A career path that began as a trainee quantity surveyor has seen Neil Ballingall progress to become the Course Superintendent at one of Scotland's most revered venues
The £50 million Fairmont St Andrews resort opened in June 2001. Originally known as the St Andrews Bay Golf Resort & Spa, a change in ownership in 2006 saw the resort renamed and rebranded.
In 2012, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) awarded European Golf Resort of the Year to the Fairmont whilst, just last year, it received the Best Large Hotel of the Year in the Scottish Golf Tourism Awards.
Occupying a stunning 520 acre site on Scotland's golf rich coast, the imposing 209 room hotel services guests coming to sample two championship courses; the Torrance and Kittocks, as well as the numerous other world class courses in the area.
The Torrance Course is a Par 72, 7,230, originally designed by golfer Gene Sarazen, former European Ryder Cup Captain Sam Torrance and American architect Denis Griffiths. In 2009, the course was redesigned by architect Gary Stephenson to include eight new holes, in preparation for the 2009 Scottish Seniors Open, and was also the Final Qualifying Venue for the 2010 Open Golf Championship. That same year, the World Deaf Golf Championships and the Scottish Seniors Open were held on the Torrance. The course features classic Scottish revetted bunkering throughout and is of a Scottish style Links design.
The Kittocks Course is 7,192 yards long and is a Par 72. Its original architects were Gene Sarazen, Bruce Devlin and Denis Griffiths, and was formerly known as the Devlin Course. The name Kittocks is taken from the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) area of land on and around the course.
The environment is a high priority for Course Superintendent Neil Ballingall. "As we are bordered by an SSSI, we are constantly monitored so, if any activity we do on the golf course affects that area, we are liable to fines. We have environmental policies for our inputs to the golf courses and also for our roughlands that allows wildlife to flourish, but also enables us to provide the best playing surfaces."
"We have areas designated for wildflower planting and are part of Syngenta's Operation Pollinator. We also have numerous owl boxes around the property."
"We work closely with Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Golf Environmental Group, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Wildlife Trust. One of my greenstaff, Neil Blanco, is very enthusiastic about all things to do with nature and is my appointed environmental officer. He is fantastic and spends a lot of his own time doing work around the two courses; it's his hobby," confirms Neil.
"Rabbits are our biggest problem," continues Neil, "as we have an open site and they migrate from our neighbours." At this point, it is hard not to imagine the greenkeepers of the bordering St Andrews Links Trust's Castle Course shooing them across the boundary, but Neil confesses that he has a good working relationship with all the local courses. It's an intriguing image though.
"We have local enthusiasts who come in at night to keep the population down to an acceptable level. I also have a Jack Russell called Billy who is very good at keeping levels down when he escapes his lead."
Neil initially trained as a quantity surveyor, but was laid off during the construction industry slump of 1986. "I took a seasonal job at my local club, Lundin Golf Club. I loved it and was fortunate to be kept on. In 1993, I moved to Muirfield as Assistant Course Manager and, from there, in 1997 I went up to Moray Golf Club as Course Manager. I came to my present post at St Andrews in 2001."
Currently studying for Level 4 Golf Course Management, to supplement Greenkeeping Levels 1, 2 & 3, Pa1, Pa2a and Pa6 and a BTLI certificate for automatic irrigation systems, amongst others, Neil praises all the previous head greenkeepers and course managers he has worked under for being role models and offering valuable support, but cites his father as being his biggest inspiration by far. "He would lead by example and never raise his voice. He always got respect from his employees and that is how I try to operate here."
"My deputy and Head Greenkeeper is Craig Bayne, who has been here for three years. Our Deputy Head Greenkeeper is Glenn Cameron who has six years' service. The remainder of the greenstaff are Fraser Cochrane (13 years), John Docherty (10 years), Kevin Robertson (9 years), Paul Hunter, Neil Blanco and Craig Slezas (all with 8 years service), David Halley (3 years) and Bryan Grieve and Lewis Fraser (both 2 years)."
"Additionally, I have a Workshop Technician, David Goldie; a Head Gardener John Mitchell and a gardener, Konrad Geldon, all of whom have been here for thirteen years. All work is done in-house."
"Staff are used to their strengths, but everyone is trained and capable of completing every task to a set standard," confirms Neil. "Health & Safety is a very big part of our daily working lives and I make sure that every member of staff is up to speed on what they need to know and how to work safely. All staff must attend the company training twice yearly. All new staff must go through safety training before they are allowed to step foot onto the golf course; this involves reading out all the relevant risk assessments and being walked through our own standards."
"I have a health and safety officer, Fraser Cochrane, who is very very thorough and carries out the necessary in-house training as well as twice yearly company training days. All new employees must carry out a three day induction with the hotel, however we do our own two day department specific induction/training which is received before they can work on the courses and grounds."
Presentation ranks very high with Neil. "We are a 5-star resort, with the golf courses the main attraction and visible from the moment you enter the property until you leave. We have to give the wow factor to our guests."
"My team also looks after the hotel grounds, which has large areas of grass as well as decorative gardens."
"We also have a driving range/practice facility which is 360 yards long x 150 yards wide. This includes two grass teeing areas, one behind the other. Both can take thirty bays. We also have three Envirobunkers around our two practice chipping greens and a 1000m2 practice putting green."
"Any work that is considered 'major' will go out to tender but, if I am given the budget and manpower, I will do the work in-house. Any specialist help we may require comes from the STRI, contractors MJ Abbott, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Golf Environmental Group."
"The courses are what I describe as 'coastal' - we sit approximately two miles east of St Andrews up on a marine plateau, which gives us amazing views back to the town and across the bay to the Angus coastline and Carnoustie."
Neil describes the soil profile on the greens and tees as sand - "they are excellent" - with the greens built to USGA spec. The fairways are clay; "which has its challenges," he confesses.
"We have storm drains on both courses. Drainage was upgraded on Torrance in 2008 to incorporate laterals to the storm system. We have a wall to wall Rainbird irrigation system on Nimbus 2."
Asked if the the course suffered from any regular natural occurrences, such as flooding, high winds, excessive snowfall, frosts and drought, his reply was succinct; "it's Scotland - all of the above!"
"We actually close the courses in frost. To cut fairways down to a reasonable height to make frost greens would see us lose grass coverage. We benefit from not having a membership, so it's unlikely someone would pay to play on winter greens anyway. Protecting the greens also gives us the best possible surfaces going in to the spring."
"Communication on a daily basis is given to the golfers through our Proshop staff. Any proposed works are communicated to our reservation agents so they can inform golfers at the time of booking."
"We are exclusively Toro for cutting machinery, with some of the aeration and utility vehicles also from Toro. Our daily utility vehicles and tractors are Kubota."
Neil details the maintenance regimes as follows:
- Greens summer: 4.5mm pedestrian Toro 1000, 4mm Toro 3250 triple
- Greens winter: 6mm pedestrian Toro 1000, 5.5mm Toro 3250 triple
- Tees and aprons: all year 9mm pedestrian Toro 1600, 8mm Toro 3250 triple
- Fairways: all year 14mm Toro 5510
- Semi rough and tee surrounds: all year 32mm Toro 3500
- Rough: all year 75mm Toro 4700
- The greens are reduced to 4mm and pedestrian cut for tournaments and a 6mm green collar is added - all other heights stay the same. This gives a greenspeed of around 10', which is more than fast enough for an exposed site
- Greens are aerated regularly using the Toro ProCore 660, with either hollow or solid tines. Tees are cored twice yearly using the same machines
- Soil samples are taken from the greens in the spring to monitor pH, nutrient values and organic matter; this has a bearing on a the direction and timing of several operations that are carried out
- Greens are sprayed for leatherjackets in mid November, but no other areas. A selective herbicide is used on our semi roughs and 3m into the roughs; these are the only areas that have any significant problems. A knapsack is used for any weeds on the fairways - as the sward is so dense, there are few weed problems. A total is sprayed in the roughs by knapsack to control dockens and thistles
- The occasional outbreak of fusarium is controlled with an application of lawn sand. pH on greens is low, as is the percentage of annual meadow grass, so disease is rare
Neil continues; "Our big focus is on bunker renovations. We would normally tackle about thirty per winter, which gives each one a turnaround of approximately five years. Every bunker on the property was redesigned from large American style sand traps to traditional revetted ones.
The seventy bunkers on Torrance were done in-house during the course reconstruction and drainage project in 2008/9 and the Kittocks ones - done again in-house - in 2011/13."
"We are just about to start a large scale organic matter and moss removal project to all fairways."
Neil explains that he is responsible for all budgets for his department. "Depending on how significant these are, I allow for some money within contract hire and sand/soil budgets. Anything that is deemed over and above regular maintenance is put forward to the owners as capital expenditure."
"That said, my annual work programmes and projected timings aren't worth the wall planner they are written on; they move as and when they need to, but it is all part of greenkeeping life and part of the thrill of being a greenkeeper."
Neil believes that the industry is in very good shape at the present time. "Speaking with many of the young greenkeepers coming through, I think we shall be good for a long time. Some of the passion that these guys are showing at an early age is very refreshing."
"I would like to see clubs promoting their greenstaff as professionals who care about their work with a passion, and not use them as someone to blame when something doesn't go according to plan. I would like to see more greenkeepers having an active involvement in the daily running of clubs. This will give knowledge to the clubs, but also a better understanding for greenstaff as to the challenges other departments have to face."
What's in the shed?
10 x GR1000 pedestrian
6 x GR1600 pedestrian
5 x 3250 - different units
5 x RM5510
2 x GM4700
3 x RM3100
3 x RM3500
2 x Turf iron
4 x Workman HDX
2 x Workman MDX
10 x Trans-pro trailers
3 x TD1800
2 x Pro-core 660
1 x Sand pro
1 x Hydroject
3 x Kubota tractors
1 x Renault tractor
10 x Kubota RTV
2 x Hardi 600L sprayers
1 x 1000L Bargam sprayer
1 x Wacker Neuson 28Z3 excavator
1 x 2.1m Charterhouse Verti-Drain
1 x Sisis fairway slitter
1 x Wiedenmann Terra Spike
1 x Charterhouse Sandmaster
1 x Fairway top dresser
1 x Gambetti turf iron
1 x Ransomes Jacobsen remote control Spider
Numerous Flymos, strimmers etc.
"We have a 4 year contract with Toro which is up for renewal now. We lease the equipment through Lely and are supported very well by our local dealer, Hendersons.
I will always go with the best deal for the property I work at; I consider fit for purpose before price.
Since 2009, I have been using the Gambetti turf iron with great results to the smoothness of our greens, as well as allowing me to raise heights of cut and reduce mowing regimes. Our Bernhard grinders are bulletproof and allow us to keep our blades at their optimum sharpness all year round.
If justifying buying a machine was cheaper than repeat hiring then I would always put that forward, but if it is an item seldom used then I would hire with an operator.
We have a two hose Waste to Water system.
My wish list includes a drainage trencher, fairway v-mowers and a rough cutter collector."