When the De Vere group purchased Oulton Park, just under three years ago, some heavy investment was required to bring the golf course back up to championship quality.
Jim Brown, Estate Manager at the renamed De Vere Oulton Hall Hotel and Golf Club, talks to Laurence Gale MSc about ongoing developments and the club's first televised tournament.
Oulton Park was acquired by the De Vere group in September 2005 from Leeds City Council. The 18 and 9 hole Dave Thomas designed golf courses had been the the jewel in the crown of the city council and regularly played host to the oldest PGA event in the north of England - The City of Leeds Cup.
With the acquisition came a change in name to Oulton Hall and, since that date, De Vere have invested heavily in the parkland site. The estate had no machinery, a failing irrigation system, run down sheds and no greenstaff. The initial investment of over £1m met those infrastructure demands with over £400,000 being spent on a contemporary maintenance facility, over £200,000 on irrigation and £300,000 on machinery for the brand new team of greenkeepers to maintain the 365 acre site.
Estate Manager, Jim Brown, immediately set about making the much needed improvements to the golf courses by introducing sound agronomic practices. In most cases it was simply a matter of raising the heights of cut, introducing a considered aeration programme and cutting the close mown areas more frequently.
Throughout the winter of 2005-06 fourteen tees were levelled, all the bunkers were stripped back, drained and re-presented, pathways were improved and drainage introduced to identified weak areas. Throughout the 2006 season a complete new irrigation system was installed to tees, greens and approaches. Jim remembers that it was a difficult time as the year was one of the driest for some time.
Without an irrigation system, and a history of dry patch, the challenge of keeping grass on the greens throughout the irrigation installation was a real battle. In many cases turf loss was as high as 35% on a number of greens, all of which tested the patience of the Oulton Hall membership and visitors. Their patience has been more than rewarded during 2007 and ever since.
The golf courses make up a large part of the grade II listed Estate, of which the quite stunning ornamental gardens that surround the hotel often win top horticultural awards. Jim says that the gardens are a real pleasure to manage; they not only give immense pleasure, but are a huge part of the guests experience.
2007 was a year of consolidation with Jim and his team concentrating on refining their maintenance practices to produce a highly presented estate and golf courses, the highlight coming in August with Oulton Hall hosting the PGA Euro Protour which was televised on Sky Sports. "It was, without a doubt, the highlight of our year" said Jim "and a very exciting tournament to be involved with. And all delivered within two years of the acquisition by De Vere, and testament to the great teamwork fostered within the Estate team."
Jim believes that this teamwork is fundamental to the success of any golf course and is passionate about training. "The colleges and NVQ can deliver a good level of qualification, but there is only so much we can do on our own" said Jim. "Over the past twelve months I have enlisted the assistance of our trade partners to assist me with the delivery of training. We have worked with fertiliser manufacturers, machinery producers, oils/greases distributors and, more recently, irrigation engineers."
"All these companies come with a high degree of knowledge and skill sets, and all are willing to spend their time and share their knowledge in practical and classroom training sessions. The great thing about these sessions are the NVQs. Students get real evidence of training, which helps with their qualification, plus we can involve the already qualified people to keep them up to date and continue their development."
"A great example of this 'partnership training' is the recent irrigation session with our chosen irrigation specialists, Enviropro H2O. They are working closely with us to set up an irrigation inventory which will meet all the Estate needs should minor repairs need to be met. The idea is that Duncan McGilvray and Simon Leathley will work with me to identify the irrigation needs of the golf courses and eventually extend that to meet the needs of the gardens. I am not in a position to concentrate solely on the ever evolving spray irrigation trends, developments or pending legislation involving water conservation - I can leave that to the experts and they can share that with me."
"At present," said Duncan "Simon is delivering training to the Oulton Hall team to be able to meet the daily problems that irrigation systems throw up at this time of the year. The staff at Oulton Hall will be able to deal with the day to day problems that we face on a regular basis as irrigation technicians. With the confidence to identify and remedy faults, they will keep their system in peak operating condition - we will be there to support them with emergency specialist back up, system development and future installation."
The future at Oulton Hall is very exciting for Jim as he is currently spearheading a remodeling project with a view to delivering a challenging golf course of over 7000 yards, all to meet the De Vere Company's tournament strategy. De Vere consistently delivers the highest level of golf tournaments in the UK and Oulton Hall is to be a big player in the years to come.
"We plan to start the development towards the end of this season with an anticipated launch date of spring 2009" said Jim "We are working, once again, with Dave Thomas Design Ltd to realise the true potential of this golf course. Even though we plan to close nine holes down at a time for the development, we can still deliver eighteen holes for our members and guests to play."
"It wouldn't matter to me if I was managing a nine hole pitch and putt or a high end golf resort, I would still enlist the help, skill sets and expertise of my suppliers to keep both myself and my team up-to-date."
Oulton Hall is proving to be a real success story and, thanks to the vision of De Vere and Estate Manager Jim Brown, they are on the brink of truly exiting times. It is a long time since a golf course has been paraded as a tournament contender and succeeded but in De Vere Oulton Hall - the future of professional golf is assured.