Ryan Donnellan is the young Head Greenkeeper tasked with turning a few dozen acres of grassland into a phoenix reborn from the ashes of once-successful Charnock Richard Golf Club. Jake Barrow reports on progress thus far and discovers a man happy with his lot, but up against a tight deadline.
Charnock's golf club closed in 2013 and, since then, the site has mostly grown unattended. People travelled from great distances to play the 18-hole parkland course, partly because of its extreme proximity to the village's M6 service station.
Not only does Head Greenkeeper, Ryan Donnellan, intend to cut the course back into shape, but he has been asked to reformat the hole configuration, as new owner Steve Storey has chosen to use only the nine holes covering the forty-five acres closest to the entrance, whilst commercially developing the land on the other side.
Already in place on the site is 'The Laurels' restaurant, and the building in which it lies will act as the clubhouse for the course.
It is a fine dining restaurant, one of only a couple remaining in Chorley since the closure of town centre 'The Kitchen Theatre' this year, as well as a wedding venue.
Of the restaurant, Ryan said: "It's very nice in there. I've only eaten there once, on opening night, but I had a black pudding scotch egg followed by a fillet steak … as well as about four pints of Foster's."
The drinks also seem reasonably priced, which helps when deciding to eat out. When I visited, it was only £3.50 for a double Gordon's!
The rest of the building will contain the function room within which the weddings will take place, and will be transformed, with time, into an all-round leisure facility to accompany the golf.
Steve has a background in landfill, but decided to open the centre to transition into a new industry with the help of his wife.
The site was at one point purchased by Wigan Athletic Football Club, to be an outground near their training centre just a mile away in Euxton but, after successive relegations, this became impractical.
The team expects the launch date of the new club to be around Friday 6th April 2018, but this will naturally depend on conditions and business requirements in the intervening months.
This will have made it almost exactly a year's work to get up-and-running, as Ryan started the regeneration programme in April 2017.
The first task on the agenda was to roll the entire site with an extra-large roller. After this, he began to tackle the job of turning the shorter stretches back into fairways and semi-roughs, going over the whole site like a stencilling.
For this, he used the heavy-duty John Deere 8800 semi-rough mower, and now maintains the same outline with greater precision using their 7700 fairway model.
Asked about patterns and intricacy, he said: "I'm a checked fairways man. I like to take it left-to-right, then right-to-left. I think that makes it nice and … fancy."
He borrowed a tractor which had a Charterhouse collector mounted on the rear, and used this to deal with the huge amounts of grass which would inevitably begin to pile.
This was quickly followed by a 'complete' Koro of all the greens. They were seeded and topdressed, and then both again at six months including a verti-drain. This was undertaken by a Cheshire-based firm, who have been responsible for most of the work on the course.
At just twenty-seven years old, Ryan must surely be one of the youngest Head Greenkeepers around. He does, however, have decent experience in the industry and the local area.
He previously worked at Shaw Hill Golf Club, also in Chorley, and then as the Deputy Head Greenkeeper at Runcorn Golf Club.
He also spent some time as the volunteer groundsman for the local football club for which he coaches two teams, Charnock Richard FC. Charnock is Ryan's hometown, which is the main reason he felt taking the job was a no-brainer.
Leaving school as a joiner, he was made redundant with six months left on one of his contracts. This was when the Shaw Hill post was advertised, and, he said: "It wasn't my first choice, clearly, but I started to enjoy it and studied for my Level 2 NVQ. Enjoying that too, I went for Level 3 to top it off, about four years ago."
"That paid off, because now I'm running my own gig. That's good here, because we don't really have a budget as such. I ask for kit when I need it, and have most of what I've asked for so far. And the contract work that has needed to be done has been."
"The seed is always in fine supply; the fertiliser is always as much as we need. We've still got some way to go with the equipment, but I can tell we'll get there."
"At this point, my wish list includes a tractor and a verti-drain. A tractor with a cab on would be ideal. I could also do with a topdresser, because there's a lot of that to be done."
"The stuff I have already is working well for me. I'm running a Toro Workman utility vehicle, which has a rear-mounted sprayer and is very helpful."
The parkland course has an unusual amount of pine trees lining the fairways and, next door to the club, is a house-based store which sells Christmas trees, with another pine-based business on the other side - clearly, the villagers take advantage of that natural resource.
One of Charnock's greens bears the brunt of the tree-based debris, which Ryan hopes can be solved simply by heavily trimming the overhanging branches nearby, rather than having to remove most of the course's naturally attractive tree lines.
Behind this green currently, the ground is wetter. However, he noted that the new seed took well in the shaded area, and questions whether it's always true that less light and more air means more growth - he compared it to a more open green nearby, which has inferior coverage.
He also noted they have no noticeable disease anywhere on the course, including in this wet area: "I was surprised about that, because on days we haven't cut, we've had dew on the greens - I don't even own a dew brush yet!"
"It's been warm, wet and ideal conditions for disease, but looking on Twitter at the other local clubs, we've been really lucky. No fusarium; no anything."
"We don't have tiny pests either. Nothing's been pecking at the surface for grubs. The only things we've had troubling the turf are a few moles and rabbits."
"But, we've had the mole man come in and take care of those. I don't like killing the things if I can help it, but one green's been coming up repeatedly."
"We'll have to sort that one rabbit out, then I'll go in and repair the damage, and I don't expect that'll trouble us again."
"And of course, like everyone, we can't be exempt from worm casts this autumn, but carbendazim is the one product I would have used, but now I don't know what to do."
"I've heard talk of some companies bringing out their own fix-it solutions, but I'm yet to try any of them."
A lot of the trees are still to be removed, because of either natural felling or death, but this will be managed before the club opens for paying customers.
They will also prioritise avoiding an excessive number of pines close to fairways and other playing areas, because they want to avoid building a too-challenging course early on.
This is because management initially wants to open the course as a pay-and-play, to encourage as many aspiring golfers to play the course as possible whilst in its infancy, before introducing subscription payment options eventually.
Ryan works by himself for most of the year, with a casual helper during the summer months, who cuts the rough and semi-rough.
For a man working alone, he does well to keep the greens at 8mm, the fairways at 16mm, semi-rough at 35mm, and taking the tees down with the semi-rough mower, keeping it healthy, but not yet at playing height.
He alluded to this difficulty: "It's been an eye-opener after working exclusively at established courses in the past."
"Getting everything cut and down is hard work. I must say, though, you do get used to it. I don't get bored or lonely, or anything like that. I suppose that's just because there's such a varied workload."
"But, hopefully, next year we'll have another couple of members of staff and it'll get a hell of a lot easier. And I will need that too, not just want it. Right now, when a tee accidentally gets a bit too long, it doesn't matter. But, come April, there'll be no room for allowing things like that."
He hopes to have a Deputy Head taken on beneath him by around February 2018, or at least in enough time to settle into the course conditions properly.
Two of the tees have already been reconstructed, as they were not holding their own after so long untreated.
Ryan will also be refilling some of the bunkers, and some mounds around the greens are too severe, so will be landscaped, although these jobs are long-term: "For now, it's more of a case of getting everything cut correctly, and doing other remedial work before opening."
"Those jobs will be for the coming winters; certainly next winter, and maybe the one after that. They will be ongoing, as far as I can predict."
"Most of the bunkers on this site are elevated, parkland-style. I think whoever dug them originally just added some turf and dug into that, so they are quite elevated."
"We had forty-five bunkers on just the nine holes, but we're going to fill in about twenty-five. For the sake of my deputy and I having time once the course is open, twenty bunkers will be plenty to maintain. It'd take us all day to rake forty-five!"
The club buys second-hand machinery, but it's all been recently bought, so the servicing is not yet an issue. Ryan has the knowhow and equipment to do general servicing and maintenance when the time comes.
Naturally, though, the grinding will be undertaken externally, as Ryan wouldn't have the time to do so even if the facilities were available.
On consultancy, Ryan said: "Gary Potter from ALS comes to visit us and, although I haven't yet bought anything from them, he gives me great advice on the agronomy and I'm hoping to get help from him in sorting out our natural bodies of water."
He also talked about the other issues he may need to solve in future, but are perhaps too minor to tackle initially with a one-man staff. "There are some weeds in the sward of the greens, and quite a bit of thatch. I've already helped both of those situations a little, but will do so again."
"We have sprayed all of the greens and tees with a selective to stave off the weeds for a while, and I've been shocked with how well that's worked."
Being young, he hasn't yet been fully taken in by chemical solutions to problems, so makes it clear that he's not worrying about this year's chemical product withdrawals.
He backed up his claim: "But also, we used a Charterhouse Turf Tidy, with which we took most of the surface off the greens. We box-raked and seeded, and we're already rooting at about 3-to-3.5 inches, so that's very promising [work undertaken in June; interview in the first week of October]."
"It's easy to see where the previous team have topdressed with 70/30 mix, but we're using regular topdressing, because we want to help the profile as much as we can with drainage by using the maximum amount of sand possible."
"The greens aren't USGA-spec or anything like that, but they do have drains in them. Underneath that, it's just that there's some slightly, let's say, 'non-useful' soil."
Those drains are old land drains, in the form of inches-wide clay piping. Ryan told us that it coped well with the rainfall at first, but has struggled a little more with the excessive rainfall through 2017's late summer and autumn.
He continued: "That's why we bought the Verti-drain, because I want to verti-drain the bad stuff underneath every four-to-six weeks, whilst going on as often as possible with the dressing too."
"As this suggests, I am a 'little and often' kind of greenkeeper, but we will do some renovations next year. We'll probably ProCore the greens, deep scarify with our Koro Field Topmaker, and we'll do a big verti-drain then as well."
The irrigation system is also on its way [as of October 2017], and will be one of the major projects managed in the coming months.
He'll also be installing a new drainage system, based on more modern 4-inch, perforated plastic lateral pipes, in a herringbone system, beginning with the worst-affected areas and progressing as business needs dictate.
When the previous owner(s) left the site, they stripped the valve, sprinkler heads and other components, and sold them all individually.
Ryan explained that he's not completely sure yet what's under the surface, and hopes to have his first soil sample analysed when the time and funds are available: "I don't know what's going on down there just yet, and it would be really interesting to view the composition and the pH levels, because I do still need that to inform me on the most appropriate fertilisers and preventatives for the profile."
The irrigation system is already installed, along with the computer network that will be used to operate it, and the club is just working on some finishing touches like finalising the location of all the old pop-ups.
Until now, when this year's heavy rain has hit, Ryan has naturally needed to deal with it slightly differently to most teams, as there's only him there to cope.
He spent the early months helping with the restaurant's initiation on rainy days, then moved onto servicing and repairs, and now tends to undertake duties which don't necessarily require dry weather, such as vegetation clearance and pond cleaning.
He also means to expose all the course's gravel paths, because the club hopes to have buggy access year-round, again an initiative in place to encourage a broader spectrum of potential golfers to what will be a multi-faceted leisure complex.
He said: "We've got a lot of work to do during the winter, so to be honest I think we'll now be out in all weathers."
The dry spots may become temporary greens once the course has its player base built up appropriately, but this isn't a priority until they've sparked that initial interest.
Also stricken from the 'priorities list' is the inclusion of a practice area or chipping green. The management has not spoken of this yet, and it could remain an unnecessary addition, with the facilities being aimed at that broader, casual section of the market.
He says this sort of addition might be based on input from the players: "I think it's key to communicate effectively with the people at your club."
"You need to know what's going on and get feedback from the people who are using what you've built. If you're not getting criticism, you can't improve on anything."
"I've set up the golf club's Twitter feed, and a lot of the time we get people in asking questions about what it's turning into."
"We're not going to have a pro, but we'll have a café at the front desk. In there, we might have comment cards, or just a sign that suggests people give their opinions to the staff."
Having a course for just a year, and being the only employee, raises several unique questions in the mind of a greenkeeper.
For one, Ryan still needs to guess at whether any extra major projects will be undertaken in the coming years.
He summarised it like this: "I don't know of any right now. But, you can't know that sort of thing until you get a lot of people playing on it."
"It might be, a couple of years from now, that we find out that the wear-and-tear has had more of an effect on one of the greens than we could have anticipated. They might all be fine. But I'm new here, and we'll have to wait and see."