Ingrebourne Links is situated in Rainham, Essex, just twenty minutes from Central London. Its futuristic clubhouse - more akin to a 'Grand Designs' construction - boasts more glass than is perhaps sensible at a golf course, yet offers visitors and members a striking welcome and stunning facilities. Lee Williams visited this new club to meet Course Manager Ben Adams to discover how the final work is progressing.
Ingrebourne Links boasts twenty-seven holes of championship golf, made up of three loops of nine holes: The unique "Inland Links" style of the championship course offers a very different challenge to the traditional parkland courses in the local area. As any golfing purist would know, a "Links Course" is normally close to the sea, but the rolling fairways, sleeper faced bunkers, gorse and large undulating greens at Ingrebourne really provide a 'feel' of playing golf by the coast!
Before carving out a career in the sports turf industry, thirty-six-year-old Ben Adams' first job after leaving school was as a quality assurance controller at a paper manufacturing plant. This was not the job for him, so he decided to seek out something new. Whilst reading the local paper, he saw an advert for a job as a trainee greenkeeper at the London Golf Club in Kent.
"I started there as a trainee in June 2003 at the age of eighteen," begins Ben. "I worked there as a greenkeeper until November 2006, before moving to Kings Hill Golf Club for a year, but I was asked to return to the London Club as their first assistant. Then, in 2012, I was promoted to head greenkeeper at the age of twenty-eight, a position I held until 2017 before moving to Ingrebourne."
So, how did he get the position at Ingrebourne Links and was there no more room for progression at the London Club? "I was first asked to take a look around by David Whitaker, who worked for ALS (now Agrovista Amenity). He was the consultant here for three months helping out with the development of the site. For various reasons, the Head Greenkeeper had moved on and David came on board to assist in getting the first nine holes opened. They were looking to appoint a replacement and David contacted me, asked if I would be interested and offered me the position."
Course Manager Ben Adams and the impressive Clubhouse
"I was head greenkeeper at the London Club and still had that last step to become the course manager. When the then course manager, Peter Todd, left in June 2017 to grow in Royal Norwich, I took over for an interim period until they appointed someone else, who they had already been lined up. I was disappointed I was not considered for that role, but it turned into a positive. I suppose I was headhunted," he notes, with a smile. "I had never been involved in a new build and saw it as a great opportunity to learn new skills and be involved in an exciting new project."
Ben's education includes an NVQ Level Two in Sportsturf Management, HNC in Golf Course Turf Management and a BASIS Foundation which he took at BTME in Harrogate. Over the years, he has also attended the BIGGA Continue to Learn courses, which he has found very helpful. He has been the past chairman of the Kent section of BIGGA, and despite still living in Kent but working in Essex, he is still involved with the committee."
The unique site first received planning permission back in 2007, and the infill started in 2010; this was when things really started to take shape. In 2013, Ingrebourne opened the Par 3 Mini-Links course and the driving range. Once course construction is complete there will be three championship nine-hole courses. The first to open to play was the North nine in 2017. The East nine opened gradually in 2019/2020. Ben explained how this was managed. "Basically, we played nine holes on the North course, and we opened four more holes on the East course, so this gave the members more holes to play, and they played part of it again to complete eighteen holes. Then, in July this year, we opened the final five holes, so we now have eighteen holes for the members and guests to play. That leaves nine more holes to construct - the South course - which we hope to open in 2023."
I was interested to know the reasoning behind the club classifying the course as an inland links rather than parkland. "The course architect, Alan Walker, was asked to create a golf course that could accommodate inert landfill on a large scale, but would end up as a golf course with unique character and different to anything in the vicinity. As the site was void of any substantial trees, and that a new landscape would be created from scratch, he proposed a links 'style' and 'feel' to the design with all the characteristics of playing golf by the coast. Each hole has an individual landscape, and other holes are not seen whilst you play. The fairways are rolling landforms similar to a true links and, in dry conditions, reward groundstrokes. Bunkers are either revetted or timber faced to emulate the classic links designs. Greens are large with mainly gentle undulations, but again test the golfer adequately."
"The site is quite elevated and has uninterrupted views over east London, Canary Wharf and, to the west, the QE2 bridge crossing and the county of Kent. The site is also quite windy with no natural surrounding developments to break up these elements, so a links-style course fitted the design criteria."
Ben was not directly involved in the construction of the course. "Alan has been involved from the beginning, then I got involved when the North nine opened in September 2017. I have not had a hand in the construction, but I am involved with the growing in. Our owners have a construction team, irrigation team and consultants on board. The construction team overseed the fairways, then we take over from there, overseeding the tees and greens."
"Our relationship has grown over the years with other teams, and I have been a bit more involved in the final finishing. I have been able to put my experience across on how it works for the greenkeeper when it comes to maintenance. There has also been an improving rapport with the architect and, therefore, we are seeing the benefits in the final construction."
The large site covers three-hundred and eighty acres; this contains the Mini-Links and driving range which cover thirty-five acres. Each nine-hole course covers approximately eighty acres and there's a massive irrigation lake that takes up ten acres. Additional to this is a bowling green, clubhouse and health and fitness centre. "There is still potential to expand on this, and we have been looking at putting a running track through the site to incorporate it into the health and fitness side of the business."
Ben believes they have one of the longest par 5's in Essex, measuring six hundred and thirty-four yards off the backmarkers. It predominantly plays into the prevailing wind, making it a pretty tough hole.
The course is built upon quite inert clay soil, so they have made sure to build their tees and greens to USGA specifications. "Something I have changed, and I feel has been successful, is that we were predominantly sown-in with fescue on the North Course but, with how wet the winters have been, the fescue on the greens just wasn't surviving. So, I decided to introduce some bent grass, and we seemed to get some okay results to be honest, but it is quite a problematic grass species to establish on an open golf course. In 2019, I made the decision to go with a dwarf ryegrass mix from Barenbrug and have had some great results with it. So much so, we have introduced the ryegrass to the first four greens on the East course along with the North. But, since then, I have overseeded any new greens with a dwarf ryegrass and fescue mix.
Ten years ago, if I had said I was introducing dwarf ryegrass to the greens, I would have been laughed at, but the new species are really good. It seems to be working well for us, although we are still learning with that species as they tend to be a little more hungry; mind you, they are a lot more resilient to wear and disease. I have only applied one fungicide so far this year, which is excellent, and we had a little bit of anthracnose, which has just gone, but it seemed to only attack the Poa when the greens were a little bit leaner. We are also seeing a reduction in the amount of Poa, and that is something we will keep our eye on."
The courses have a wall to wall Toro irrigation system on the tees, fairways, approaches and greens. This is fed by the main lake which holds 120,000 cubic metres of water, and they have another lake that primarily feeds the par-three Mini-Links course and the driving range. "We really benefitted from the system last year with all the drought conditions we had, and we were able to keep one hundred percent grass cover. It does have its teething problems with the soil moving, but we will work through that this winter to resolve those issues. Looking around at other golf courses in the area we definitely benefitted by having the irrigation. We harvest all of our water through the drainage on the course, which runs into the lakes, and we are almost full now in October, which is great, especially when you consider how much we have used."
Ben talks me through his seasonal maintenance regime for the courses. "In summer, we will cut the greens at 4mm, lifting that to 5mm in the winter months. If we have a tournament, such as the PGA Order of Merit event, we will drop down to 3.5mm; we will try and cut using the John Deere hand mowers during the week and use the Toro 3400 Triflex triple at the weekend; it all depends on the workload and the staff available. We have two TruTurf rollers, so we will roll the greens when we don't cut."
"With the ongoing pandemic, I have not been able to apply as much topdressing as I usually would. But I would actually say that my greens have not been any worse for not topdressing; if anything, they seem to be a bit healthier. I would attribute this to the fact that, when we put the sand down and brush it in, it can be very abrasive which weakens the plant, plus we avoid damage to the cutting cylinders keeping them sharper for longer, thereby giving a cleaner cut. It may be that, next year, I'll consider not applying as much topdressing, especially if we are getting the results we want with trueness and suchlike."
Ben does not feel the need for a scarifying schedule for the greens with them being relatively young and the thatch levels not being too bad. That said, they are not where he wants them to be. "In the past, at the London Club, I ultra-groomed, verti-cut and scarified. I think, from a maintenance point of view in the future, maybe next year, we may look at verti-cutting and then use that opportunity to topdress. At this moment in time, I do not see what the benefits would be, if that makes sense."
"I like to try and verti-drain the greens at least once a month at a depth of seven inches with them being relatively new greens. Then we have a Toro ProCore 648 which we will use through the summer at least once a month at a depth of two to three inch using a star tine, so there is not as much disruption. This seems to be enough not to disturb the golfers but enough for us to get the results we require."
Working with Mark Raynor and David Whitaker from Agrovista Amenity, Ben will put a fertiliser programme together using a variety of different products, aimed at improving the sward and soil biology throughout the year. "We will come up with a plan for the year, covering all surfaces, then break that down into spring, summer, autumn and winter. This makes it easier to tweak the programme depending on the weather and various other factors. I aim to spray greens every other week and that ties in with applying a wetting agent once a month. That ties in once a month with the wetting agent programme. The aim is to try and avoid any peaks and troughs, so the plant stays healthy and helps maintain consistent green speeds. Another factor I have to consider when choosing products is the cost as we have a large area of greens but, at the same time, we want the best products available to us."
When the course was first opened, the greenkeepers were working out of a container using second-hand machinery with it being a grow-in site. Things have moved on since then, and they now have a big shed, but the greenkeepers department is still being developed, and this will tie in with the completion of the South Course nine where their site is situated.
As the site continues to grow, Ben has had to increase his fleet of machinery. "We now have machinery that is a mix of second-hand, purchased outright and on a lease agreement - and of different brands. Since joining the club, I have purchased four John Deere Gator utility vehicles as I love them; they do a great job, especially with the conditions on this site. There is no one definitive brand or supplier we go with at the moment, but I think the long-term plan is to decide on making a deal with a sole supplier. This would give us access to the latest and best machinery every five years, plus flexibility and, most importantly, reliability enabling us to provide a consistent product out there."
Ben hopes to have a designated workshop area in the shed, including grinders, so that maintenance can be carried out in-house and, to that end, he would look to employ a full-time mechanic.
As the project has developed and areas of maintenance have increased, the greenkeeping team has also had to increase to maintain high standards. "I currently have a great team of eight (including myself). I am looking to enrol at least two more next year and then review staff numbers again, as the final nine holes are completed."
The club has an ecology advisor who has been involved since the planning. They also worked closely with the Environmental Agency post-construction. "Our owning company have stringent environmental policies in place, and these are replicated throughout the golf course. We have employed environmental consultants not only for our site but for our other sites as well. The course has been designed with ecology being a significant factor."
What's in the shed
John Deere Triplex 2500
John Deere 2653B
John Deere 220SL x 4
Toro Greensmaster 3400 TriFlex
John Deere 8900S
Jacobson Fairway 250
Toro Groundsmaster 4700-D
Toro SandPro 3040
Toro Procore 648
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GSI
John Deere 1500 aerator
Dakota Turf Tender
John Deere TH Gator CE x 4
Toro Workman 3300-D x 2
Tru-Turf greens roller x 2
Stihl FS 70 RC brushcutter
Husqvarna GCV160 Flymo x 4