Perched on a coastal hilltop in the far west of west Wales, Cardigan Golf Club is one of a small, yet growing number of golf clubs to take a close look at its course management strategy and adopt a path which, it feels, is better suited to its seasonal maintenance needs and fluctuating income levels. Michael Bird reports
Less than four years ago, Robert Clark was milking 140 water buffaloes on a 56ha Carmarthenshire farm, transporting the milk twice a week from west Wales to London where it was made into mozzarella cheese by an Italian-owned dairy.
Today, Robert is almost twelve months into an initial two-year contract as self-employed course manager at Cardigan Golf Club, an 18-hole clifftop links course overlooking the magnificent Teifi estuary on Wales's Irish Sea coast.
Principal support for Robert on the golf course comes from experienced greenkeeper, Carwyn Jones who, in addition to his extensive duties at the golf club, is responsible for maintaining the green at nearby Cardigan Bowling Club.
As Robert's right-hand man, Carwyn's all-round turf maintenance expertise and knowledge are highly appreciated along with his teaching skills, helping to train and encourage newcomers to the greenkeeping profession.
Robert also has an apprentice greenkeeper, Jake Kallenberg, who is in his first year at the course, and a part-time greenkeeper, Craig Thompson, who is available, as and when needed.
What might appear, to some, to be a rather disparate greenkeeping crew is, in reality, a well-led, highly-motivated and hard-working team, according to club secretary, Clive Day.
"The idea of hiring a self-employed course manager on a fixed-term contract was initially Robert's idea," he said. "He'd heard about the vacancy when playing golf as a club member and asked if he could present a proposal for the committee's consideration."
"Quite simply, he believed that the variable seasonal demands placed on the golf course, and the resulting fluctuating income levels, required a flexible approach to course management and maintenance that he was prepared to oversee and deliver."
Almost a year into his contract, Robert has shown that the job can be carried out very successfully by applying disciplined, yet adaptable methods that are not reliant on working the same hours on the same days, week in, week out.
This has brought important benefits, for example, when implementing seasonal maintenance programmes. Having a flexible working contract provides Robert with the freedom to work at any time, including weekends and evenings, to carry out, catch up on or complete outstanding tasks, as and when he feels necessary and, ideally, when conditions are at their best.
"From the club's viewpoint, the arrangement is working extremely well," commented Clive. "Specific course maintenance tasks are now being carried out in more favourable conditions and in less of a rush than previously, when staff were often following a fixed, pre-planned timetable. As a result, it appears that greenkeeping has become more enjoyable and rewarding, highlighted by the fact that the course is now looking and playing consistently better than it has for many years."
Although he is a competent golfer and committee member at Cardigan Golf Club, Robert willingly admits that he is neither an experienced nor qualified greenkeeper. However, the administrative and practical hands-on skills he gained previously within engineering and farming have, he feels, provided him with a solid foundation to direct a team responsible for maintaining and preparing a golf course for which ambitions are very high.
Robert has a degree in agriculture, with emphasis on management, and worked in civil engineering following the sale, in 2011, of the Carmarthenshire livestock and arable farm enterprise that he ran in partnership with his wife, Alison.
Whilst Alison was establishing a bed and breakfast business at their new home near New Quay, Ceredigion, Robert concentrated on the engineering business he had set up a few year earlier specialising in the manufacture of pre-fabricated buildings.
During the time he was working full-time again with his firm, he delivered one specific high-profile project of which he remains particularly proud, namely, the construction of the overseas broadcast studios that were installed within the Olympic Park ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
This job was completed on schedule to a tight deadline and proved good preparation for his current course management role where planning, preparation and timing are key.
Having hosted the Golf Union of Wales's Under-18 Wales versus Ireland internationals every other year since 2004, Cardigan Golf Club began preparing early for this year's event, staged on 5th and 6th April.
"We had planned originally to start greens spring maintenance in early April, following the two days of Boys Internationals and a Dyfed versus Glamorgan county match," explained Robert. "However, warm, settled weather in the second week of March persuaded us to start the work four weeks ahead of schedule."
"Providing the weather remained kind, we believed that the greens would have ample time to recover and put on new growth before the important competitions took place. It proved a good move."
The decision was made to start spring renovations with the practice chipping and putting greens and to work steadily across the golf course, timing treatments on each green so as not to interfere with society visits or club events.
"Societies are a very important source of income for Cardigan Golf Club and we are looking to boost the number of society days by encouraging return visits through a combination of excellent hospitality, spectacular surroundings and a consistently good golf course," pointed out secretary, Clive Day. "Feedback from our members and regular visitors is that the course has never looked so good coming out of winter."
The club's spring maintenance programme commenced with an application, in late February, of Farmura Porthcawl liquid organic feed followed by verti-cutting of all nineteen greens on 11th March, the day before spring renovations began.
On the day itself, Robert's call for assistance from club members was answered by three regular and willing volunteers, amongst them club chairman, Barrie Davies, all of whom are happy to assist the greens staff with seasonal and labour-intensive course maintenance tasks, as and when needed.
Treatment of every green on the course followed an identical pattern, starting with hollow-coring using a Ryan GA30 ride-on aerator fitted with 8mm diameter tines working to a depth of around 30mm. Cores were hand-collected by shovel and trailered away whilst the volunteer workers switched the turf to sweep any remaining stray material back into the green's surface.
The next operation saw a 70/30 sand/soil topdressing applied evenly across each green using a 1.5m wide drop-style topdresser mounted on a Toro Workman.
"Over a week, we applied a total of 28 tonnes of topdressing to the nineteen putting surfaces on the golf course," pointed out head greenkeeper, Carwyn Jones. "We have used a broadcast spreader in the past, but have reverted now to more controlled drop-type applications. The change was prompted by a need to minimise the wastage experienced previously when treating the high number of plateau greens on the course. It was impossible to topdress the perimeters successfully without losing a lot of material over the side. Although taking longer, drop-style applications ensure very high accuracy as you can see exactly where the dressings have been applied and where the next pass should be."
The final two operations on each green involved application by pedestrian spreader of an 80/20 red fescue/brown top bent seed mixture, followed by matting-in of the seed and topdressings using a drag mat pulled by a greensmower.
Although Cardigan Golf Club owns a comprehensive machinery fleet, few machines are purchased new due to the need to maintain tight control over costs.
That said, Robert has managed to source many pre-owned bargains in excellent condition, amongst the most recent being a Toro self-propelled turf sprayer with 6m windfoil boom, a Trilo scarifier-collector and a Sisis Veemo heavy-duty scarifier, the latter's close ground-following abilities proving helpful on a course laid out on almost pure sand, with natural turf undulations and contours offering golfers comparable challenges to a true links course.
Apart from a lack of towering sand dunes, the one aspect that sets Cardigan apart from other fine links courses around the Welsh coast are the spectacular views from virtually every hole of a course which, at its highest point, is around 400ft (122m) above sea level.
Robert explained that, when the club needs an additional or a replacement machine, the starting point has traditionally been turf magazines complemented, more recently, by online resources which are scanned regularly for tidy, well-priced equipment.
"We do have one or two regular machinery sources that often come up trumps but, if the price and condition are right, then location and distance are no obstacle to sealing a purchase."
Having a wide-ranging set of golf course equipment available in-house means that Cardigan Golf Club rarely needs to use contractors or hire-in machinery.
Robert likes it that way: "It means that we can do virtually all course work ourselves at times when turf and weather conditions are just right," he said. "This ability is rarely possible if you have to wait for a contractor or a hire machine."
The new, flexible approach to course management, introduced by Robert when he took up his post in June 2013, has resulted in a sustained rise in standards that has led to more golfers now playing the course more often than has been evident for a number of years.
Robert pointed out that it is now accepted that two greenstaff are on the course at the weekends, mowing greens, raking bunkers and repairing pitch marks and divots to ensure that the golf course is presented at its very best on, what are, the busiest and most important days of the week financially for the club.
The all-round improvements now being seen in course condition and presentation standards mean that Robert and his team spent little additional time or effort preparing the golf course for the Under 18s Wales versus Ireland International matches.
"The overriding aim is to achieve and maintain a consistently high standard every day, irrespective of who is playing the course," he said. "I would expect a first-time visitor holidaying in the area to be equally as impressed with the course as someone who plays two or three times a week."
Because the underlying sandy soils do not encourage rapid or lush grass growth, summer mowing is carried out strictly on an "as necessary" basis to maintain fairways at a height of around 18mm and tees and greens approaches at 9mm. Greens, however, are cut every day at a height of between 3.5mm and 4mm, depending on weather conditions, dropping occasionally to 3mm ahead of competitions.
Irrigation is available for all tees and greens, but is used very sparingly, principally to maintain colour during hot, dry spells. Water for the irrigation system is stored in ponds filled by drainage run-off and a bore hole located on the lowest side of the course overlooking the Teifi estuary.
To complement the essential course maintenance work carried out by greenstaff throughout the week, Robert has instigated a wide-ranging programme of upgrades on areas that, from his golfing viewpoint, have received inadequate attention in the past.
Uneven tees are being re-levelled, the edges of fairways better defined and rough is being thinned-out and trimmed to a consistent 75mm height so that golfers have a better chance of locating a wayward ball.
Greater attention to detail is being applied also along fairway margins. This move is applauded by members who, previously, had seen good shots being penalised unfairly by the natural fall of the ground, with well-struck balls running downhill and off the fairway, sometimes into an impossible lie.
To counter this, Robert has introduced a mowing regime that sees a Lastec rotary mower cutting three 2m widths at 25mm high on the lower side of all laterally sloping fairways, separating them from the rough.
Similarly, Robert is steadily extending the size of greens surrounds to provide a more generous landing area for those golfers whose approach shot does not hit or remain on the green. "We are not trying to play target golf at Cardigan," he said. "The aim is to provide an enjoyable, interesting and fair test of a golfer's ability and we want to encourage golfers of all abilities to play the course, and to return."
To that end, the club has established an academy for young, novice and learner golfers on a large area of level, open ground located beyond the 2nd and 11th greens at the extreme southernmost end of the course.
Overseen by club professional, Steve Parsons, the facility is proving a popular addition, complementing the outreach golf education being offered to local schools by Cardigan Golf Club.
Other important tasks on Robert's list of course improvements include thatch control on greens using a combination of verti-cutting, solid tining and topdressing, installation of bunker drainage and continued renovation of the fairways, which have responded well to moss control, scarifying and overseeding treatments.
Supporting the club in its quest for sustained improvement are annual assessments carried out by the STRI, along with valuable technical advice and guidance provided by Ray Hunt of ALS and Peter Lacey of Farmura, input which Robert says he values greatly.
"The most recent report in summer 2013 was generally favourable, although it was noted that the greens were becoming increasingly hydrophobic," he said. "Both Carwyn and myself are confident that the use of wetting agents, in conjunction with our ongoing mechanical greens aeration programme, will improve the situation."
In the longer term, Robert's aim is to exclude rabbits from the golf course by installing a secure wire-net fence around the perimeter, a job which he appreciates will take time and money. By eliminating rabbits, he expects to be able to improve the rough dramatically and has started along that road by thinning of the coarser grasses and planting new gorse.
"Basically, it comes down to not being over-obsessed by finer details and being willing and able to adopt a flexible approach," he said. "The close cooperation being shown by all can only assist in bringing about the improvements that will enable Cardigan Golf Club to attract and retain more golfers in years to come."
What's in the shed?
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D greensmower
Toro Greensmaster 3200-D greensmower
Toro Greensmaster 3000-D greensmower
John Deere 8700 fairway mower
Toro Workman with Toro 1800 topdresser
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D Sidewinder tees and surrounds mower
Progressive Pro-Flex 120 contour mower
Lastec 2m rotary mower
Trilo TR1502 trailed scarifier collector
Wessex brush collector
Toro Multi Pro 5700-D dedicated turf sprayer c/w 6m windfoil boom
Hardi 400 litre tractor-mounted sprayer
Scotts pedestrian spreader
Ryan GA30 ride-on aerator with solid and hollow tine sets
Wiedenmann Terra Spike P6 SL
Sisis Veemo scarifier
Ryan turf cutter
Vicon fertiliser spreader
Massey Ferguson 4345 tractor c/w Quicke Q40 front loader
Massey Ferguson 1260 compact tractor
2 x five tonne trailers, one with high-lift
Assorted powered hand tools