For the last decade, Felixstowe Ferry Golf Club's Course Manager, Glenn Rayfield, has been slowly implementing his vision for the courses. For fifteen years, he worked his way up through the ranks at the club and, during that time, made plans for what he would do if it was ever under his stewardship. Since 2009, he has worked, along with his staff, to bring some tradition back to Suffolk's only links course.
The club sits on the edge of the North Sea and, on this particular day in June, the rain has given way to the sun and provided us with still conditions for the morning. Before we head out onto the course, there's a chance to meet the greenkeeping team - deputy Andy Barker, first assistant Jonathan Smart, mechanic Malcolm Baxter, greenkeepers Zoe Chisenhall, Matt Simpson and John Major and apprentice Harry Stambridge.
During the half an hour in the break room, conversation goes from pleasantries, to work and finally to Love Island - a subject we all seem reasonably tuned in to despite only watching it because our significant others have it on in the background. Then it's back to work. Some work that needs to be done is brought to Glenn's attention and a plan is made before we head out onto the 18-hole Martello course, named after the striking Martello Tower that sits alongside the 17th green.
This course, along with the 9-hole Kingsfleet, has been undergoing a series of positive changes during Glenn's time in charge. In 2018, Felixstowe Ferry was awarded Golf England's 'Championship Venue of the Year 2017,' and it's easy to see why as we drive around on the E-Z-GO. To get the course to an award-winning standard, Glenn explains that it's been a case of long-term aims with slow gains.
"I think it was just a case of making my own mark on the course and trying to turn it back to be a little bit more of a links course than what it was," he explained. "Having worked here for those years, you notice things going differently and it didn't sit right; things like the bunkers. We're trying to get back to revetted bunkers, tighter fairways, and the big one was trying to introduce more fescue into the greens with bent because we were nearly 90% poa. Sprinklers got introduced to a very old course and suddenly we're overwatering and overfeeding with dominant rough grasses coming in, but I think we're starting to turn the corner."
"We started ten years ago, and we had two options; we could go for the fast route that would disturb the play for four to five years quite heavily, or a slow and steady way that would avoid that disturbance, and that's what the club decided to go for. We transferred to pure sand topdressing to try and neutralise the soil because there was a lot of thatch and a lot of rich soil where we'd been using different dressings, so I wanted to get more sand in to help it dry out and start to try and push it."
"The bent took reasonably well and I don't think you ever win that battle with the poa, but we're getting closer than where we were, so that's rewarding. We're probably about 30-40% poa now, which is a big switch and it should enable us to start tackling areas, but again it all goes back to the budget and how many times you can overseed each year; and we had to drop some out for a few years when it was tough. When I took over, there was only six of us, and we needed to target certain areas."
"Now we've progressed a bit, we've been able to start looking at other areas like ecology and bees, but selling it to the club was never that easy. Over the years, we've chipped away at it by doing things that don't cost a lot of money. We've just bought two beehives and a colony of bees from Sheriff Amenity, and I think it's important to try and do something for pollination. It's a big thing at the moment."
"There's so much bad press with golf courses saying that they don't do anything for the wildlife and it's far from it. You only have to look at the outstanding work you see in the ecology reports in magazines. I have two members who volunteer to do ecology work to build bug huts, and we have wild marsh orchids, which are quite rare, and a lot of kestrels and short-eared owls around the course. For us, it's about doing what's right for the area."
"When you've got something that's such a long-term aim, like the bunkers or introducing fescues, then the priority can shift to ecology or other projects. There's always a fresh opinion each year when a new captain comes in, but we've worked quite well with a rolling plan from a course committee through the course chairman. In the twenty-five years I've been here, it's been exceptionally difficult with different committees and mindsets as we've gone along."
"We changed from a golf club to a limited company some years ago, which made a difference because we went from trustees and a committee to a board. Several other clubs have done that. We now have a set of people who are business minded and want to see the bigger picture. So, there was a business plan put together for putting the driving range up, and that is looking like it's on target to pay for itself. It's been exceptionally popular."
"Every future plan depends on how we've done each year. Next year's projects get given the go ahead, or not, based on if we've had a good year and we try, like everywhere, to work a good year in advance and not get ahead of ourselves."
Whilst the slow and steady approach has required patience, it has provided significant improvements across the club. Two years ago, the new driving range was built and has been very popular with members and casual golfers and, in April 2018, a major irrigation project was undertaken that increased the amount of available water from 8,500 cubic metres for 27-holes to 30,000.
Despite having a vastly increased amount of water to use in England's second driest area, Glenn is conscious of being responsible with it. He is pleased that the club has been able to use readily available water from a nearby reservoir located at the bottom of a farmer's field which was built to maintain marshland. Previously, twelve million gallons of water a year from this marshland was pumped into the sea, but that water is now being used on the courses, saving the club a significant sum going forward through not using mains water.
Completing larger projects, such as the irrigation, makes it easier for the greenkeeping team to achieve the standards they are after, but it is the day to day management of the team that provides the ongoing success. Glenn's team are clearly a happy and engaged group who are free to air their ideas and opinions, and a lot of that comes from the style of management they work under.
"I'm fortunate that I've got an exceptionally good bunch of staff, and it's nice because I've selected them and built that. We've had some come and go, and I've now got to where I want to be with staff that want something out of the job."
"I always believe that people need to be self-motivated and enjoy what they're doing. If I can help them enjoy it, then they will naturally return with interest in what they do. I've run most of the staff here through their NVQ Level 2 and 3 and management NVQs. We just got a small workplace employer award from the local college for the work we do with NVQs, which is something I feel very passionate about because I was given that chance, and I don't like this mentality of a two-year apprenticeship then you've got your NVQ, and off you go. If you're going to bring them in, then make a career for them and show them. My young apprentice, Harry, is quality and he's really keen, and that's how I like it to be."
"If people are doing it out of interest and self-motivation, they do things and notice things, and you just want them to think for themselves rather than just be a cog in the machine that needs to be told what to do all the time. I want them to come to me with ideas because, even though I make the final decision, I don't know everything, and everyone has an idea worth having and I think it's quite well known around here that we are a happy bunch and I like to be relaxed with them all."
"Over time, as they come to understand working that way, they come and say 'I've noticed this, do you want me to go and do that?' So, people know what we're doing and what we're trying to achieve, and they're happy to contribute ideas within that."
"I would hate to be an office-based course manager and, by having my deputy take on the 9-hole course, it gives him a chance to run budgets and have his own ideas. It gives him a chance to see how it is to think and be responsible for a course when the weather's bad, when disease comes, and all he has to do is speak to me, and we'll talk it through. We meet every fortnight and have a discussion about how things are going and what he's got planned. That enables me to focus on the main course a bit more without taking too much of an eye off of the 9-hole. And it allows me to be a bit more hands-on with my job."
"I've got a very good first assistant who is very forward thinking as well, and he is coming up with ideas all the time. I have Mel, who has been here for twenty-five years, who does a lot of the servicing and most of the mechanical work, as well as irrigation, and I'm now getting to the point where everyone can do everything, so holidays aren't a pain and I think it helps with the dynamic of it. I think we've got a long way to go, but the budget will dictate the speed we can get there, you can't do everything through passion and effort, it just doesn't happen."
The task faced by Glenn and his team is a reasonably unrelenting one. On the day I visit, the course is busy with members before a society visit in the afternoon. During our drive around the course, the importance of the societies to the club's revenue is outlined, as is the pressure on the greenkeeping team to deliver.
This pressure will be familiar to a lot of greenkeeping teams at members clubs, who will be seeing their maintenance windows reduce to one rigid week. Because it is the only links in Suffolk, Felixstowe has a unique selling point that other courses don't, and that feeds the popularity. Whilst these visits increase the pressure, Glenn is acutely aware that the revenue helps fund his budget and the club, and he knows, through Twitter, that others are in similar situations. As well as seeing those who share his time pressure issues on social media, he also sees an all-round decline in golfing etiquette.
He explains: "I think there's a lack of respect from people for what we do. I follow a lot of people on Twitter, and you see some of the pitch marks people leave. And the big one you hear now is 'I've just raked all these bunkers, look at the footmarks that have been left'."
"We've had to send letters to members about pitch marks and divots. Even little things like the hitting areas, when we walked past there were four baskets that had been left out, but they walk past the area where they got them from on their way out, and you just think why they can't put them back?"
Away from seeing the negative side of the job, Glenn uses Twitter in a very positive way, along with a large number of greenkeepers. Sharing ideas and learning from other people has always been a part of the industry, but the introduction of social media has made the world smaller, and the sharing of those ideas much easier, whilst bringing a community feel that can sometimes be missing in a profession that demands so much time on site.
"You can use Twitter to share your own ideas, look at other ideas and share proud moments during tournaments; and I can try and get people to hear about Felixstowe," Glenn explained. "My twitter is based around golf only; it's set up as @ffgc1880, and that's just for work. I like to show people what we're doing during tournaments, and you get other guys coming back saying 'brilliant job', which is great. You can get on there and say, 'I've had this problem ...', and people are happy to offer you advice."
"I follow certain people that I really respect and look at what they're doing. Dave Edmundson from the Island Golf Club is one who I spent some time with in America on a Toro visit. He's a decent, down to earth, passionate guy, and he's been on Twitter during the R&A Amateur Championship showing everyone what's going on, and he's a very interesting greenkeeper to speak to."
"You do meet people at shows and golf days, but those occasions are few and far between. I love it when people put up something they've made to do a certain job, and often it's a great idea, and a lot of other industries wouldn't do that and share secrets. It's also interesting to see when people do certain things at certain times of the year because it gets you thinking, and it's the same with seeing how people get on with different products."
When you're working with a limited number, products and machines become very important. Glenn has a long-standing relationship with local Toro distributor, Reesink Turfcare, and focuses on using machines that offer value for money and help him utilise the number of staff he has.
"When you don't have as many staff as you'd like, machines become really important. When we got new machines, it was the driving force behind things because I explained we were being asked to do more than we could physically do, so to stand a chance we need the machinery to do it. With eight staff I think we are a little bit shy, so getting the machinery was a big bonus."
"Everything for me is about value for money. With the Toro mowers, I believe the reliability is there, and our maintenance bill proves it. The relationship I have with the rep is second to none, if you've got a problem or need something checked or to borrow a machine they're happy to help, and that's all relevant, and Julian Copping at Reesink has been brilliant with us."
"We're lucky that all of the reps for the dealers in this area are really good guys, but Toro just give me the complete package on the range of equipment I need, and I think it's second to none, I really do. I'm now onto ten years with them, and I still don't regret any of it."
Toro has been a pivotal part of the journey for Glenn's ten years in charge, and they will continue to contribute going forward. A new ProCore 78 will be used along with a verti-drain to get an exchange of air and water in some of the older fairways that are still recovering from 2018's arid summer that saw Felixstowe Ferry go eight and a half weeks without rain. Fairways, paths, tees and everything that's run its course will be refreshed as part of the ongoing plan.
Recovering those fairways, introducing more fescues to the greens and renovating more bunkers are the main projects going forward to bring a traditional links appearance back to the course. For now, Glenn regards the course as looking the most links it's ever looked since he took over, and he - along with his dedicated team - will continue to slowly implement his plan until the Martello Course reaches its full potential.