same way, but without the clay base, and I have overseeded the greens with bent grass for the last nine years."
"We reconstructed the 8th green seven years ago with bent grass, after it suffered some vandalism in the form of a watering can of weedkiller, and then we extended it two years ago. I would also like to extend the back of the 9th green and lift it at the front as, at present, we only use half of the green due to the gradient. We will have to wait until funds are available though! We have a greens committee and course manager, but I am responsible for budgets and prepare audits and spreadsheets for the treasurer."
Head Greenkeeper Alun Hughes and the 6th green
Situated in south Wales, the course suffers from extreme weather conditions; especially high rainfall, but are fortunate that the majority of the course drains rapidly and recovers very quickly, therefore is seldom out of play. Alun continued: "We use penetrants throughout the winter on the greens which are verti-drained and hollow tined in September/October and I find that this keeps them reasonably dry."
"We installed a drain two years ago in a low spot on the 6th green but, apart from that and the newly laid 8th, there are no other drains on the greens. However, we are currently looking to install drains in bunkers that suffer from washout."
"Conversely, some parts of the course dry out very quickly and are prone to loss of grass cover, especially on heavy wear areas (walk offs etc.) and I use wetting agents during dry spells."
"In the winter, temporary greens are used when the main ones are frozen; six of them are in the greens aprons and are very good, however, the others are cut on the par threes and are a little bumpy (same for everyone, as I always say!)"
"The course has irrigation to all greens, which is sourced from a stream that runs through the course (via a holding tank and abstraction licence). Tees have to be watered by hand through a greens system and, in the future, I would like to create new tees to give different looks to each hole."
Greens are cut most days during the summer and are kept between 3 and 4mm. Depending on the weather, and if there are any competitions planned, they are cut with a Toro 3250 and, in the winter, they are hand cut at 5mm with a Ransomes Super Certes.
Alun commented: "We spike the greens every three weeks using various tines but only use pencil tines throughout the summer with a John Deere AercoreTM 1000. Once a year, during September or October, they are hollow tined with 18mm tines, overseeded and topdressed with a sand only dressing and then dragmatted and brushed in. During winter, we hand spike with a Sisis Supaturfman, which is really important for improving drainage whilst reducing turf compaction and thatch build up."
"The greens are also verti-drained once a year using 25mm, 12inch depth tines by an outside contractor. We use scarifying cassettes on the Toro 3200 monthly followed by a light, sand only, top dressing applied with a Jacobsen Cushman conveyor spreader before brushing in. End of season renovations include the levelling, repair and seeding of tees and aprons and we edge all the bunkers before topping up the sand."
"Tees and approaches are cut at 11mm, three times a week, with a Toro 3200 and fairways are cut two or three times a week, at 18mm with a Toro 5400. We use a Toro 3100 for the first cut and approaches to the par 3s, which are cut at 25mm, whilst the rough is cut once a week at 45mm with a John Deere 2720. For the edging rough, we use a John Deere 2720 once a week at 75mm."
Regular soil samples are taken to ascertain the work that needs to be carried out before a programme is drawn up for the coming year. There is a monthly fertiliser programme in place, mainly using liquids which include seaweeds and micro nutrients mixtures, which are sprayed with a Vitax Evensprey 30 litre battery-powered sprayer. Alun only uses three granular feeds; one in March to kick start greens, one in July/August to prevent Anthracnose and a final one incorporated with hollow tining in September/October. Wetting agents, penetrants and fungicides are also used when necessary.
The tees and approaches only have two feeds per year, in March and October, using slow release granular. At the same time, they are spiked using the Aercore with 15mm tines and they are repaired weekly, dressed and levelled with 70/30 rootzone once per year, usually during October.
"The fairways and rough are fertilised and weedkilled by Alan Abel of Complete Weed Control once a year," Alun continued. "Alan supplies our fungicides, herbicides etc. and also sprays our fairways and rough annually. I had periodic contact with Alan in my local authority days, and he always offers great support and help and is my sounding board if I need a second opinion."
Alun also calls upon a group of members who, for the last few weeks in conjunction with the Captain, have been helping with divoting the fairways every monday morning.
Alun with son Owain and grandson Eli
Keep it in the family
Aside from a little external help, back on the course Alun has just one other member of staff whom he knows very well; his son Owain, who is twenty-seven and has been at the course for the past eight years. Owain passed his Sports Turf qualification, at Pencoed College, four years ago and ranks presentation very highly on his list
of priorities. Alun commented: "Owain is forever taking photos for his facebook account whenever he has finished a fairway! We take care extra care to remove clumped grass from the fairways and spend a lot of time with the blower when it's been wet."
"Owain is a hard worker and we work well together, sometimes only meeting first thing in the morning as we take our breaks when we've completed the job at hand and it's great to have trust in him to get the job done."
Owain said: "It's a real honour and privilege to work alongside my father, and I have learnt a lot from him. It doesn't always go down very well at family gatherings, where obviously, we quite often talk about work and our plans for the next day or upcoming events etc. It will be no surprise if my own son, Eli, who is currently two, takes up the profession, as he quite often flicks through the Pitchcare magazine. It's a nightmare at bedtime though, as it can be quite a long bedtime story! I really enjoy creating, not only a good looking course, but one where the surfaces provide an excellent opportunity to play some good golf, and it's a job where you're continually learning new things and solving problems; it certainly keeps you on your toes!"
Alun continued: "My daughter Nia, also helps out behind the bar in the club whenever possible. Back on the course, we could certainly do with an extra pair of hands sometimes and, given how small our team, it's certainly a case of all hands to the pump. We both have our spraying certificates and can operate all machinery."
"We try to do much of the maintenance and repairs in-house, but sometimes we use the local Toro and John Deere dealerships, Ted Hopkins and Frank Sutton. We recently were able to purchase a new John Deere tractor with the help of our members. A number of them invested £250 each and we held a monthly draw to determine who is paid back each month. We also acquired some machinery second-hand from a local club and/or local dealer, which is why we're not loyal to one manufacturer as we can't be picky."
"It would be really great to purchase a few bits of new machinery as our youngest machine is eight years old. Two of the Toros are twelve and one is fourteen, whilst the tees mower is sixteen years old, so it's fair to say we're on borrowed time, although good servicing and maintenance is keeping us going at the moment!"
"Prior to me starting at Blackwood, the Aercore machine had, sadly, been under-used for a few years and now, as a result of regular use, greens are much healthier. We suffer with airflow problems on our putting green and are always fighting a battle with moss, so aeration, aeration, aeration is key to us and we hire in a Verti-drain once a year from a local club, Greenmeadow. We tend to outsource any large treework when necessary, and annually hire a side arm flail to maintain the hedges and overgrown areas along with additional tree operatives if necessary."
Back to the strong team of two, Alun takes care of all on-site health and safety issues and is responsible for first aid. He gained an Advanced Health and Safety qualification during his time with the Council and the club are visited annually by the Local Authority HSE for reviews and checks. "I updated all the risk assessments and method statements using the blueprints from Caerphilly Council and I try to attend as many seminars as possible" Alun added. "I find this, along with the regular updates from Pitchcare, keeps me up to speed for day to day maintenance and plans for the future."
"In the last three years, we have extended a green and installed a land drain, all by hand, which was a lot of work and we have also made two new tees and two new fairway bunkers. We've installed bunker liners and drains in two further bunkers; one suffering from washout during heavy rain and the other which had a gravel bed protruding through an old liner that had perished. To say we're busy is an understatement!"
"As well as the course, we have a putting green with practice net, a small 120m by 30m practice area and a small pond and stream running through the course to maintain. There are also two beautiful patio areas with shrubs and flower beds and a lawned area on the entrance which are all maintained by us. We have a new buggy compound and trolley container and have recently installed an air hose and collection container for shoe and trolley cleaning."
The change in weather patterns have certainly made a difference to how Alun and Owain maintain the course and, as with many greenkeepers, cutting for longer periods puts stresses on the out of season maintenance. "We seem to go from very wet to very dry spells within days. Last month, we had four inches of rain in five days, just when I decided to put a penetrant on our first green. It went from one of the wettest periods to ten days of immensely dry hot weather and five consecutive days of temperatures being in the thirties, which meant I had to use a wetting agent!"
Damp and moist springs over the last few years also mean the course has suffered with attacks of fusarium, and the advice from Complete Weed Control is invaluable in dealing with these. In addition to this Alun feels, given the current legislation issues, it will be necessary to look into new controls for leatherjackets and worms this year as usually he sprays them with insecticides.
The course also has regular visits from foxes which Alun doesn't seem to mind. "In the early mornings, it's lovely to see foxes and it only means we have to rake the bunkers!"
Right: Recently installed duck house in the pond
Ecology and environment
Alun continued: "I find ecology on the course very important and really interesting. We have some 100-year-old heather bordering one of our greens which was in place when the course was built in 1914, so obviously we look after this carefully. As do we the large wildflower areas and grass roughs bordering the course."
"We don't currently have an environmental policy in place but it's something I'm aiming to implement very soon. We have visits from the Local Authority Environmental Team who have offered advice on maintenance and carried out surveys in our pond over a series of days and nights which they found to be extremely healthy. We have also reared a family of ducklings over the past few years and recently installed a duck house in the pond as well as bird boxes throughout the course."
About our industry
"I think it's a hard time for the industry at present, with memberships dropping. More players are taking the option to pay and play, which means they can visit various courses without the need for paying a membership somewhere. There seems to be a squeeze on options for treating various diseases and pests where, perhaps, greenkeepers need to think more out of the box, as old methods become obsolete."
"I think we are undervalued a little by players who, whenever they hit a bad shot, blame the greenkeeper... I imagine all courses have members like these, however the majority of members fully appreciate our efforts" Alun concluded.
What's in the shed
Toro 3250 Greensmaster
Toro 3200 greens mower
Toro 3100 Sidewinder
Toro 5400 Reelmaster
John Deere 2720 compact tractor
Ransomes Super Certes
Jacobsen Cushman spreader
Vitax Evensprey 30 litre sprayer
Iseki mini digger
John Deere AercoreTM 1000
Husqvarna trimmer (143R-II)
John Deere BP50 blower
Husqvarna chainsaw (455 Rancher)
Read Getting Personal with Alun here