Harleyford Golf Club lies about two miles west of Marlow, Buckinghamshire on a country estate near Harleyford Manor, which dates back to the 13th century. This is where Lee Williams met up with BIGGA award-winning Course Manager Craig Earnshaw.
As I turn into the entrance to the golf course, I am greeted by a security guard who points me in the direction of the clubhouse. A long driveway takes me through the course where I then get a glimpse of the beautifully converted flint barn and other Victorian buildings that, in the 19th century, formed the farm element of the Harleyford Estate.
As I walk towards the club shop to meet Craig, I can't help but notice one of many delightful driftwood sculptures by James Doran-Webb. These are dotted around the course providing a great focal point. Craig tells me the owner first saw the sculptures at the Chelsea Flower Show and fell in love with them. James now uses the course to showcase his art.
At fifteen years of age, Craig completed his work experience at Dartmouth Golf and Country Club in Devon in his holidays, influenced by his cricket coach Terry Farkins, who was also the Head Greenkeeper at the time.
"At sixteen, I was offered a youth training scheme, which I accepted. I spent six years at Dartmouth, before it was suggested I should move on to further my career. I moved to Harleyford Golf Club as assistant greenkeeper for one year, but was then offered the chance to return to Dartmouth as the first assistant, where I did another four years working closely with the mechanic. A job then came up for a Deputy Course Manager at the Lambourne Golf Club not far from here. They wanted someone with mechanical experience, so I got that job. After two years at Lambourne, a job became available within Crown Golf as deputy course manager, but I knew they were looking for a course manager at the same time, so I went for both jobs. I got the deputy position but, within three months, I was made course manager at Oak Park Golf Club in Surrey. Six years later, I got a phone call from Harleyford asking me to come and sit an interview for the roll of course manager."
Craig has dyslexia but has never let it hold him back when it comes to gaining his qualifications and improving his knowledge. "I found it very difficult to do college work during my first six years at Dartmouth. I never really thought I would make it further than being an assistant. My old boss, Terry Parkins, really pushed me and gave me the confidence to go for it and he has helped me throughout my career. Even when I was at Crown, I would get people to write on the board for me, but over the years my confidence has grown."
I certainly admire how Craig has not let his dyslexia hold him back. He now holds many qualifications, including NVQ Level 2 and 3 Sportsturf, carried out a BASIS course at the STRI, supervisory management courses, spraying certificates PA1, 2 and 3, chainsaw licence and would like to take more courses in the future.
When Craig first took the job at Harleyford, the club had money problems and, within a year, things went from bad to worse. Craig explains; "there was no money for products, and machines were constantly breaking down. We were leaving machines out on the course, as our sheds are a mile and a half away. It takes us twenty minutes to get from the greenkeeping compound to the first."
"In June 2014, the administrators came in and, to make matters worse, due to all the hours I had to work, I lost my marriage. Four of us were doing our very best, for about a year, to keep the golf course up to the same standards of the surrounding courses."
I told Craig that I could directly relate to what he went through, as I lost my first marriage to the job. Like many greenkeepers and groundsman around the country, we don't just do the job for the money but for the love of it.
Craig continues; "I couldn't just sit back and watch the course deteriorate, pride for the job keeps you wanting to provide the best possible surfaces."
Once the course went into administration, the landowner bought the club off the bank and, with Craig's help, wanted to get the course back to its former condition. "The owners have been great to me. After I lost my marriage, I needed somewhere to live, so they let me put a static caravan in the compound where I have lived for four and a half years now. From July 2014, that's when Harleyford started for me, as the two previous years were poor. They weren't suddenly able to throw loads of money at it as they had bought the club in July, so had none of the membership money from April, which would have usually taken us through the year. It was made clear to me it was going to be a difficult few years, but I was assured that, whatever money the club made, would be put back in and, to be honest, they have stuck to their word. Alongside the investment badly needed in my department, they were also having to fix problems in the clubhouse."
The club is now in a healthy position where they can allocate more money into Craig's department, and the first big project was the new and very impressive greenkeepers compound, which I had a
tour of. "The owner came to me and asked me what I would rather have - new machinery or a new compound up on the golf course? I explained that we needed to be up at the course before we invested in machinery so, three years on from our first conversation, we moved in this May. At the same time, I have had to remind him that, although three years ago machinery wasn't the main issue, it is now! We have now signed and are awaiting delivery of a new fleet of Toro machinery, supplied by Oliver Landpower, a local Toro dealer. The new compound, combined with the new machinery, will be a game changer once everything is in place. It will mean that more time will be spent out on the course, and a lot fewer machinery breakdowns will make us more time efficient, which will show in the coming years."
The new greenkeeper facility is being built in an area of outstanding natural beauty; this has meant the wastewater for the washdown area for machines has had to be below ground. The roof tiles used have had to fit in with the other buildings around the estate, it had to be oak clad, with specific brickwork at lower parts, and also had to be low enough so you can only see the roof from the road. They have faced many little challenges along the way, but it will all be worth it in the end.
The next few months will see Craig going through some staff changes. "I have a greenkeeping contractor who has worked with me for a while now, and he has always said if a job came up at his local club where he has been a member for twenty years, he would take it, and it's literally just come up, so we will lose him. I will also lose one of my other qualified lads due to unforeseen circumstances. We were working at six staff and this will now go down to five full-time staff, and two part-time summer staff."
"We have promoted our trainee, Aaron Hurdwell, who has been greenkeeping since the age of sixteen. He is now eighteen and completed his NVQ Level 2. He got into the final of the Toro student greenkeeper of the year awards last year, which was a great achievement. He now wants to get another twelve months experience under his belt before he starts his NVQ Level 3. I then have my Deputy, Joe Drummond, who has his NVQ Level 2 & 3, plus his PA1, 2 & 6 spraying certificates."
Craig tells me 2108 was a memorable year for him and the team. "I applied for the Bernhard Delegation trip for a second time. I got an interview and thought I did really well, but a month later I got a phone call saying I didn't get in. I was gutted. So, I applied again, got the interview and, whilst I didn't think it went as well as the previous one, I got in. It was a great feeling. Also, last year in January, we went to watch the welcome ceremony at BTME where they give out the awards. Whilst watching the awards, I nudged my Deputy and said 'that will be us next year', because I knew we had the Matchroom Sport Championship on the PGA EuroPro Tour coming up and it was for an event award. My Deputy replied, 'it would be brilliant just to be sitting down there as nominees'."
Left to right: Aaron Hurdwell, James Otterway, Craig Earnshaw, Martyn Metcalf and Joe Drummond
"When we had the event, we went through appalling weather conditions, minimal staff, poor machinery and struggled with the distance from the shed as well. A lot of people who I knew in the industry wrote off to BIGGA nominating us and, at Christmas time, BIGGA phoned me to say we had been nominated for the Championship Greenkeeping Performance of the Year award at BTME. We were up against Matthew Wharton CGCS MG and the team at Carolina Golf Club for preparing and maintaining the course during the 2018 United States Mid-Amateur Championship, just a week after the club was hit by Tropical Storm Florence; and Stewart Duff and the team at Gullane Golf Club for preparing and maintaining the course during the Aberdeen Standard Investments Men's and Ladies Scottish Opens 2018. I didn't think we would win it so, when it was announced we had won, the lads and me were over the moon and it was nice to share the moment with my girlfriend who got up on stage with us, as she helped us out for two weeks solid, as well as working her own job."
Craig and his team are currently carrying out bunker work around the course. "We had a bunker on the 14th hole, which was really deep, making it difficult to maintain, with really high faces to Flymo and was stony and right into the chalk. We have raised it up using fill from the new compound, which was handy, and we have revetted it. We have also reshaped various other bunkers around the course."
Craig does what he can to help improve the ecology around the course. "We have quite a lot of wildflowers that grow around our deep rough, so we cut and collect but, this year, we had to leave it out as I was getting squeezed on my budget as we had to reseed some fairways after the drought but, following a year of little growth, it doesn't matter too much. We have deer on the site, buzzards and red kites that nest and we see kestrels. Whenever we cut trees, we put together eco piles, and I would like to get some bee colonies around the course. I feel once we have some of the big projects out of the way, this will be one I would like to get my teeth into."
Left: 30-40 tonne of sub soil on the 14th as part of recent bunker renovations Right: Bunker on 14th - April 2019
Craig tells me his thoughts on the industry. "I think the industry now is in a good place, but I'm apprehensive about the next ten years, because it's tough to get people into it. I think we have had a lot of education over the last ten years, with a lot of people who know what they are doing who can go and get the big jobs. But, in ten years' time, I think we are going to struggle because people don't want to come into it and that's where we are going to find the issues. We need to change the way the industry is viewed now to get people in so that doesn't happen."
"We need to be going into schools, advertising what some people have achieved in this industry, show them it's a career, and that you don't need a BA honours in turf technology to be a course manager; that you can achieve it by working hard and progressing through the ranks."
What's in the shed
Jacobsen Eclipse 322
Jacobsen Greens King 522
John Deere 2653B
Toro 5400 Reelmaster x 2
Toro Greensmaster 3250
Toro Multi Pro 5800 sprayer
Toro Workman MDX x 2
New Holland tractor
Volvo mini excavator
John Deere 22B x 4
John Deere 26A x 3
Toro Greensmaster TriFlex 3420 x 2
Toro Groundmaster 4300
Toro Reelmaster 5410 x 2
Toro Greensmaster 3250
Toro Multi Pro 5800 sprayer
Toro Workman MDX x 5
New Holland tractor
Volvo mini excavator
Toro Greensmaster 1000 x 4
Toro Greensmaster 1600
Toro Groundmaster Sidewinder
Harleyford recently opened their new state of the
art greenkeeping facility
and you can view the release here