Twins Roger and John Kerry have, jointly, spent sixty years tending one of the finest links courses in the world. Ecology is high on their list of priorities
Royal St David's Golf Club is nationally, and internationally, renowned as the home of one of the finest traditional championship links courses in the world. It has been established for over 100 years and is steeped in history.
It is set in the beautiful Snowdonia National Park with the mountains and the stunning Harlech Castle providing a wonderful back drop.
The club was founded in 1894 at the very end of the first great golfing boom, when the sport at last ceased to be an almost exclusively Scottish pastime.
Having heard of the pre-eminence of St. Andrews in Scotland, and conscious that the English had St. George's at Sandwich, founding fathers, The Hon. Harold Finch-Hatton, fourth son of the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham, and William Henry More, then Crown Agent for Wales, the name of St. David's seemed logical and appropriate for this new Welsh initiative. It turned out to be an inspired piece of 'branding', and helped enormously to launch Harlech upon the golfing world at large.
It has frequently hosted, and continues to host, world class amateur and professional events. Next year the course will be hosting the Ladies British Amateur Open and the S4C Ladies Championship of Europe.
Over the years the course has built up a significant reputation for the quality of its greens and overall condition of the course. This has been due to the commitment of both the greenkeeping staff and club officials who have worked in harmony to produce the course we see today.
Today the course is in the good hands of Roger Kerry and his twin brother John who have worked together at the Royal St David's for thirty-one and twenty-nine years respectively. There are two other Kerry family members who work at the club; John's wife Karen is the assistant club secretary and John's son, Llion, is one of the greenkeeping staff and also a Welsh international golfer.
There are three other members on the greenkeeping staff, Emyr Price, who has been at the club for thirty five years, Owain Aeron, with eight years service, and Gareth Evans.
My reasons for visiting Royal St David's were threefold. Firstly, I had heard of the exceptional condition of the course with its high bent and fescue greens. Secondly, I was interested to learn more about their ten year ecology programme and, thirdly, Roger and John, as 'Gingerbread Men', were to form part of our series on this group of greenkeepers taking a sustainable approach to course management.
On the day of my visit I was given the opportunity to walk the course with Bob Taylor, Head of Ecology and Enviroment at STRI, who was visiting as part of his biannual ecology inspection. He was putting a schedule together for the ecology work required over the next five years. More about that later.
The club also employ the services of STRI agronomist, Alistair Beggs. He also visits the course on a regular basis to assess the playing surfaces. His comments, from March of this year, do reflect the condition of the course.
"It is an exemplar site in respect of best practice. Turf on all playing surfaces is dominated by finer bent and fescue turf types, and the benefits they convey are very apparent at this time. Putting surfaces are firm, smooth and incredibly fast for late March. On the day after the visit they showed a stimpmeter reading of 12 at a height of 6mm! The current management programme, and the results it is bringing with it, is the perfect demonstration that greenkeeping is a study of infertility and that the best possible year round results are produced by promoting the finer grasses within a supportive and consistent club framework".
The greens have between a 60% and 80% composition of bent/fescue grasses. This has been achieved by the minimalist approach to greenkeeping that Roger and his staff employ. For example, they have not carried out any grooming or scarification on the greens for at least ten years and, with a minimal feeding and watering programme, which consists of two summer feeds of 8:0:0 NPK at half recommended rate, plus some iron over the winter months, the results have been astonishing. In 2006 and 2007 no feeds were applied at all!
Headland's Tricure wetting agent is used on the greens to help prevent them from becoming hydrophobic, especially during the summer months when the combination of strong sea breezes and sun can soon dry out the surface.
After the third week in August no watering is undertaken, the intention being to 'drought out' the Annual Meadow Grasses (AMG). This strategy usually works. Bare areas are then overseeded with the desirable bent and fescues.
Thatch levels are kept low by judicious aeration work throughout the year using a combination of solid and slit tines. Topdressing is restricted to four applications a year with a total of forty tonnes being applied annually. The imported dressing is a 70/30 sand/soil mix that, once on site, is mixed with sand taken from the course. This then brings the ration down to 85/15.
By comparison, twenty five years ago the Royal St David's greens were 90% Meadow Grass with 2" of thatch sitting on compacted soil, resulting in the greens being closed from the 1st November and reopended two weeks before the Easter competitions.
The club buy all their machinery outright. The equipment is 'rotated down'. For example, a new greens mower will be used for five years on the greens and then, for a further five, on approaches and collars, before seeing its days out as a greens roller fitted with vibrating rollers.
Last year the club invested in new machinery storage sheds and a new recycled wash down facility. Having these facilities helps keep the machinery in top condition.
Greens are mown at 4mm in the summer and between 6/7mm in the winter using Toro Triples. They are cut daily throughout the growing season and up to three times a week at other times of the year.
Tees are mown two to three times a week and are maintained at a height of 8mm throughout the year. In March the tees are hollow cored with the cores dragmatted back into the surface. They receive two applications of 8:0:0 NPK feed between March and July.
Fairways are cut twice weekly at a height between 11-18mm depending on requirements and time of the year.
The cut rough consists of a 3-6 metre band of grassland separating the semi rough from the deep/ecological rough This transitional grassland generally receives little management other than cutting to maintain the sward height between 75-100mm.
The combination of the wet weather patterns since 2000, and the regular cutting regimes of these rough areas, has led to a general thickening of the grassland rough and this, in turn, has led to a significant increase in the time it takes to play a round of golf.
Roger and John say that, to counteract this, some clubs have reduced the amount of grassland rough being managed. However, it is not something that they will do, as such measures will impact on wildlife and also lead to a loss of course definition.
The course has an automated irrigation system for green and tees, but is used sparingly. Water is obtained from their own reservoir. Each green used to have its own individual well pool. These are still in existence, but are now only kept as wildlife havens.
The course has 120 bunkers, most of which are of the small, deep wall type, designed to prevent the sand from being blown away. They are raked three times a week and topped up with sand as and when required.
Typical of links courses, Royal St David's is very much open to the elements. The abrasive nature of the weather means that conserving the fauna and flora of the course is just as important as maintaining the playing surfaces, especially as it is designated an SSSI.
The club has a strong working partnership with the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and, with the assistance of the STRI's Bob Taylor, they have set up a ten-year bio diversity strategy. A survey was undertaken to identify the flora and fauna, followed by the drawing up of an agreement between all parties to help preserve and enhance this unique bio diversity.
They have just completed their first five-year term and are now working on the requirements for the next five years.
During our course walk Bob pointed out a number of examples of good management practice that had been carried out during the first five years of the scheme and detailed the aims of the programme for the next five years.
Bob explained that gorse plantations require a rotational programme of pruning, thinning and planting. For example, pruning is best done in three stages - one in each of the first three years, eventually cutting down to between 150-300mm in height. The gorse is then allowed to grow back before the process is repeated.
Rough grass management policies aim to increase the wildlife diversity whilst, at the same time, giving clear demarcation of the fairways.
As Bob explained, it is not just a case of cutting grass regularly at different predetermined heights, it is about understanding the longer-term benefits of grass species management.
Roger and John, working with Bob Taylor, have been conducting a number of trials to assess the different management techniques for a range of fixed dune grassland conditions. Species composition and structural quality were both assessed.
The trials were conducted over a six year period across four areas of grassland that were split into five plots, and managed as follows:
• Spring cut + scarification + litter collection (annual)
• Spring cut + scarification + litter collection (every 3 years)
• Late summer cut + litter collection (annual)
• Late summer cut + scarification + litter collection (annual)
• Neglected grassland control
The trials demonstrated that different approaches to grassland management could affect species composition, the degree of cover and the density of the sward. In particular, the results suggested that grasslands receiving a summer cut (without aftermath grazing) responds more slowly to change than would be the case under a spring cut.
Scarification can accelerate the speed of change, becoming excessive, particularly when included in a annual spring cut. The annually cut summer grasslands are generally not as rich as spring cut grasslands, but the reduction in density may be sufficient to provide excellent golfing rough conditions.
Grasslands managed on a three-year basis (summer cut) may not differ visually from unmanaged grasslands although some subtle changes were noted.
The study revealed that spring cut grasslands reduce in vigour, resulting in a reduction of general biomass and an increase in species diversity.
Scarification, in creating more open ground conditions, appears to increase germination of annual/biannual flora species.
The nett result is that Roger and John now employ both the summer and spring annual cuts to various areas of the course which, in essence, gives a fringing rough that offers grass which penalises the golfer whilst, at the same time, retains a diversity of wildlife.
Roger is grateful for the support he has received from both Bob and the CCW. He also points out that, without the continuing support of the club officials and committees, none of this work would be possible.
This year's winter works is centred on two main projects - the 16th tee and 17th fairway.
The condition of the 16th tee has deteriorated over the years due to the effect of wind blown sand. The sand is continuously blown onto the tee from the surrounding dunes and this has restricted the growth of the grass due to the lack of nutrients etc. The task will be to remove the build up of sand in order to allow new soil and turf to be laid.
Work will be undertaken to bring the new 17th fairway into play towards the end of October. A low cop banking, similar to that at Hoylake, will be constructed to delineate the extended practice ground from the playing area. It will be unmown and natural grasses, including heathers and marram, will be encouraged to thrive.
While Bob was on site, Roger and John discussed the construction of the new bank. They took on board some suggestions from Bob who emphasised the importance of careful excavation of the vegetation for planting on the bank, taking a minimum 150mm depth of root mass with each piece of turf harvested. Also, taking turfs from different areas, so that the ecological affect is minimised.
The condition of the course is a credit to the work, commitment and dedication of the twins, who have spent the best part of their working lives developing a sustainable golfing environment at Royal St David's.
I would like to thank Roger and John for giving me the opportunity to spend such an interesting day with them and, of course, Bob Taylor who showed his passion for golf course ecology while demonstrating his vast knowledge and experience.
And, if you ever get the chance to visit Harlech, make sure you pop in and see for yourself one of the best links courses in the UK, if not the world.