A dramatic change of careers paid off for SRUC student Ben Matthews, after his tutors unanimously named him the winner of this year's HNC Golf Course Management Student of the Year Award, sponsored by John Deere and Scottish turf dealer Double A.
Award winner Ben Matthews (seated) receives his certificate and £300 voucher prize from Sandy Armit, Managing Director of Fife-based John Deere dealer Double A.
Born in London, but raised in Canada from the age of three, Ben moved to Scotland in 2014. He worked in health and social care in both Canada and Scotland for 20 years in total before realising it was time for a change.
"Since moving back to Scotland I had been helping children in crisis situations as an advocate, ensuring they had a voice," Ben says. "It was amazing work and I loved it, but I started to burn out - I couldn't switch off from worrying about the children I was working with."
Initially Ben studied for a master's degree in Sustainable Resource Management at the University of Edinburgh.
"If I could, I decided I wanted to turn the degree into a job where I could work outdoors while protecting the environment," he explains.
It was a chance sighting while passing the SRUC campus one day that led to him pursuing a career in golf course management.
"I've always been a fan of golf and although I've never been any good, I do enjoy playing it," he says.
"I was driving past the SRUC Elmwood campus one day and they had a big banner outside which read 'have you thought about a career in greenkeeping?'. I ended up calling them and going to see Paul Miller, the course programme leader, and everything he told me about it ticked all the boxes."
Ben enjoyed the variety of subjects taught on the course, even those he initially assumed would be less interesting, such as soil science.
"I thought it would be dry, but Dr Miller made it really interesting, teaching us everything we would need to know as a turf manager," he says. "I also loved learning about design and construction.
"I've been to a few universities and colleges, and this was by far my best experience - the tutors are all phenomenal."
Ben has since secured a position as a seasonal greenkeeper for the St Andrews Links Trust.
"I only live 25 minutes away so it seemed silly not to try for a position at the home of golf," he says. "I'm lucky enough to be working on the old course, where golf has been played for 600 years, so every day is like Christmas Day for me at the moment!"
Ben is enjoying focusing on the practical side of greenkeeping and looks forward to building up his experience and skills.
"I've been absolutely blown away by the greenkeeping community - everyone is so supportive and welcoming," he says. "It's the type of industry where if you're having a problem, you can call someone at another golf course and they will lend you equipment or recommend a product. It's such a tightly knit and positive community. I'm so happy to be in it."
Ben is currently busy preparing the famous St Andrews' course for the 150th Open this summer.
"I don't think I could be in a better place to start my career and I'm so grateful to SRUC and so happy to have won this award," he says. "Finding out I had won really cemented that I'd done the right thing in changing careers and that all my hard work has paid off."
Course Tutor Ian Butcher says: "Ben has been a very positive member of the faculty throughout a period of change and transformation, and all the staff welcome his contribution to our classes whether they are online or on campus."
"Ben has, like many of our HND cohorts, decided to change career, from the Health and Social Care sector and he also previously completed an MSc Degree in Sustainable Resource Management. This provided Ben with a strong foundation for our own curriculum as we address the challenges golf faces in the 21st century."
"He has very strong team building background and has also shown strong communication skills with industry professionals, as well as adaptability to new situations. In 2021 he was awarded the R&A Greenkeeping Scholarship, which again adds to his perspective on the golf world as a whole."
"Without doubt his keenness to learn and enthusiasm for golf course management leads to the consistently high standard of submissions and capacity to explore new ideas. We look forward to supporting his new career as it continues with the St Andrews Links Trust in the Open Championship year of 2022."