Maintaining two golf courses that host near one hundred thousand rounds a year between them to an exceptional standard isn't easy but, at the Emirates Golf Club, Dubai, it is what they do. Blair Ferguson chatted over Zoom with Dònal Mulvey, the club's Fleet Manager
Emirates Golf Club was built in 1988 as the Middle East's first grass golf course. In 2021, it is the region's number one golf destination and hosts one of the longest-running European Tour events in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the Majlis Course and the Women's Moonlight Classic, the first European Tour event under floodlights, on the Faldo Course.
In December 2020 alone, the Faldo Course had over seven thousand rounds, which is someone teeing off every five to six minutes for twelve to thirteen hours. For every one of these rounds, the members, paying public or PGA professionals expect the very best from the Middle East's very best, and delivering that along with a seventy-two strong team is Fleet Manager and Second Assistant Dònal Mulvey.
In early February, when we sit down for this interview, Dònal and the course team are in their coldest time of year and fresh from another successful Desert Classic, with Paul Casey claiming his 15th European Tour title.
Whilst the daytime temperature in Dubai is twenty-five degrees Celsius, in England, on the other side of the Zoom call, it's a slightly colder minus two - a temperature Dònal is more familiar with from his time working at Royal Dublin Golf Club.
The Irishman traded the striking views of Dublin Bay for Dubai's sun and sand in 2017 after initially learning his trade during a formative 30-week college placement at the Links that would turn into a job for seven years.
"I did my first year of college, and I needed a summer job. My friend helped me out with a job on a pitch and putt course. I went back to college after the summer finished in 2009 and, during that year, I had to do a 30-week placement, so my lecturer Pat Suttle set me up with a job at the Royal Dublin Golf Club. He basically said to me, if I'm going to send you here, you need to work. You need to be able to work. Me being a young lad, I said sure no bother and got such a shock after a week or two, to say the least. But it was a good shock in the end."
"Working at Royal Dublin for that 30 weeks taught me a lot about hard work and high standards and, being a Championship Golf Course, it has those. I worked under Paddy Teeling there, and he was the one setting the standards, and you had to match them, or you'd leave."
"I think those summers there just happened to be some of the best weather-wise. Royal Dublin is a links course in the heart of Dublin Bay and, when the sun shines, it's absolutely beautiful. It's so low lying that you can see the ships coming in every day. You can actually set your watch to the Irish Ferry and Stena Line at 8:08am nearly every morning."
"Funnily enough, I spotted Emirates Golf Club a long time ago when I was beginning college. I don't know how and I don't know why, I can't remember exactly, but I'd always seen it in magazines and the way it was presented during the European Tour. For some reason, it was always sitting in the back of my head, and when an opportunity came up as a Head Mechanic at a different golf course in Dubai - the Superintendent at the time was an Irish lad - I jumped at that opportunity to go over and get my foot in the door. Whether it worked out or not was another thing, but I don't think I would have got that opportunity again, so I just went for it."
"I think the eight months up to me leaving Ireland was probably one of the coldest eight months I've ever experienced. The opposite side to a links golf course is during the winter; it's windy, and it does not stop blowing. I was in the workshop, and my tools were covered in frost, the wind was blowing for eight months solid, and I was telling myself it's time to get some heat in my bones and get out of here."
If the Irish winds were proving a touch too cold, then arrival in Dubai was the opposite. Dònal likens it to the first waft of air when you open an oven every time you step outside in the summer. During his walks to catch the bus at half three in the morning, the humidity would have him soaked in sweat until he returned home that night.
For him, that was the biggest change to face. Workwise, he was thrown straight in and went with the flow before the opportunity came to join Craig Haldane at Emirates Golf Club, where he has fully adapted to the elements, both for himself and for the courses.
"The effect of no water on the course can take a day or two to show, depending on the weather. Once Bermuda or paspalum is deprived of water, it does come back, but it's very hard to bring it back. We do an awful lot of hand hosing during the summer because irrigation is never one hundred percent perfect, so hot spots will appear. And you have those tell-tale greens or areas on the course that you can keep your eye on because you know if that goes, you need to keep an eye out on other areas."
"The thing about the water we use is it's very high in salt, and salts and grasses don't really mix. Paspalum is a somewhat salt-tolerant grass, so it does thrive with the water that we put on. The problem is that you're putting on all this water, and the salt starts to build up and, when the grassroot hits salt, it shuts down. So, between the Air2G2, needle tining and our renovation, we need to open up that profile and get as much sand in there for drainage as we can."
"We call it flushing. Let's say we go out on a Sunday night. We will 8mm needle tine to open up the surface, and we will spray a wetting agent to help pull water through and then irrigate for a significant amount of time to cause hydraulic conductivity. That saturation of the green causes it to flush itself and pull all the salts and all the water out of the soil profile. We have to do that quite often during the summer because of the amount of irrigating we do, and that pulls the salt from the soil profile and gives it a fresh surface."
"We use the Pogo every day to take the moisture content, salinity and EC readings. When we first got the Pogo with the new irrigation system, I think we saved about twenty-five percent on irrigation in the first year. With all the new technology like weather stations, we measure the evapotranspiration rate per day so that the water taken off the course through evaporation is then reapplied rather than applying extra, and it's just the right amount, this alters significantly throughout the year."
"And you can see with the rain that we have, if it happens - it hasn't happened this year for some strange reason - the EC drops significantly, and that is the freshwater diluting the salt in the soil profile. But once you add in irrigation and nutrients, it pretty much grows itself, and the problem is trying to stop it growing during the summer."
Keeping up with the continually growing grass is a challenge at Emirates, with the greenkeeping team cutting every day of the year to keep the courses in prime condition. As Dònal talks through an average daily and weekly routine, it becomes clear that cutting isn't the only thing that needs to be done constantly.
On the face of it, seventy-two staff for two eighteen-hole Championship Courses and a par three course may seem a lot, but between hand watering, cutting, landscaping and machinery maintenance, no one has a quiet day.
As Fleet Manager, ensuring the equipment at the team's disposal, including a one hundred and seventy golf cart fleet, is ready for a gruelling work schedule falls to Dònal, and it is one that the heat plays a significant part in.
"When I first came in five years ago, preventative maintenance was done to the manual, which is right, but given the conditions and the amount of usage and hours that we rack up on the machines, it just wasn't sufficient enough. One of the first things I did was shorten the intervals between preventative maintenance, and the other thing was grinding."
"Bermuda and paspalum grass is thick and so hard-wearing, especially on the bedknives and the reels. When I first came over here, my team was backlapping every day, and I was like, you only ground this the other day; you don't need to backlap. So I got a GP400, ground it, set it out and two days later, they tell me it's not cutting, and I was thinking I only ground this two days ago, so I took off the bedknife, and I couldn't believe the wear over two days. It's not something I like doing, but we have to backlap every day!"
"We're using Foley grinders. They were a new purchase three years ago now, and it's one of the best things we ever bought. One of the main reasons we picked Foley was its ease of use. Five of my eleven guys can use it, and I can say today we're grinding greens mowers, and one of the guys will do that all day, and then we'll do fairway mowers in two days, and a different guy can go in and do it. We also have a great relationship with Arjen Spek at Foley who is always there when we need him."
"That's one of the main reasons we love the Foley grinders because you have to go step by step. My team is amazing, and I actually don't say you need to grind; you need to backlap - they know, which is a huge load off my back. They know the standards that have been set for them and, when you have a team like that, you just say go ahead."
"And I don't have to sit there and watch to make sure they are grinding the correct way because it's all pre-set in the grinders, and that's why I love them so much."
"One of the things we do quite regularly during the summer, in addition to the preventative maintenance programme, is checking fluids - hydraulic oil, engine oil, and especially coolant. We'll clean out the radiators and clean out the air filters and we will be greasing all the time. Let's say every second week, the rough mowers will come in because they work three and a half to four days a week during the summer, so they are always going, and it's quite dusty and hot conditions."
"During my time in Ireland, I think I had two maybe three hydraulic leaks, but here it's just a regular thing given the heat and the water. You can imagine spraying dirty water on rubber hoses and contracting and expanding in the heat and the hot hydraulic oil inside. It's constant pressure on the pipes and seals, and even tanks leak because of the continuous pressures of heat and the conditions."
The machinery conversation leads us to a topic that has been much discussed at Emirates over the last year and a half, and that is battery powered mowers. The obvious question is, how does a battery cope with working in such heat. Although not a direct comparison, the club has had a great experience with E-Z-GO golf carts which use lithium-ion batteries that can now be found in Jacobsen's new Eclipse 360 ELiTE greens mower. However, the best practical example is the Infinicut greens mower that has been on trial at the club and performing well.
"Batteries are a topic at the moment because lithium has come into the picture. We've had a good talk about it for the last year and a half, especially switching over with golf carts."
"The only thing we operate using battery power is the golf cart fleet, which is another area that falls under me as well. It doesn't seem to be an issue, and E-Z-GO has done their testing over quite a substantial amount of time now, so we have recently purchased golf carts for Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai Creek and Emirates Golf Club (414 carts) with the lithium battery. We've had one at Emirates Golf Club for well over a year now with zero issues, so I'm confident with it. I can't speak for other companies because they haven't been tested, and I think they are a few years behind E-Z-GO. I recently purchased a lithium battery for my cart, which is an aftermarket battery. I'm quite impressed with it, but longevity is my biggest concern."
"It really is an interesting one for us. At the moment, we are replacing our greens mowers as it's been five years now and we're looking at all options. What we have in now, and are testing, is the INFINICUT which is a lithium battery. Personally, I'm extremely impressed by it, I really am, but will it last in my conditions is the big question. That's my biggest concern."
"With an engine, you can put parts on it, but you can't put parts on a battery. There's a lot to consider, and then there's the whole computer side to go along with that. Will that last in the heat and humidity? It is the future, and I would love to purchase a lithium battery option, but it's a tough one to call."
"I do see us going lithium in the future. We're testing this mower, and it's cutting twelve greens on one charge. We use six mowers in the morning, so it's more than enough battery life, as well as the lithium being quick charging; if we did have any issues, we could easily give it a charge for twenty minutes, and it would be good to continue cutting."
"In fairness, suppliers of all brands have been good to us over the years, and they give us products to test out. A huge perk of my job is that I get to see a lot of new machinery before anyone else does, and a lot of suppliers pay us visits and demonstrate what they have to offer, which is a huge benefit."
"We use a lot of Jacobsen mowers, and we've always had a great relationship with Textron and Jacobsen, especially the guys in Ipswich. I've always said to their team, send me machines because I'll put them to the test, because I've never seen so many hours built up on a machine anywhere so quickly."
Working to extremes, be it the weather, pushing machinery or scheduled course maintenance, is what has to be done at Emirates. Dònal and his team's real challenge is adapting to find the best way to deliver the best without ever slipping below their standards in the process.
For some, the high-pressure environment might be too much, but Dònal, who is a calm, collected and assured character, appears to take it in his stride. Credit for that could be paid to his early days at Royal Dublin, or maybe even further back to his interest in the Hurling and Gaelic Football pitches he played on. What is clear from our conversation is that he has a defined passion for his work that is combined with excellent knowledge and, every day, that is being used to push Emirates Golf Club forward.