At well over 1,000ft above sea level, Bolton Golf Club should be a hotbed of extreme weather phenomena and accompanying difficult turf conditions. But if anything is bothering Head Greenkeeper Richard Banning, 36, it is quite the opposite issue: decreasingly severe weather year-on-year. Thankfully, he and his team have worked hard over the last 18 months to turn around the negative effects of the mild air. Jake Barrow reports.
Richard (pictured above) was part of a major recruitment drive that accompanied the departure of his predecessor in late 2015. Since then, his team's primary focus has been on disease control.
"We're running a joint programme with ALS and ICL now, on the use of fungicides. That's because the main thing we've been focusing on the last couple of years is the management of disease, as I bet a lot of people are. And the club have announced a zero-tolerance policy on disease as of this year."
"I buy quite a lot of my stuff from Gary Potter at ALS for that. We buy fertilisers and fungicides."
"The struggles we've been having with that recently are purely because we're in the North-West. The environment here is extremely difficult for healthy growth. You could travel around the world and not find many places as difficult as North-West England in which to grow fine turf."
"And that's especially true now. I'd say over the last couple of years, the climate is definitely changing. It's become humid. It's become wet."
"That's even in summer; it's wet all year round. We've gone into very mild winters, which are damp. That doesn't help anyone with their efforts towards disease control."
"We're cutting the outfield now well into November and maintaining the greens on a full programme all year round, which wasn't ever the case 10 years ago. That, in turn, reduces the time you get to spend on construction."
"Last year, we probably had one or two frosts. But we're not talking about hard, deep frosts. There were light frosts that don't provide much help. We could do now with a good, cold winter to kill off anything that was still lingering around."
"The soil is pure clay. They used to quarry over there, up on Winter Hill. We're on the side of the hill rather than in the valley though, so that helps with the drainage a little."
"What that does also mean, however, is when the weather gets bad, it's difficult to access the course properly. When it rains a lot, or when it freezes, getting to the greens is a problem."
Thankfully for Richard and his team, they have found other ways to combat these issues, and have been largely successful in those endeavours so far.
One of the major projects they have undertaken in recent years is to massively improve the drainage of the bunkers by lining them, and turning them into sand-facing bunkers, where previously many were grass-facing.
Another is the construction of a new tee box, which has taken place just this year. This is to enlarge the teeing area on one of the par 3s, which will allow more variance in position and length.
As seen in the video footage above, the removal of several hundred trees from key areas, including tees, greens and vulnerable fairway, has proven a useful method for the reduction of fungal strains like microdochium nivale (fusarium).
At the time of Richard's interview, it was peak fusarium season, and there didn't appear to be any discolouration on the couple of greens that were visited.
This emphasis on the improvement of shade and airflow in key parts of the course has, in Richard's opinion, improved both green speed and the strength of the tee boxes.
"The plus side to all this is that we've been implementing other systems to tackle the same problem."
"We're also just about to take some more of these greenside trees from the 9th, because when we did the first few it opened up a nice view, so we can make that even better."
"We've done most of the tree removals by the 12th tee, the 16th tee, as well as the 9th green which we've just visited."
"The coverage of the grass on those tees is a lot better. The tees used to be very weak because they were completely in the shade, but they're much stronger now."
"Because we got so little fusarium on that 9th green last winter, it's one of the best greens on the course. In previous years, we have had disease on that green, especially around the back. But we've seen a big improvement."
The lack of frost does have its upsides. The club very rarely uses temporary tees or greens, as may be expected on a top-end course. This is more possible by the fine drainage under the greens.
This is the result of a major recent investment into the drainage system. To combat the typically-Pennine clay base, under every green is now pipe drainage. In most of the greens, there was an existing outlet from the previous drainage system, so all that was required was to link the new piping to this.
Richard said: "We also have a drainage contractor that comes in for us: Duncan Ross. He's brilliant, and we did a lot of our work with him - just fixing the drains, clearing the drains, anything that was problematic with them."
"An example of the way he helps is that he's just dug an open ditch down one of the fairways."
And it's unsurprising that there have been several such systems on a course as old as this one. The course was formed in 1912, designed by R. Hermon Crook. And, in typical northern fashion, it came about because of a schism.
The original Bolton Golf Club had begun life in Farnworth 21 years earlier, in 1891, but shortly thereafter made its move to its current location of Smithills (about half a mile further up the hill upon which BGC lies), where it is now known as 'Bolton Old Links Golf Course'.
In those early Georgian days, many members were uncomfortable with the business priorities of the land owner from whom they rented the course's 9-hole land. Apparently, he was too concerned with gathering hay from fairways.
The current 'Bolton Golf Club' and 'Bolton Old Links Golf Club' are essentially two arms of that same club, the former made up of members unhappy with the original club's running, and the latter made up of loyalists to its management.
In the eyes of many, the Old Links competes with close neighbour BGC for the title of the region's best golf course. Both, according to 'top100golfcourses.com', can lay claim to being amongst Lancashire's twenty best.
About a year after BGC's formation at Lostock Park, H. S. Colt dictated the order in which the newly-built holes should be played. That same year, 1913, the clubhouse was built around 100 yards from Chorley New Road, at a cost of just £3,000.
Their current staff consists of Richard, Deputy Head Neil Lyons - also part of the recent recruitment drive and with BGC for circa 18 months, Assistant Greenkeeper and Mechanic Mike Wright - a 28-year veteran at the club, Steven Murray - an Assistant Greenkeeper a year into his BGC career, and Matthew Bridge - another one-year-served Assistant and the resident first aider.
They also have two members of staff who work just during the summers. One is a part-time gardener, and the other is the final Assistant Greenkeeper.
These men take charge of the 102-acre, 18-hole parkland course, which Richard describes as "compact". This figure includes, adjacent to the car park, an 11-acre practice facility comprising driving range, a 100-yard pitching area and two chipping greens.
And the facility is not just a local Mecca for golfers, but also for golfing administration. It has the distinctive honour of accommodating the North of England division of the Professional Golfers' Association.
They rent 'Cottage No. 2', part of BGC's clubhouse complex, although the two organisations are entirely distinct.
The PGA Great Britain and Ireland's remit includes education, tournament organisation, publication of official guidance on the sport and the training of club professionals.
Richard started his greenkeeping career in 2004, when he was taken on immediately from Myerscough College in Preston.
He studied for a National Diploma in Turf Science and Sports Ground Management during his four years at Myerscough, as well as attaining his spraying certificates (PA1, PA2 and PA6) and a Level 2 Horticulture course took up the first of those years.
Since then, he has completed courses in team leadership, man management, and the CS30 and CS31 chainsaw certificates.
He also undertook a placement at the high-end The Wisley club in Surrey. Of this, he said: "You've never seen anything like the equipment shed they had down there."
"It was on another level. That was a world-class venue; a different world. It was a massive, 27-hole complex, and it was amazing."
"That, thankfully, is where I got my standards. Whenever I do work here, I aim for those standards that I developed at The Wisley."
"I really enjoyed my time there, and took inspiration from Course Manager Dave Whitaker. I'd say that I've learnt a good amount from every head greenkeeper that I've worked under, and been inspired by them all."
He got into the work when golfing at Horwich Golf Club, a 9-hole course very close to both BGC and where Richard grew up. Neil Wolfrey was the greenkeeper there at the time, and was the first person to introduce Richard to the job.
Having enjoyed The Wisley so much, he knew that he was working in the correct industry and headed back to the north, and close to where he grew up, taking an Assistant Greenkeeper's role at Deane Golf Club.
In 2004, after his stint at Deane, he became an assistant at BGC before earning promotion to Deputy Head Greenkeeper nine years later.
This was followed shortly, in 2015, by a further step up to Acting Head Greenkeeper, which turned into a permanent Head Greenkeeper position upon his predecessor's departure in November 2016.
His description of the months since his commandeering of the post include an acceptance of increased paperwork and pressure. He said: "I'd say it's a lot more stressful than working as a non-managerial greenkeeper. Communicating with the committees and the chairmen is the big difference, and it's something that's got to develop over time. I wouldn't say I'm fully used to it, but I'm getting used to it."
"And one thing you can't get away from is that there's a lot more paperwork. I love this job, but that's one of the little things I hate. The health and safety people gave us a big booklet to fill out, packed with risk assessments."
With him in charge, the club has just invested in a new hybrid greens mower, the John Deere 2500E. With this, the team alternate between groomers and brushes, which allays the need for massive dedicated scarifying.
With this new mower, they cut to no lower than 4mm in the summer, and in winter they switch to Toro1000 hand mowers, cutting to a maximum of 6mm. These hand mowers now also have brushes attached to them.
They do not cut every day through summer, for the same reason that they avoid ever cutting below 4mm on those greens: Richard feels there in no reason to cause excess stress to the grass if performance remains at an acceptable level. He says there's no need to cut it any more than 2-3 times per week.
The new greens mower is not the only new machine. It is accompanied by a fairway mower, which they use to cut to 15mm. The fairways are verti-drained once per year, properly scarified twice per year, and last year Richard ordered that they be slit too.
Their first cut is 30mm, and the semi-rough is twice that long. Two more new mowers, Paladin hand mowers, cut the tee boxes to an even 10mm.
They hire JCBs and Air2G2s, but everything else is owned, and partly maintained by their in-house mechanic, with the help of a Horwich-based contractor.
Richard's take is that machinery needs to be modern or else standards slip, and he loosely demonstrated to us that he has a 10-year plan for the full replacement of machinery and equipment mapped out in his head, and told us that he feels the club will do well if that plan is fulfilled.
Richard talks with a distinct slant on end of season renovations: "On our green we do a lot of aeration. We do lots of that, and lots of topdressing over the summer months."
"We verti-drain the tees and the approaches, which are cut to the same length as the tees. We also do verti-cutting across the approaches, greens and tees, roughly monthly."
"However, this year, I overseeded the greens earlier than usual, in about June. So, throughout July I didn't verti-cut. In future years, we're looking to over-seed more than we currently do, but for now it's just the once a year during summer."
"I wouldn't say that end of season renovation work is a 'myth' as such, but all the important foundation work should realistically be done anyway."
"If you get to the time renovations would usually come around, and realise that you desperately need to undertake serious work, you've not been doing everything correctly up until that point."
On Pitchcare and other companies, Richard told us he'd spoken to BIGGA that morning, and intimated that it might be a good idea for them to turn up to the club of an evening someday and help with member interactions.
He emphasises that organisations could be doing more to bridge the gap between greenkeepers and golfers, and one way to do this might be to organise educational events.
More than this though, he said: "Even with the magazines, sometimes it feels like there are two blocks, the greenkeepers and the golfers."
"Maybe your output could sometimes aim itself directly at the consumers of the sport rather than just the professionals. If you don't go exclusively technical and perhaps try to educate golfers that way, by direct contact, the relationships between us and them might be better for it."