0 Colin Irvine - The Golfers’ Course Manager

Muirfield's Course Manager, Colin Irvine, achieves the perfect fine balance between past, present and future. "We are aware of the history of the course, but what we're trying to do here is constantly refine its qualities and its wonderful natural features," he says.

"It's important to keep up with technology to make our presentation the best we can, using the aids that are out there. We're always looking out for the best machine to do the job for us."

Colin has been in charge at Muirfield for eighteen years. He left Muirfield as its assistant course manager after the 1992 Open, and took up the top job at the Dusseldorf Club in Germany, returning to the Scottish course two years later as its number one. He hadn't expected such a swift return, but Muirfield's then Course Manager, Chris Whittle, who'd been in charge for six years, left to take up the reins in his native Lancashire at another of the top Open links, Royal Birkdale.

"I was just getting to grips with German after plenty of time at night school, and my excellent employers weren't too pleased I was leaving, but Muirfield is something of a spiritual home to me and it was, as they say, an offer I couldn't refuse."

Colin is his own man when it comes to course management. He trusts his instinct and his knowledge. He's never allowed himself to be tied in to any one manufacturer or supplier. He makes a judgment on what each particular job demands and what the best solution is. Over the years he has come to trust John Deere equipment to match his needs, and it is the familiar green and yellow that dominates on course work at Muirfield these days.

There hadn't been any significant changes to the layout since the 1930s, until a couple of years ago when course designer Martin Hawtree was commissioned, in conjunction with the R&A, to introduce some new championship tees and tighten up some of the bunkers, edging them closer to the greens. This was all done to make Muirfield that bit tougher, yet retain its renowned fairness.

They were subtle changes and, says Colin, "I don't think you'd notice too much difference between now and a couple of years ago. It would be very difficult to tell what has been moved and what hasn't."

Colin had quite a big say in these changes, especially in respect of contouring. "That's important, because we're the people who have to work with the way the course is, not the architects. We worked closely with Martin on each of the hole projects, which carried us through the whole of winter of 2010."

The last couple of years have been a very active period to say the least because Muirfield has had its irrigation system upgraded too. The changes that Martin Hawtree introduced have definitely made the course that bit tougher - still fair - but tougher, and a bit longer. The par-five 9th, for example, was previously a 506-yard hole. It is now an even more testing 556-yarder.

Specific work in readiness for the 2013 Open begins in earnest the previous October when fairway sanding and bunker re-facing get under way, though Colin points out that he's been in pre-Open mode since the day Muirfield's next appointment with the event was announced.
When the club's summer season concludes, that's when the serious preparation really starts. In truth, the over-winter work doesn't vary much from the normal routine, though there's inevitably that much more attention to detail.

"The R&A are quite happy that the course 'looks lived in', so we will only re-face some of the more prominent bunkers," say Colin.
"Many were done last winter and, as long as the ball won't get lost in a facing, they are perfectly acceptable."

There's a huge responsibility on Colin to see that Muirfield presents a magnificent Open Championship course again in 2013, but the R&A do not breathe down his neck at all. They know he's the top professional on the spot. He knows every inch of the course and the local conditions inside out. He's a seasoned Open course manager too, having presided over things in 2002, the year of Ernie Els great win and the last time the event came to the course. After eighteen years in charge, nothing takes Colin by surprise - or catches him out.

It's in spring that the mowing regime intensifies and becomes a bigger part of daily work. It's the volume of work that steps up significantly.

Television may well have a bearing on the way Colin does the mowing for the 2013 Open. In the last one, ten years ago, he cut the fairways 'half and half', but not long after that someone at the R&A got to like the one-way cut at Augusta, and it now seems as though it may be applied to Open fairways.

"It's not set in stone yet, but I know they are looking at it again this year, so we may have to be ready for it," says Colin.

"All of us Open course managers have discussed the issue and it is more of a problem at some courses than others. It depends on staff and equipment levels, of course. Then there's the question of mowing towards or away from the tee? There's not a lot of difference in the nap on a links course, so I would think the roll of the ball wouldn't be an issue. It's really just how it looks. If that's what they want, that's what we'll have to produce. We'll see. We're ready for it, if it happens"

The bunkers at Muirfield are as elegant entrapments as you get. There are 148 of them. Colin grows all his own revetting turf from seed on Muirfield's nursery. He likes to use turf that's about ten years old for this purpose. That way it ensures a dense covering and fibre content perfect for bunker sides.

"What you never want are holes in the revetting, and that's what we will be ensuring for the Open," says Colin. "It doesn't matter whether they're green or otherwise - and some of the south facing ones do burn off - it's the overall consistency of coverage that matters."

A mixture of appearance is a characteristic of Muirfield's bunkers. They look all the more natural for that. September is bunker assessment time and Colin has a chart that catalogues all work previously done. He literally walks the course and sets a work plan that begins in October and is completed the following January.

Colin says that bunker revetting first started on the east coast of Scotland to counter the effects of the harsh conditions and the grazing sheep. It's certainly one of a greenkeepers' toughest jobs, and one that may or may not be appreciated by the world's top golfers come this July.

The course maintenance team at Muirfield is twelve-strong, including Colin, and everyone - even the rawest apprentice - gets to know the skills of revetting. It's a tradition handed on from generation to generation, and a tried and trusted one.

Colin has noticed a dramatic change in the seasons since he began greenkeeping in the 1980s. In those days, all machinery went away for sharpening in October. There was very little cutting after the Autumn Medal tournament at Muirfield - or indeed any need for it. Now though, he's cutting fairways up to Christmas, even into January, and this isn't just for presentation.

He has a computer-linked weather station, and records in recent years show that springs are getting drier and warmer. Heat at a time of year when there isn't so much grass is a pattern emerging, and that's what prompted the extension to full course auto irrigation a couple of years ago. With the Open looming, it was an essential move to counteract the downside of climate warming. In March 2012, 20OC plus figures were regularly recorded. In June, 15OC was, as often as not, the daily peak.

Only snow closes Muirfield and it's actually quite rare. Two years ago it did cause a twenty-four day no-golf white-out and, annoyingly, it was also just when the changes for the Open were under way.

Stimpmeter usage on the greens and aprons, and wetting agents for just about all in-play areas, play a part in Colin's maintenance programme, the latter playing quite a big part in things, he says, to try and get more even and lasting usage of rainfall and irrigation water. It also cuts irrigation time, too. On an undulating, sandy coastal location like Muirfield, it pays to make the water go round and do as big a job as possible.

Colin uses a John Deere HD200 sprayer to ensure that the wetting agent is spread evenly and to maximum effect across the humps and bumps that characterise this famous old course. In conjunction with his fleet of John Deere mowers, that follow the testing contours accurately, an even application of wetting agents helps see that grass grows as evenly on the crest of humps as elsewhere. Years ago, scalping and thinner grass growth on the tops of mounds did occur, but not anymore.

Much of what keeps Muirfield the great golf course it is, though, is down to gut feeling based on experience and local knowledge. Colin only has to walk on a green to know how it's playing and what is needed. Every year is different, with fresh challenges posed, but he trusts his instincts. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers trusts him too.

It's predominantly fescue grasses around the course, certainly on the tees and greens, and Colin strives to get any ryegrass out of the fairways, overseeding with fescues. As well as its playing qualities, the deep-rooted nature of fescues means it needs less fertilising and moisture, and that especially suits east coast Scotland and its dry conditions.

An ecologist comes to the course twice a year to advise on the preservation of precious fauna and flora. Colin does not use fungicides and doesn't need to - none have been used at Muirfield for fifteen years, he says. That surely is evidence of top class turfcare. He says he does sparingly apply pesticides and weedkillers, as the need arises, to keep unwanted 'guests' to an acceptable level. Just occasionally, leatherjackets might be a problem, but otherwise Muirfield is free of regular tyrants.

Colin says nothing gives you more knowledge of a course than walking it, and he does that frequently. He encourages his team always to see things from the golfers' point of view. To a man, they all play the game and the course, so it's easy to see why Muirfield has a reputation for being a golfers' course. Colin reckons his own golf suffers because he's more likely to note something he's seen on a particular green or a tee than concentrate on his shot.

As always, the course comes first. He might not know every blade of grass, but he certainly knows how well they are - or otherwise. The abundance of skylarks bears testament to the success of the environmental management programme conducted by the club. It continues to be a top world links golf course that's at one with nature.

Trust is very much part of the way things are done at Muirfield. There's no greens committee. Colin simply attends five club committee meetings a year and keeps them informed of what he's been doing and what he proposes doing to keep the course looking and playing at its absolutely best. It puts its trust in the professional appointed, and the Club Secretary, to look after their course. For eighteen years that professional has been Colin. Their trust is repaid year after year.

Colin hand mows all of the greens, tees and aprons. The latter, he reminds us proudly, is a Scottish term and one that aptly describes what it actually is, shaped like an apron, one band around the whole green and four more at the front. They are not collars or approaches at Muirfield. Some courses cut aprons with a triplex but, at Muirfield, the practice is to cut with 18" John Deere 180C pedestrians. It blends in better, says Colin, and gives a much tighter cut.

The greens themselves are hand cut using John Deere 180SL machines. Most of the championship tees are pretty small and triplex cutting would be difficult, but even the bigger ones are hand mown with John Deere 220C walk-behinds. "It takes a little longer," says Colin, "but presentation is everything and it's worth it." At the weekends, he will use John Deere 2500 triplex machines for the greens, but hand mowing predominates and Colin has eighteen pedestrian mowers all told working every day around the course.

In the run-up to the 2013 Open, hand mowing will be absolute.

The greens at Muirfield are a sight to behold. The one tip Colin is prepared to impart is the regular application of a light, sandy topdressing. It takes all the blemishes out, he says. He never cuts below 4mm either. Fescue greens just don't need to be super short to play well. During the cool, wet and fast growing days of June 2012 he was cutting at 4.5mm.

The Muirfield fairways are sanded in autumn and spring and then, once the growing season gets underway, it's a matter of verticutting and grooming. Feeding is minimal, about once every five to six years.

Of the new developments in equipment, Colin is a big fan of John Deere's hybrid machines and he uses 7500 E-Cuts to keep the fairways in tip-top shape year round.

"Taking away the hydraulics from the moving heads, and the consequent noise reduction, makes mowing much more comfortable for the man on board, and for everyone else," he says.

"The total elimination of oil leak risk is such a weight of a course manager's mind too, especially when big tournaments are in the offing."
Technology is great, says Colin, but nothing beats just keeping your eyes open and observing what's going on. Colin trusts his staff; he trusts his equipment; but top of the leader board for him is instinct. "Without it, you're relying on formula greenkeeping, and that isn't the way to get the best out of a links course," he says.

Other John Deere machines trusted by Colin at Muirfield include the 2500 E-Cut for weekend greens mowing, the 8000 E-Cut for larger tee and green surrounds, the 2653B Precision Cut for pathways, the 2030A ProGator and TE Gator for utility work, and the 1565 out-front rotary for paths and rough mowing.

This year's Open certainly excites Colin. He loves the challenge. In truth, though, he tackles the care of Muirfield exactly the same for club members. He's a golfers' course manager through and through. He loves it when a Brit wins the Open, as Nick Faldo did twice at Muirfield. He's a big fan of the 2011 winner, Darren Clarke, too.

In Colin's trust is, quite simply, just about the best spectator course there is in the UK, with stunning views whichever way you look. Its unusual separate loop configuration for the out and back holes set it apart from all other big championship links too.

There aren't just signature holes at Muirfield: it's a signature course. Red out, yellow back, no name flags and no name at the end of the road say it all. Like the all round trust there is in everything to do with the care of the course, it goes without saying.

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