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Scarborough North Cliff Golf Club sits atop the cliffs of the Yorkshire town's North Bay. The views from the coastal holes are splendid, with Scarborough Castle a feature. On the other side of the A165 that dissects the course, the holes are decidedly more parkland in nature, but with views over the moors. Lee Williams sat down with Course Manager Colin Fairley to discover more about this long-serving greenkeeper, his working practices and his current frustrations.
Two miles north of the town centre, Scarborough North Cliff Golf Club has a real seaside feel to it. The course starts on the clifftop. It then moves inland, threading its way between trees and spinneys, with lovely views of the North Yorkshire Moors, before returning to the cliff top for the final three holes. Although the club dates back to 1909, the present course was designed by James Braid and first opened its doors to golfers in 1928. It spans 6,425 yards with a par of 70. The course is sufficiently undulating to be interesting without being excessively hilly. It is a tough but fair test for golfers of all abilities.
On the opposite side of the road to the clubhouse - which has excellent views of the Yorkshire coastline - is the greenkeepers' sheds which, unfortunately, do not share the same vistas. This is where, on a pleasant afternoon, I sat down with Colin, who has served the club for the past eighteen years, to talk about his varied career, including his time working in Holland.
Colin grew up in Scotland and found himself 'accidentally' getting into the sports turf industry whilst at school. He had no interest in golf whatsoever and admitted he didn't know a lot about the game. "One of the schoolteachers indicated that there was an apprentice greenkeeper position available at a local golf club. I always intended to go into engineering and follow my dad's career, but there was nothing available at the time, and I had to do something. With the Harburn Golf Club being only two miles from where I lived, I went for it and got the job."
Course Manager Colin Fairley
"I worked my way up to first assistant then, after eight years, moved to Uphall Golf Club to become head greenkeeper. I was still pretty young. Six years later, I was offered a job at a new course in Holland - Golf Club Almeerderhout - where I spent ten years, firstly as head greenkeeper and then course manager. I came back to the UK in 2006 and joined the Northwood Golf Club in northwest London where I spent six years. I didn't take to living down south, so I decided to move back up north and applied for several jobs before I got the position here at Scarborough. I have been here ever since and will probably see my time out here as I can retire in around five years' time."
Even though the course is on the coast, it is a parkland layout sitting predominantly on clay but with a reasonable covering of topsoil. It has drainage problems much like all the clubs he has worked for, except Almeerderhout. "That club is built on reclaimed land in the Polder, so it was about six metres below sea level, which provided different kinds of problems. The soil we worked with had no stones in it; it was bizarre. It was almost like a silt soil and was incredibly fertile. I have never seen trees grow so fast in my life."
Almeerderhout was built just before Colin's arrival. This included the initial eighteen holes, a par 3 course and a driving range. "The scale of the layout was that of a championship course, and we went on to expand this to twenty-seven holes which I project managed. To be honest, although the Dutch are living below sea level, I was disappointed with the standards of the drainage within the construction of the original course. The company that built the original course was De Ridder, the same people who developed the verti-drain. It was their first major course build. With some of the advice they received, plus their inexperience in construction, they didn't really build the greens as well as I would have liked. In the second phase, which I oversaw, one thing I made sure of was that the greens were built to USGA specification. I involved the STRI, which helped make an impression when they turned out right. To watch the grass, establish so quickly after construction, thanks to the silty soil, was unbelievable. I just wish I could get it to work here the same."
The North Cliff course is split into two separate areas by the main road, with five holes - the 1st, 2nd, 16th, 17th and 18th - a small practice hole, putting green and pitching green on the coastal side. Across the road are holes 3 to 15. All are very different in terms of playability. It is much more difficult to get trees to establish on the coastal side of the course, although we have been planting trees over the years with some success. Certain trees, like sycamore, cherry and rowan, have taken quite well; people said to me when I first came here that I wouldn't get trees to grow here because of the salty environment. I said there are big pine trees out there that are huge and fully grown; we must have some sort of fighting chance. I think the previous regimes didn't really take too well to planting new trees, but I took a lot of pride in getting the planting right. They have taken some time, but trees that were the thickness of my finger when planted are now a good twelve inches in circumference."
The club had used consultants in the past but, with the tightening of funds, and the fact they felt much of what the consultants were saying was very similar to what Colin was putting in his reports, they were dispensed with. "They realised, why pay him when you are telling us that anyway? The one hard fact I have learned and, in some ways, taken full circle from the first club I worked at budgetary wise, is that there was never any detail on budgets. It was sort of hand to mouth, so I never knew what I was getting. I usually had to keep going back to the club treasurer."
"Still, in forty-five years in the industry, I have seen considerable changes in the way committees work. The club treasurer at the time was the man who signed all the cheques and you would ask for fertilisers and such like and he would authorise it. Whereas, when I went to Holland, it was all very professional. I had to become computer literate, I had my own office and the resource side of things was on another level. We had a million pounds worth of equipment, and what I didn't have we didn't need in that respect; the money was there, and it was at a time when golf was booming in the '90s. The budget was very comfortable."
"Northwood, again, was a club that owned the land, was financially very stable and was able to provide a comfortable budget. Coming here was a bit of shock to the system. The budget was half of what I had at Northwood … and it's never really changed in eighteen years! So, as you can imagine, it has been difficult; it's been a matter of tightening things up. In particular, it has been a struggle in the last ten years with the austerity cuts, because money has been even tighter, and prices have skyrocketed. Going back several years to when I first came here, you could get a reasonable bag of fertiliser for eight to ten pounds a bag. The cost has doubled and even trebled in some instances. Red diesel fuel was 0.38p a litre. It's now around 0.90p. You try and explain this and, for the most part, whilst they understand, there simply isn't the money. All these factors inevitably have a bearing on our budget, so we have to say we can only do X, Y and not Z. Beneficial to the club, however, is that I'm very much hands-on. All of the construction work is done in-house, thereby reducing the costs so we can undertake projects we may otherwise not be able to afford to carry out."
Colin's experiences over his forty-five years have enabled him to further stretch out his budgets by doing nearly all his machinery repairs in house. "Whilst I was an apprentice greenkeeper, I also worked part-time at a local garage, as I wanted to keep my options open of going into engineering. Working on cars and pulling engines apart has always been a bit of a hobby of mine. For a short period, I served in the territorial army, where I pursued my interest in mechanics further through training with the mechanical engineers. I had to give that up when I moved to Holland, but the experience helped me to carry out most of the machinery repairs, with only the cylinder grinding being outsourced. We utilise a local mobile grinding company to come in as and when required, thereby saving the club money. In Holland, it was the opposite. I was fortunate to have a fully trained mechanic, and we invested in all the necessary equipment required for all machinery maintenance to be carried out in-house."
The original greens at North Cliff are the old push-up style which have been top-dressed many times over the years using traditional topdressings and now sand. "You can see it in the profile; it's an ongoing project."
Colin believes his greens maintenance will be similar to most other greenkeepers around the country. "We cut the greens with the triple, and occasionally with the hand mowers, at 3.5mm through the summer months. In the past few years, we have tried to sustain that as our normal cutting height. I'm not totally for it myself but, with the usual pressures from members asking if they can be made faster, we have managed to sustain them at 3.5mm and, overall, they perform pretty well. Obviously, some years are worse than others depending on the weather. In the 2018 drought, they suffered a bit and it was a struggle as it was scorching and very dry. In the winter, normally around November time, I will lift the height of cut to around 6mm. These old push-up greens are predominantly poa, although I have been trying to reduce that by incorporating more bent grasses as I find I'm just fighting a losing battle with fescues with the heights of cut not being suitable for it."
"I overseed in spring and autumn when and where necessary. I spike reasonably regularly with needle tines once a month where possible! I want to hollow-core more often than the powers that be will allow, but when I talk about hollow-coring I tend to get screeches of horror. They want us to only core late season, which isn't ideal."
Whilst in mid-conversation, I asked Colin if he has a problem with thatch in the greens? "I wouldn't say we have a major problem with it now because there are many ways to aerate, be that needle tines or scarifying, which we carry out on average every six weeks. It's a matter of whether the grass is tolerant to it; and what the greens will take as much as anything. We hit them in the spring with a major scarify. We also have a maintenance week in mid-July, which is something I managed to get introduced many years ago, which is often questioned by the committee and members. I think this is partly because committees often change and, just as you manage to educate them and get them on board, some resign, and new faces come along and you have to explain it all over again!"
In July, we will needle tine, scarify, overseed and top-dress. Annually, I try to get at least four or five reasonably heavy topdressings of pure sand on. We have now gone to pure sand due to the cost of buying an 80/20 compost. It is ludicrous what the suppliers charge for a bit of soil!"
Colin's feeding regime on the greens has not changed much over the years as soil samples have not varied that much, and the cost factor of fertiliser itself also comes into play. He also looks back at the various chemicals he was spreading forty-five
years ago. "We don't use granular often, other than at the beginning and maybe the end of the season. I'm very much a trickle feed man as I have favoured this over the years. I spray little and often mainly with natural organic fertilisers."
"Some years ago, I introduced the compost tea programme. The one thing that shocks me, thinking back to 1974 when I started my career, is that I was using Mercil fungicide, and mercerised lawn sand which both had an element of mercury within! When I think back to then and what I know about it now, it's frightening. At sixteen years old you don't know about these things. The first job I ever did - on a wet Monday morning in July - was to help the head greenkeeper spread lime on the greens. And there were other products, such as Cydane, for worm control. Again, lethal stuff, and it's quite scary when I think back to the controls we had then and the health and safety we didn't have or wasn't made aware of. I should be glowing in the dark by now!"
"Going back to Mercil, it definitely did what it said on the tin. It controlled disease for months on end, controlled moss, weeds and worms, but what was it doing to the environment? It was basically sterilising the soil. As Rovral Green was being introduced in the UK, I was moving over to Holland. I was told, from the beginning, that there are no fungicides over here; they are banned. This was a bit of a shock to the system, having always had something to rely on. So, I had to change my whole way of thinking almost immediately. All I had was iron sulphate as a turf hardener to try and stem off disease."
"When we built the new course with the USGA greens, the establishment was fantastic, and we had beautiful fescue/bent greens sward. Then, about nine months in, we got Take-All and, within the space of twenty-four hours, we had massive patches where we still had a lovely fescue sward, but the bents just got wiped out. At that time, there was a lot of research going on with various mushroom composts. A company from Belgium contacted me and told me they might have a solution using a product that is used in the tomato industry that is made up of a mushroom compound. We trialled it and had some success, so we carried on with that over the years."
"With the experiences I gained whilst in Holland, I decided to give compost tea a go here. I don't believe any one product really makes a difference on its own: it's an accumulation of things. You can throw compost tea at it, but if you are not aerating and doing all the other beneficial processes then it's not going to work. If you are not taking the right precautions with the
bacterial life you are putting back into the soil, there's no point. Putting compost tea on one day and the next spraying it with a wetting agent is madness. You have to be careful and plan these things out and, touch wood, I'm not going to say it's the be-all and end-all, but certainly since the introduction of compost tea here at North Cliff some five or six years ago, the disease that we have suffered from has been significantly reduced. Now and again, I still must rely on a fungicide, especially in the last couple of years with the onset of anthracnose being brought on by the last two dry summers we have experienced."
The club tends to buy their machinery when funds will allow, and Colin is not loyal to any one brand, having a mixture of John Deere and Toro machinery. "Financially, it's been difficult. We have run into the buffers this last couple of years, and we should have replaced several our machines recently. But we are begging, stealing and borrowing at the minute. Golf is really struggling, with clubs haemorrhaging members every year. We do tend to claw a few back here and there over the year, but we have quite an elderly membership, so we have a lot of retired people and, inevitably, some pass away or get so old they can no longer play. The increase in mobility scooters seen out on the course in the last few years has been phenomenal. From a couple of members having permission to use them, we have now gone up to around thirty, plus the professional shop has four golf buggies for rent. It's something I fought ardently against for many a year, but it's often like Wacky Races out there sometimes!"
With Colin's many years of experience in the industry, I thought it would be good to get his view of where it is and where it is heading. "The golf industry is under stress now. The economic factors are affecting membership and this, inevitably, has a knock-on effect."
"It's funny, when I first came into greenkeeping, I was attending College. I remember a lecturer telling me that it's a marvellous industry I have come into. 'It's a boom industry,' he said. 'Everybody is going to be playing golf in years to come, and it is perfect for people when they retire as the retirement age will get lower. It will go from strength to strength.' Sadly, the opposite is true."
"Like everything else in life, when money is tight the first thing to go is your luxuries. Unfortunately, that will include golf membership which can be expensive. Hopefully, in time, it will pick up, but I don't think golf gets the exposure it used to get on TV when it was live on the BBC … and you didn't have to pay an extra twenty pounds a month to watch it!"
What's in the shed
Toro Greensmaster Tri-Flex 3420 greensmower
Toro 6700 fairway mower
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D greensmower
Toro 3280 outfront rotary mower
Progressive Pro-Flex rough mower
John Deere 2500E greensmower
John Deere 2500B tees mower
John Deere 9009A TerrainCut rough mower
Kubota 5040 tractor
Kubota B2110 tractor
John Deere 4410 tractor
John Deere 4200 tractor with front loader
John Deere Gator (diesel)
John Deere Aercore
Wiedenmann Terra Spike
Toro Workman with sprayer
Toro Workman with topdresser
Toro Sand Pro bunker rake
Thatchaway verticutter cassettes x 3
Thatchaway POA Buster cassettes x 3
Thatchaway brush cassettes x 3
Reco fertiliser spreader
Farmura F25 walk behind sprayer
Efco 136 chainsaw
Echo hand-held blower
Flymo hover mower
TFM low-loader trailer
Gull 3.5 tonne trailer
AFT 45 trencher
SISIS dragmat for brushing in topdressing
Classen turf cutter