Castle Stuart sits alongside the southern banks of the inner reaches of the Moray Firth, and is one of a clutch of new links courses that has enriched Scotland's golfing heritage in recent years.
It is an area steeped in beauty and history, from the battlefields of Culloden, Urquhart Castle and Fort Augustus to the prominent 'humpback' mountain Meal Fuar Mhonaidh which serves as a reminder of the nearby looming presence of Loch Ness and the Great Glenn that connects Inverness on the east coast with Fort William on the west. Depending on your viewpoint, there's even the opportunity of seeing 'Nessie'.
Castle Stuart's stated aim is "to add to the heritage of golf in the Scottish Highlands, made rich by Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Brora, and many other fine Scottish golf clubs".
Construction began in 2006, with the 18-hole, 7450 yard (from the tips) course opening in 2009. Charged with overseeing the build and grow-in was Stuart Mcolm, who is now General Manager, along with developer and designer, Mark Parsinen, and American architect, Gil Hanse; his associate, Jim Wagner; and Chris who was employed as Construction Manager/shaper, then handled the grow in and, latterly, course management.
The course has already won a number of accolades, including 'Top New International Course' followed, in 2011, by its first appearance in the Golf Digest 'Top 100 courses of the World', coming in at a very respectable 56th place first time out.
Chris Haspell's route to becoming a greenkeeper started at his local cricket and bowls club, helping out Head Groundsman, Geoff Brearton. "I was only ten years old, but he let me cut the outfield with an old Allett mower with a Reliant engine. I guess that first smell of cut grass stuck with me," he exclaims. "In these Health and Safety conscious times, you could never do that now, which is a great shame as kids miss the work ethic."
Chris trained at Reaseheath College where he gained an NTC in Groundsmanship, followed by Phase 1 to 4 NVQ Greenkeeping, putting his qualifications to good use preparing wickets for Minor Counties cricket. "I also played cricket at this level, so enjoyed producing pitches that played to our strengths," he says with a smile.
"I moved to golf in 1989, and lived and worked in Denmark for eleven years before taking up the position at Castle Stuart. It was Charles Smith and Justin Lee that got me into greenkeeping - Justin is still a Course Manager in Cheshire. Richard Campey gave me the drive to think more outside the box whilst, latterly, Mark Parsinen, Gil Hanse and Stuart Mcolm have been a big influence. I have designed and built golf courses on my own and with others, but no one matches their drive and eye for detail."
Chris has, in his own words, "the pleasure of working with a fantastic team" at Castle Stuart. "James Hutchinson is my deputy, who has been here since 2007. First assistant is Alan Cadden (2008), Darren Skinner and Roy Grant (both 2007), Graham Fraser (2008), Stephen Macleod (2011), Ray Souter (2009), Alf Leslie and John Mclean (2010), apprentice Robert Fraser, who we took on in 2012, plus Stuart Hawker and Chris Germano (our Australian intern) who have just started with us, complete the current team. I should also mention some key players who have left to pursue their own dreams and ambitions; Kevin Mcbey, Darren Hexley, Andrew Baillie, Graham Winter, Ross Weeden, John Milne, Neil Cameron and James Taylor, all of whom played a part in construction and grow in - if you are reading this guys, thanks for your help!"
"Most of my younger guys have started here as apprentices or assistants, some of whom have moved on to higher positions on other courses.
For example, James Taylor is now Head Greenkeeper at Wick Golf Club and Neil Cameron is building the Olympic course in Rio. I am extremely proud of all our guys."
"I am all for personal development," continues Chris. "I was lucky to have some great Head Greenkeepers and Course Managers, who helped me in my career, and I get a real buzz from seeing my staff progress, both on this course and away from if that's what they want to do. I try and send one guy away every winter to Australia for sixth months and I place others at different courses and tournaments. Personally, I believe it does you good to look over the fence if you get the chance. If I can help to give that chance to someone who wants to take it, then great,
However, it's not for everyone. I hold appraisals every year for all of my staff, and it's amazing what people's hopes and aspirations are; if, in some way, we can help them progress on any level, we try."
All the staff are compliant with current legislation but, as Chris points out, it changes so quickly it's a struggle to keep up!
"We don't employ a workshop technician as I like all the guys to get experience on grinding, fixing, setting etc., although James and I handle the bulk of it. General servicing and machinery maintenance is carried out in-house but, for any large or complex repairs we use one of our dealers, either Fairways or Macgregors depending on the machine, who are both just down the road in Inverness."
"Whilst talking machinery, I'll use various methods of purchase. This might be outright, a five-year replacement deal, or even second-hand. We used to purchase our Toro machines on a five-year deal, but they now deal direct, so there is no dealer involved. We were never convinced that some of their machines were right for the conditions here, which they understood, so I now source what I believe is the best site specific mac hine for the job. For example, the Jacobsen 1880 for fairways and surrounds is great with its eleven blade units and groomers; and the Jacobsen Eclipse, with its constant cut rate, increases speed on the greens at a slightly higher cutting height. We have a John Deere 8800 for semi roughs. On top of that, the Flex 21s are great and the Toro ProCore 648 aerators are excellent, every course should have one of them!
One of the most important things for me though is service back up close by."
The Castle Stuart greens were constructed on a pure, one metre deep sand base, with 40cm of screened sand added over the top. They were then seeded with a mix of seven types of fescue and, whilst there is no natural buffer or ability to hold nutrient, they perform, according to Chris, pretty well!
"The site is very exposed," he goes on to explain, "so we have to monitor green speed very carefully. We take soil samples once a year for organic matter, P, K, Mg trace elements etc. We also check the moisture in the rootzone on a regular basis, along with soil temperatures, hydrophobic activity etc. Plant health going into winter is the key as this helps stave off most of the desiccation."
"Cold easterly winds are our biggest problem though," bemoans Chris, "and, whilst we normally get 600mm of rain here, the last two years have seen over double that. The most memorable weather event was the wash out on the Saturday at the Scottish Open in 2011 when 88mm fell in just three hours! So we have installed storm drains, just in case we get another 'every 100 years' weather event. A big thank you to all the team, who were here to keep that tournament moving."
"We've got a full Toro GDC irrigation system, which is really good and many metres of supplementary drainage to cope with most eventualities, but that one was beyond us!"
"In a 'normal' year, we will cut the greens at about 5mm or, if needed, down to 4.5mm. We cut or roll everyday in the growing season, using the Toro Flex 21 pedestrian mowers in the week, whilst at weekends, to save on labour, we use our two Jacobsen Eclipse hybrid mowers - with no hydraulics at all, and especially when there's a tournament coming up, I can sleep easy."
"We use 120 tonnes of dressing a year from Hugh King as and when required, and the greens also get a 4:0:8 from time to time, along with some supplements, such as seaweed, trace elements etc. We generally aerate once a month using the ProCores fitted with 8mm tines. We put down around 80-90kgs of N in a normal year, and double that in K; that's if we ever get 'normal' again. Fairways are topdressed with screened sand from site."
"We also roll if we need to for trueness and speed using Tru Turf rollers, but we keep this to a minimum as I find they are abrasive on the fescue."
"We have never sprayed a fungicide for fusarium or dollar spot, although we have for thatch collapse. Heritage and a wetting agent seems the best deterrent, but not letting the surfaces get too wet or too dry is a big part of its control. We also use a full Revolution surfactant programme."
Tees are cut with Toro 1000s and topdressed as required, cut two or three times a week depending on growth, along with applications of 4:0:8, regular aeration and levelling, which Chris considers is a must. They are cleaned for broken tee pegs, cigarette ends and suchlike every day in the morning set up routine.
"Apart from my divot crew, who are great and happy doing what they do, I like all staff to be trained in every task though, at certain times, I know who is stronger at certain things and tend to play people to their strengths, a bit like managing a sports team really. When you know your team, you should know when to play them for maximum effect. Don't misunderstand me though, they are all proficient at any task."
"The bottom line is that, for us, presentation is paramount," continues Chris. "The first impression and a lasting impression are what we are about. We don't have members to form a back bone in terms of income, so we have to strive to be the best we can be every day. I provide regular stimp readings and inform the shop of anything we might be doing out on the course. I also speak with the customers to gauge their feelings about the course and how it is playing."
"To avoid disturbing golfers unduly, we do all our renovation work from late October onwards, along with projects such as extra drainage and slight edits to bunkers, tees etc."
"We are custodians of a fantastic landscape," continues Chris, "so it is very important that we work and conform with all the environmental agencies. We have great relationships with all of them, and our environmental consultant, Bob Taylor, is always available to assist us with any projects. Currently, we are concentrating on bird boxes and rainwater harvesting."
"Golf is at a low ebb right now, so anything we can do to raise its profile can only be for the good of the game. There are probably too many golf courses in certain areas of the country. I think this will eventually sort itself out as the economy improves, though unfortunately it will be too late for some."
Asked if we are undervalued as an industry, Chris replies; "To a certain degree, yes. Most golf courses employ several members of staff, depending on the level of presentation required by that individual course. Whichever golf course you are on, to build that course again would cost millions of pounds and, if you were a bank manager or project manager responsible for that kind of investment, you would be paid accordingly. I feel, at times, that is not the case in our profession. As a Head Greenkeeper or Course Manager you have the weight of that investment on your shoulders. If it fails, it impacts on the business as the course is its biggest asset."
"When dealing with Mother Nature, there will always be bumps in the road, and it's the ability to formulate a plan to gain consistency for as much of the year as possible that is the key. That is, indeed, the key in any business. Anybody who can do that successfully and with a good deal of consistency should be rewarded accordingly."
"The top golfing organisations need to educate golfers better as to what goes on out on the course, as do we. Course Managers and Superintendents need to be given airtime at tournaments to explain the course and how it is maintained. That might help people understand that you cannot have Augusta on the budget of Sludgecombe pay and play!"
"That said, far too often we forget we work for the members and visiting golfers, and lose sight of the fact that they pay good money for a certain quality of course; we get caught up in trying to improve things in our own minds and, at times, miss the fundamentals of what the customer wants. Whilst it's not always possible to get it right, a change in attitude from our side would certainly help."
"I feel, generally, that our profile has been raised in recent years thanks to some great input by BIGGA, and many individuals too, and long may that continue. But I also feel that, at times, we can lose sight of the needs of our employers. Not getting the balance right has cost many jobs, and will continue to do so. I am not suggesting that we can do everything the customer suggests, as that would be impossible, but we can be better. Giving them choices or paths to follow, and explaining the consequences of any chosen path and how it will impact the playing surfaces in the short, middle and long term, this has to be the way forward."
The Scottish Open
The 2013 Scottish open was, for us, a great success, and will hopefully bring more golfers to the Highlands and to Castle Stuart. Shown live in America for the first time in European Tour history to around 120million homes, we can only be happy with how it ended. For Phil Mickelson to get his first win since the early 2000s in his time on the Challenge Tour was one of my career highlights. To go to a play off on 18, after a missed putt, just made for great TV and that's how this course was designed, for drama.
We are not, and have never been, precious about par as we like people to feel comfortable and gain confidence going into Open week. For Phil to then go on to win the Open, and Henrik Stenson to come second was great, as they both played in the last 2 ball of the Scottish Open.
So now, with a hat-trick of Open winners out of the last three years having played Castle Stuart the week before, we are all very proud to have given a platform for the guys to go on to success in a Major, and it really shows that those guys who don't come and play on links the week before as we are "too easy", really don't understand what this course is about.
I must give a huge vote of thanks to my team here at Castle Stuart; they make all of this happen. It takes a good team to produce the results we do consistently. We also had great volunteer support from all over the world and some great fun along the way. Many of my team from the past turned up too, and it was great to have all of them who have moved up the ladder come and be with us for the last one of the three year contract.
I felt immensely proud of all of them; my current team, the volunteers and ex Castle Stuart team alike. I am sure that the combined effort helped the decision by the sponsors to announce us as a venue in the next three year contract, probably 2016. So, thanks guys, from all of us here at Castle Stuart.
What's in the shed?
Toro Greensmaster Flex 21s x 6
Toro 1000 pedestrian greensmowers x 4
Jacobsen Eclipse Greensmowers x 2
Tru Turf rollers x 2
Jacobsen slf 1880 fairway mowers x 3
John Deere 8800 semi rough mower
Toro ProCore 648 aerators x 2
Charterhouse 7177 vertidrain
Ez-GO run-arounds (electric) x 3
Kawasaki Mules (diesel) x 3
John Deere Gator (diesel)
New Holland TC 27-31tractors x 2
New Holland Boomer
Class 95hp tractor
Dakota topdressers x 2
3 tonne excavator
7 tonne excavator
JCB loadall telehandler