James Gotts is the greenkeeper at the RJ National, Ransomes Jacobsen's three-hole golf course at their European headquarters in Ipswich. Following a chance conversation between one of his colleagues and Mike O'Keeffe of Ohio State University at the Golf Industry Show in San Diego, James was presented with an opportunity to join the greenkeeping team for Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational in Florida. This is a diary of his visit
Day 1 - Saturday 12th March 2016
On Saturday, I travelled across the pond to America. I had been excited about the trip for weeks and I could not wait to get involved and meet the rest of the guys at Bay Hill.
I arrived at Orlando International airport around 5.30pm where I was greeted by Andrew Cowie, one of the Ohio State interns and Sara Swyear from Bay Hill, who had kindly offered to pick me up and take me to Andrew's apartment for the duration of my stay. On the way to the apartment, we stopped at a local restaurant where I met more of the Ohio State interns.
Along with Andrew, the rest of the interns were Dylan McWilliams, Christian Wilson and Simon Winzar, who gave me a warm welcome and immediately made me feel part of the team. It was great to meet them outside of a work environment and it was a good ice-breaker, which turned into a memorable first night in Florida.
Day 2 - Sunday 13th March
With just four days to go until the start of the tournament, it was important to get up to speed and find out what jobs I would be required to complete over the tournament period.
I was called into a meeting with Chris Flynn, the Director of Grounds at Bay Hill Club and Lodge and received a warm welcome from all of the guys who work for him. Jobs were assigned to us and I was given the responsibility for cutting the fairways with Kelly, Dave, Sully and Doug, who took me out onto the course and helped me to get to know the layout. This was the first time that I had seen the course and I was blown away by the perfection of it; there was not a single blade of grass out of place!
We cut from tee to green so that there would be one continuous stripe on the fairways, which would help the ball roll after teeing off. This is the way we'd cut each morning over tournament week, so that the cut was clearly defined by the first day of the event. The mower we used was the Jacobsen LF510; it was a joy to use and made the cutting a whole lot easier; the controls were straightforward and the machine very comfortable to sit on.
After mowing was completed, we returned to the maintenance facility to wash down the machines. Firstly, we blew all grass off using leaf blowers, which helped to get rid of all loose grass, reducing the risk of blocking the washdown bays. Next, there was a thorough washdown of the whole machine, so that any remaining grass was removed.
Once this was completed, we soaped the bonnets and wheels so that the final rinse would make them spotless and ready to go out the next morning in pristine condition. We repeated this process after each use.
In the afternoon, Kelly and I went out onto the nine-hole Charger course, which is used if maintenance is being carried out on the main course, made up of two nine-hole loops known as the Challenger and Champion. Our job was to insert stakes and rope to direct spectator traffic throughout the tournament, as there would be vast crowds in this area over the four-day period.
We toured the main course and Kelly provided some interesting information on the history of the club; he's been working there for twenty-four years, so who better to get information off than him. We finished around 5.00pm, so the interns and I went to grab a bite to eat, which gave me an opportunity to ask lots of questions about the difference between the maintenance of courses in the USA and UK.
Day 3 - Monday 14th March
Monday was the first day of job run-throughs, where we carried out tasks in the same manner as we would on tournament mornings.
We started at 4.00am and usually finished by around 7.30am, which coincided with the first tee time on tournament day. My task was to cut the back nine fairways with Kelly, in just the same manner as we had on the previous day.
Once the first shift was completed, we had a breakfast of bacon and French toast, which went down a treat! I was able to get to know the guys a bit more over breakfast and find out about the ins and outs of tournament week.
After breakfast, we had a meeting with Chris to discuss how the morning tasks went and he provided us with feedback on the work done. As well as these meetings in the morning, we had meetings during lunch and after work each day, so that everyone was clear about what they needed to do. Monday morning went to plan with all timings being kept, which set us up nicely for the rest of the week.
The afternoon shift started at 1.00pm and I was asked to join Bo and Charlie Jr., two more members of Chris's team, to work on detail tasks. This consisted of jobs that looked at finer presentation details on the course. The first job was to walk along the pathway of the ninth hole and tidy the edges, where sand had spilt from the hedge line due to recent downpours.
Next, a pathway had to be cut from the 17th tee down to the cart path using a small pedestrian rotary mower. This was done so that there was a clearly defined route showing where foot traffic should be heading.
My final job of the day was to assist Charlie Jr., using blowers to clear debris from the bunkers after the guys had used Flymos to cut around the bunker edges. We worked our way around the course in number order until all of the bunkers had been done and were ready for the next morning. I enjoyed working with Charlie Jr. and Bo; they taught me about preparation for different events and I'd had a variety of jobs to help the team get the course ready.
That evening, the interns took me to a local restaurant where we met up with three more Ohio State interns - Harry Cannon, Ben Koracevic and Will Goldstone. They were all working at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, about twenty miles away, and were going to be helping out at Bay Hill.
Simon, Dylan and Christian were all based at Isleworth Golf & Country Club in Florida and Andrew was based at Bay Hill, so this gave a number of different views on greenkeeping and it was great to learn from them.
Day 4 - Tuesday 15th March
A warm start to the morning allowed us to carry out fairway cutting and other jobs to get the course ready for the day ahead, which was a practice day for the pros before the big event.
After the first shift, we had some free time to go back and catch up on some sleep or head out onto the golf course. I headed out onto the course with Andrew to watch some of the golf and take in the atmosphere.
We started back at 2.00pm to cut the fairways again, but this time in a nine to three direction, cutting across our morning cut, which gave a great finish. We started before the practice round had finished, and were restricted where we could start cutting, but found a route that gave us distance from the golfers, allowing them to finish without us catching them up.
That evening, we finished around 7.30pm and went down to the local store and picked up some food. We returned to Andrew's apartment, made some appetising filled rolls, which we devoured and saw us through the rest of the evening, ready for the next day.
Day 5 - Wednesday 16th March
Day 5 was the start of the Pro-Am tournament, which featured some celebrities, including retired NFL players. Another early start so we could get ahead and finish before the golf commenced. After a few days of doing the same routine, Kelly and I had got a good system going and we completed the task in plenty of time.
Similar to the previous days, once the golf started we were given some free time to go and watch the golf, which was great for me as it was my first time watching live golf and also my first time for being involved in a tournament week.
That afternoon, after the golf had gone past the 15th hole, we were able to start work again. I was paired with Charlie Jr. and we joined the rest of the guys who were filling fairway divots. We used green sand to fill these so that, not only did they fill the areas, but also made them less prominent. We also collected the loose divots to keep the fairways looking good.
We had a later finish that evening, but it was nice to see the course once the sun was setting - it was breathtaking!
Day 6 - Thursday 17th March (Tournament Round 1)
We followed the same mowing routine that we practised on Tuesday, once in the morning from tee to green and again in the afternoon cutting the nine to three pattern which, once again, gave a tremendous finish.
The course was not only a golf course, but also a haven for all sorts of animals and reptiles and something that I had never experienced before. It was great to see ospreys stalking the fish in the lakes and buzzards swooping over the rough. Not to mention my first encounter with alligators! That is something that I will definitely remember for a long time.
Day 7 - Friday 18th March (Tournament Round 2)
It was a cooler start to the day, but still considerably warmer than the weather back home! It was also darker, so lights were vital on the machinery and head torches mandatory for the guys not driving equipment. When you looked around the course, it looked like a swarm of fire flies buzzing about.
Once we completed our morning jobs, we were able to catch up with some of the golf out on the course before starting our second shift at around 5.00pm, where I headed out with the divot team to repair the fairways after play had finished.
Most of the divots were in set areas on the fairways, as players would generally land close by their playing partner's ball and that made it a lot easier to make sure all had been filled.
There were plenty of us for this task, so I was given the opportunity to head off with Andrew and Ben to check the moisture content on the greens. As I had never done this before, it was a great learning experience and was done to ensure that the greens would run firm and fast for the next few days.
Using a moisture meter, they demonstrated the procedure and were looking to achieve around 22% moisture content. I couldn't believe how quick the process was and how much the moisture increased with very little water added, but it was great to learn from Ben and Andrew and
I'm glad that I went and looked at the finer details of greens management.
Day 8: Saturday 19th March (Tournament Round 3)
With rain scheduled for later, it was important that the first jobs were completed before it arrived, so an early start was essential. Round three was well under way and the golf was starting to get more exciting as the leading players' scores were so close.
Once the first shift was completed, we headed out and watched the play unfold but, around lunchtime, the heavens opened, but luckily not enough to postpone the round.
During the break between shifts, I had an opportunity to speak to some of the members of the Bay Hill team and they were able to explain what work had been carried out prior to my visit.
Because of the wet weather, the divots were larger, so I went out with Doug and linked up with the back nine divot team. There were more of us today, as there was no cutting being done due to the rain, so we finished earlier than expected.
The rain had come as a bit of a shock as this was the first time I had worn waterproofs during my time in Florida, but I was glad that I packed some before leaving the UK! The rain had come from a storm that was predicted to be quite disruptive, but luckily it had dispersed considerably before reaching us, otherwise it could have been a completely different story.
Day 9: Sunday 20th March (Tournament Final round)
The final day of the tournament had arrived and the golf had started to attract a huge spectator following. This was the final morning where we had a chance to get everything looking spot on and it certainly didn't disappoint, with feedback coming from everyone saying that the course was the best it had looked.
Luckily, the rain was holding off and we were able to get all the jobs done prior to the tee off. The waterproofs were still on, but we knew that, if it didn't rain before nine o'clock, we would be in for a hot day. We completed the back nine fairways on time and, after cutting them each morning for the past week, the definition was certainly clear and the course looked fantastic, especially with all the different heights of cut between the playing areas.
We had the opportunity to catch up with the last few groups and follow them into the closing holes. The top two were tied as they came into the last hole and we were given access to watch from the sixteenth tee, which overlooked the 18th green. We were in an excellent position to see Jason Day's winning putt that brought the tournament to a close - and what a tournament it was!
Day 10: Monday 21st March
The day after the tournament, I headed up to the golf club with Andrew to say farewell to all the guys and thank them for such an amazing time whilst in Florida. That evening, we went out for a leaving party for Andrew, as this was his final day as an intern at Bay Hill. It was a great get together with the guys from Bay Hill and the rest of the interns and was a fitting end to my tournament experience and my time in Florida.
Day 11: Tuesday 22nd March
The day had arrived where I would have to say goodbye to a fantastic place. I had an early flight home, so there was just enough time to thank the rest of the interns for their friendship and support over the past eleven days.
I had such an amazing time and I am so thankful for the opportunity that came my way, it was great to be involved in such a prestigious event and learn from such knowledgeable people.
I would like to say a huge thank you to Chris Flynn and Sara Swyear and all the guys at Bay Hill who made this all possible and who made me feel so welcome throughout the experience.
Also thanks to Mike O'Keeffe and the Ohio State interns - Simon Winzar, Andrew Cowie, Dylan McWilliams, Christian Wilson, Harry Cannon, Ben Koracevic and Will Goldstone, who made me feel part of the team and welcome from day one.
It was the experience of a lifetime and to top it off, I got to meet the great man himself ... Arnold Palmer!