As I pull into the car park at Builth Wells Golf Club, I am immediately struck by its beautiful location, sitting as it does amongst picturesque countryside about fifteen miles north of the Brecon Beacons National Park. More 'Mid-Wales' you couldn't get.
It is here that the course was founded in 1923, originally as a nine-hole, and it remained that way until 1986 when a further nine holes were added.
The club markets itself both as a 'hidden gem' and a 'stern test for golfers', and it's hard to argue those statements when you see how well the natural topography of the land has been used to create the course. As well as woodlands and ponds, the River Chwefri runs through much of it, creating additional golfing hazards as it meanders on its merry way to join its 'big brother', the River Wye, just a few hundred metres away.
Unusually, Builth Wells has no par 5s off the men's tees, and comprises twelve par 4s and six par 3s which measure a total of 5,420 yards off the white tees.
My unannounced early morning visit meant that my first task was to actually find a greenkeeper and, after walking across two sun scorched fairways, I found one cutting a tee. He kindly pointed me in the direction of the 9th, to where I 'should' find the head greenkeeper; all the while watching me head off into the distance armed with my camera equipment and notepad.
And so it was that I found Matt Horton grooming the 13th green. After introducing myself - and him getting over the shock of seeing me no doubt - he agreed to meet up with me to talk about his course once his morning chores had been completed.
So, for the next hour, I found myself walking around the course, taking relevant pictures, and looking out for the otters that Matt had told me could often be seen along the river.
When I eventually made my way back to the clubhouse, Matt and two of his assistants had finished their early morning tasks (grooming, mowing greens and tees) and were enjoying a well earned break.
The clubhouse is a grade 2 listed building, being a converted 15th century 'Welsh Long House'. It features several original oak beams and provides pleasant surroundings for the club's membership of just over 200.
Matt has been employed at the course for twenty-five years and became Head Greenkeeper in 1991. Previously, he had worked for the local council on the school playing fields. I was surprised to learn, given the standard of the course I had just witnessed, that the two members of staff with him were, in fact, his only staff - John Sampson (fourteen years service) and Gustavo Bongioanni (four years). I was also to learn, very quickly, that Matt is extremely camera shy and refused to have his photo taken!
Matt began by explaining that, for general course duties, the three of them manage fairly well but, when required, they will all work beyond their contracted hours to ensure the course is prepared for the day. It is, he says, "a commitment that I fully appreciate."
"This July's hot weather has made life at work more demanding," explained Matt. "We've been coming in as early as 4.00am to water the greens, before carrying on with the regular works programme."
"During the really hot temperatures, watering ties up one man for up to eight hours a day, just to keep them alive!" This is partly due to the fact their old pop up system, installed in the late 1980s, does not cover the greens that well, having only three heads per green and undersized pipework, which leaves areas under watered resulting in time consuming hand watering. The pumps have recently been upgraded thanks to a generous member, and Matt is hoping the club will invest in the next stage of upgrading the system in the near future so that he can target water usage more efficiently. "We will, of course, be doing the work ourselves to save money."
I am again surprised because, with just the three of them, I wonder how on earth would they get it done. Matt explains that, when they are undertaking any winter construction, he can call on help from some of the members, citing Greens Chairman Tim Pritchard, Mike Hughes, Bob Hardwick, Trevor Price and John Smith as being particularly helpful. For example, last year, they assisted with extending and levelling tees and enlarging one of the ponds.
All eighteen greens are a soil push up construction, but a regular topdressing programme, instigated when Matt took over the reins, has helped to change the top 100mm into a more sandy rootzone. "We like to keep the greens on the dry side," he explains further, "and keep feeding to a minimum, usually with less than 30kg/N being applied annually. This has resulted in firmer, fescue/bent dominated greens that are more resistant to disease."
"Feeding is tailored around a liquid nitrogen product with some seaweed extracts, which is applied little and often; no phosphates have been applied since around the mid 90s, except those present in the Porthcawl and seaweed products we use."
"When I started here back in the early 1990s, the club was spending in excess of £5000 a year on fungicide treatments. This year, we've only spent £25 on fungicides for some spot treatments. I believe the combination of good cultural practices and keeping the greens drier and leaner has helped reduce the incidence of disease and encouraged the finer grasses."
Over the past five years, the greens have been treated with Rescue to eradicate large areas of rye and Yorkshire Fog. It has also had some effect on the coarser native bents, which has opened up the sward for the finer grasses to become the dominant species on the majority of greens. At least eight of the greens have 60-70% fescue with as little as 10-15% Poa, whilst the remaining greens have a higher percentage of Poa; regular overseeding continues to slowly increase the desirable grasses.
The greens are cut on a daily basis at 4mm in the summer and 7mm in the winter, and are groomed every ten days or so along with regular brushing. Tees are cut 2-3 times a week and kept at 12mm all year round. The fairways are cut twice a week to 18mm all year round. Semi rough is kept at 30mm, whilst the rough is managed at 50mm, cutting as required.
All this work is undertaken with an old fleet of Toro equipment, some of which are over twenty years old and still going strong. "Some of the Toro mowers have over 5,000 hours on the clock, so that's a testament to their original build quality," states Matt. "It would be nice to have some new mowers but, in the present economic climate, it's a case of waiting until there's a need to replace a machine."
"All three of us have a very practical approach to maintaining and repairing the machinery to keep them operational, and we've also built up a good relationship with Smithfields Tractors in the town, and Ted Hopkins, who undertake any major repairs."
The club have two greens mowers, a fairway mower, a rough mower and two tee and apron mowers which are serviced and sharpened annually.
Matt's aeration programme centres around micro-tining (undertaken by Highfield Contractors) on a monthly basis from April to October, regular slitting in the winter months on a ten day cycle, using their old Sisis Hydromain. This machine is also used to brush the greens. In the spring and autumn, he hires in a verti-drain from John Morgan in Usk to deep aerate the greens, taking the opportunity to overseed with bent and fescue grasses during the autumn pass.
Topdressing is carried out twice a year with a fen 70/30 rootzone, applying around a tonne per green. In total, there are 9000 square metres of fine turf to manage.
Sometimes, with so much work to achieve for a small team, necessity dictates that some works get delayed or, occasionally, not done at all because, as Matt points out almost appologetically, there are only so many hours in the day.
"Holes are generally changed twice a week, or as wear dictates," says Matt. "Green speed averages around 8-9ft on the stimp, I've recorded speeds of 10.5ft at 6mm in the summer when greens are allowed to firm up and growth is controlled."
The club have recently invested in a moisture metre to help Matt keep an eye on the greens. "I like to keep them between 10% and 15%, which is possibly on the low side but, with rooting of eight inches or more, visually the greens do not suffer." he states. "In the past, greens were overfed and overwatered which resulted in them becoming Poa dominated, leading to thatch. This, in turn, resulted in disruptive and costly annual hollow coring. Control of water and fertiliser has resulted in no hollow coring since 2002."
"During the winter months, they were prone to flooding. Some winters, the course would have been closed for several weeks. Now, with our drier, leaner philosophy and more sand in the top layer, the course is rarely closed."
"However," Matt points out, "with Wales getting more than its fair share of rain, I tend to have a higher moisture content during the wetter winter periods, perhaps more like 35% at times, but there's a limit to what we can do about that due to the heavy clay underlying the greens and surrounding areas; too much rainfall is a bigger problem here than too little."
Matt has also been using a Clegg Hammer to monitor the firmness of his greens. "Experience has shown that, on the heavy underlaying clay at Builth, any degree of overwatering will jeopardise all year round play. Water is applied only to keep the greens ticking over, not to make them soft or green, although it can be difficult at times to convince people that greens do not have to be bright green, lush and soft to be good!
Current management has resulted in less course closure, less fungicides/pesticides and a reduced maintenance budget, it is sustainable management. I believe that, if the decision had not been made in 2002 to change policy, the current economical climate would have dictated a change in policy. Fortunately, due to the foresight of previous committees and very thick skinned greens chairmen over the period, we have had some control over the transition from Poa to the finer grasses."
Asked about wildlife issues, Matt explains that they recycle cut timber, leaving wood piles around the course to provide a home for insects and small mammals which, in turn, provide a rich food source for buzzards, red kites, herons and the myriad smaller birds to be found in the region.
Salmon are found in the river, which probably accounts for the sighting of otters and polecats out on the course; Great Crested Newts are in abundance, in and around the ponds.
On the downside, there are large populations of rabbits and squirrels, which are kept under control by trapping and reducing the food source, with the latter method used to keep badger numbers down. Preventative sprays of insecticide are used to control leather jackets and chafer grubs.
And what else can visitors and members expect to see on the course? "Well, during the week of the Royal Welsh Show it is not unusual to expect the emergency landing of a hot air balloon or two, and helicopters often land here," says Matt with a smile.
It would seem that Builth Wells is a very busy golf course - on the ground, from the skies and underwater - but especially for the dedicated team of three greenkeepers. The club should be very proud of what they achieve, year in year out on, what appears to be, a very limited budget.