Darwen Golf Club in Lancashire was established in 1893 and, from its peak viewpoint on the 13th tee, it boasts some fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding area as far out as Blackpool. Lee Williams met with Head Greenkeeper, Keith Scruton, who highlighted his working relationship with the secretary and finance committee and how they have brought about a considerable change in the golf course's financial circumstances leading to positive plans and development.
When Keith Scruton first joined Darwen Golf Club, he was given a budget for the year which was picked from thin air and not thought out. This meant they would get to a stage around August where the club would turn to Keith and say 'we have no more money to cover your budget'. Keith commented: "I still remember the conversations where I would highlight the fact that we hadn't even considered renovations and they would reply that they simply did not have the money."
Something had to give. Club Secretary Ian Geogarty, along with the finance committee, decided that they could not afford to keep running the club finances in the same old manner. Keith explained how they took a fresh approach to managing the club's budgets. "The situation we were in actually brought us all closer together. We sat around a table and discussed our priorities and delegated tasks to the appropriate departments. All of us had to refocus on what we needed to do as individuals to develop and progress the club in the future."
"I admit it was a shock to the system as we needed to work so differently. The first thing I did was submit a report looking at the amount of time we spend repairing machines, and the fact that neither ourselves nor the machines were out on the course being productive. We had to look at financing newer machines to reduce our repair costs and downtime. So, the club found a viable way for us to replace three machines the following year."
Head Greenkeeper, Keith Scruton
In the last eight years, they have had to work more hand in glove than ever to improve the bank balance. "It has been hard work at times; having to trim things back and focus on what I believe is a priority. Rather than get what we want, I now take a step back and just spend money on what we need. I know this may sound daft, but it keeps you trim because there are no options or add-ons."
When talking to Keith and Ian, one thing that impressed me was that they see the importance of putting the condition of the course first, rather than spending what little money they may have developing the clubhouse. Ian tells me, "The course has to be correct - if not, we will lose members and visitors. What is the point of a nice clubhouse without the golfers to go in it?"
The way the club and Keith work together is definitely working; the course was evidently in excellent condition and they have attracted more members and returning visitors over the last five years.
Keith has been affiliated with the club since his dad, who was on the greens committee at that time, introduced him to golf as a young lad and made him a junior member. He took an interest in what the greenkeepers were doing and, when his dad offered him the chance to do summer work with the team at fifteen, he jumped at the opportunity to earn a few quid and get stuck in.
"I loved being out on the course flymoing, divoting and raking bunkers; it was great to be working outdoors. When it came to leaving school in 1990, I was given an opportunity to work as an electrician, but the thought of being indoors all year round did not appeal. So, I asked the club if they were looking for an apprentice and would they consider me. Luckily, the answer was yes, but I only wanted to join on the proviso they sent me to Myerscough College. I stayed here for eight years, gaining my City and Guilds levels 1, 2 and 3 and working my way up to the deputy head position. To progress my career, I knew I had to move on so, in 1998, I joined another local club as head greenkeeper. From the very start, it turned out to be a difficult time in my career as I was at loggerheads with the club. I wanted to follow STRI recommendations, but the committee were intent on working in the same old ways. My time at that club ended abruptly, when they had to restructure for financial reasons and I was made redundant at the end of 2002."
"It was the best thing that could have happened and, within two months, I was head greenkeeper at Colne Golf Club. They were a great club to work for, with an excellent forward-thinking community spirit. Whilst there, I completed the last year of my HND, which was kindly funded through the Ransomes Jacobsen Foundation. Within twelve months of completing the HND, I was made Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year which was a mind-blowing accolade and a considerable boost to my self-esteem."
In 2010, Keith was asked by the greens chairman (who happened to also be his dentist), to apply for the head greenkeeper position that had just been vacated at Darwen. "At first, I was apprehensive and reluctant to go back to somewhere I loved and where I held great memories of working there in the past, but I thought about it and decided to apply. When I turned up for the interview, there were four long-standing members I knew well discussing that they were not happy with the course and were going to leave. At that moment, I thought to myself that it would be a hell of a task to turn it around and was it the right move? After the second interview I was offered the job and, as much as it was a big wrench to leave Colne, I thought back to what those members said and I knew it was the right decision to accept the position; it needed someone who cared about the course to turn it around."
Keith pointed out that near the bottom of the course, next to sunnyhurst woods, you would class that as parkland. "The majority of the course is in more of a moorland setting with fewer trees, heather and is exposed to the elements. The lower front nine are built on clay and we do have trouble with drainage. As you work your way up to the back nine, it starts to become less soil and more rocks, which is the perfect moorland with dark black rich soil; ideal for growing heather."
"Most of the greens are the original push-ups, except for two greens reconstructed twenty years ago and built on new land. We have an accumulation of around six to eight inches of sand in the profile. Going back to the first head greenkeeper I worked with (who had been here since the seventies), he consistently applied topdressing. This build-up in the upper part of the green means we now have eighty-five percent sand. The lower four inches is primarily a hardpan of clay which means we have issues in winter. We can drain the top bit, but then the water has nowhere to go once it hits the clay."
"Since 2010, we have managed to install new drains in seven of the greens which were identified as the worst affected by the STRI and ourselves. The eighteenth was one of them; it will still flood during heavy rainfall, but within half an hour it has gone."
The club's irrigation system was installed in 1991 and is right on the edge of what can be delivered with a single-phase electric pump. "It was set up to run the Watermation impact sprinklers and things have moved on a lot since those days. With single-phase, we do not have the capacity to drive modern sprinklers. We can only hand water, which in some ways is not a bad thing; we can spot treat the areas that need it and, at the same time, we can keep an eye on our water consumption due to a limited supply. We have started to look at the cost of installing three-phase electricity and getting a borehole, but I cannot see this happening for at least another five years due to other prioritised projects."
Left to right: Mark, Jonathan and Keith
Maintaining the course to its high standards is challenging enough with a tight budget, plus they only have two full-time staff in Keith (47) and his loyal Deputy Head, Jonathan Howard (46), who has been at the club since 2011. They also employ Mark Yates part-time who is a 60-year-old ex-marine who does three days a week from March until the end of October. The hard work, time and effort they put in to keep the course looking its best is a testament to them all.
The seasonal maintenance of the greens is guided by the STRI report and the advice given to Keith by Consultant agronomist Gwynn Davies.
"In the growing season, we will cut the greens no lower than 4mm every day with the Toro Greensmaster Triflex 3420. We could go lower, but with the wind and dry weather, greens would become unplayable. In winter, we cut using the Toro Greensmaster 1000 pedestrian mowers as and when at the height of 6-7mm, depending on the weather conditions. A few times a week leading up to a competition, we will run over the greens with a John Deere 2500 greensmower with the True Surface vibrating rollers to improve ball roll and speed."
"Verticutting is undertaken every four to six weeks using the GreenTek Thatch-Away units at a depth of 2mm, just to stand the grass back up. In the last two years, around September, we have employed a contractor to carry out deep scarification with the Koro. Our thatch levels are at 6% in the top 20mm and we want to get that down as much as possible to keep them draining."
"Also, in the last two years, we have been able to apply one hundred and twenty tonnes of sand using the Toro ProPass 200 to spread a light dressing each time of around six tonnes every two weeks and brush in."
"Due to thatch levels being slightly above the 6% required in the greens, we like to follow the advice of the STRI when considering if we should overseed. We will begin to overseed once we get to 6% thatch in the top 20mm and 4% in the lower profile between 20-80mm. I have a demo booked in for the GreenTek Dyna-Seeder."
"Every four to six weeks, we will go out with the Toro ProCore 648 with 8mm solid tines - varying the depth between three and four inches. We follow this with the greensmower with the rollers on, which gives us the advantage that golfers do not even know the work has been carried out. In spring and autumn, we will bring in a contractor to Verti-Drain the greens. Last year, we went in as deep as we could to penetrate the clay and filled the holes with sand."
STRI takes annual soil samples and, once those results come back, they will draw up a recommended fertiliser programme for Keith to use as a guide - alongside the experience he has gained of how the greens react to specific product applications. "When I first arrived in 2010, we had to apply 140kg of nitrogen to get the surface back. Over the last ten years, we have reduced the amounts of NPK to reduce and manage our thatch. Our overall focus is on the health and playability of the greens; we now apply around 60kg of nitrogen a year."
"We purchase our fertiliser from James Wright of Agrovista Amenity Ltd; I like to use lawn sand late February to check any moss and to harden the surface up. An application of Marathon 16:4:8 followed this and these are the only applications of products we have put down so far this year. If I start to see the greens drop off, I will apply a mix of soluble fertiliser such as ammonium sulphate, sulphate of potash, manganese and potassium nitrate. I like just to keep them ticking over, not to encourage vast amounts of growth and disease."
The golf club is home to a substantial amount of wildlife and even a rare species of shrub. Keith believes it is his responsibility as the head greenkeeper to help minimise any impact they may cause whilst preparing the course and, at the same time, do what they can to improve on what is already there in abundance. "Right now, we are in the middle of cutting and collecting our rough, which is something we do annually to remove the coarser grasses. There are also areas of rough we will not touch as they have Petty Whin, a small spiny shrub that produces beautiful yellow flowers. It can only be found on three sites in the Northwest of England.
We work with Joshua Styles, from Northwest Rare Species Initiative and, once it has flowered, he will come in and collect some of the seeds and redisperse them to other sites throughout the Northwest. We are currently looking at ways to help regenerate the heather and we have also been working with Lancashire Wildlife Trust to secure a grant to sow wildflowers. We are now a couple of weeks away from seeing the yellow rattle come out. Even if you have a terrible round of golf and still enjoy the walk around because of the scenery you are in, we are ticking another great box."