Elmwood Golf is one of the premier golf and greenkeeping training facilities in the UK, owned and managed by Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) Elmwood Campus based in Fife, Scotland. It has been developed to support the golf teaching areas of the college and provide excellent practical teaching experience for students studying greenkeeping, golf studies, golf course management, professional golf and golf facility management. Many former students are employed on prestigious golf courses across the globe!
Left to right: Michael Clark, Greg Kilgour and Andy O'Hara
Lee Williams met with Programme Manager Michael Clark, Lecturer Andy O'Hara and the club's Course Manager Greg Kilgour to discuss what the college offers and how they manage the course around teaching the students.
I first spoke with Michael Clark, who has been at the college for over twenty-six years and, before that, course manager at Aberdour Golf Club in Fife. He talks me through the background of the college and what they provide for their students. "Back in 1961, we were predominantly Elmwood College - which was an agricultural facility. The golf course is only two miles away and we naturally started to get into golf greenkeeping. This eventually became really successful and we became the primary source for greenkeeping education, not only in Scotland, but all over Europe … along with Myerscough College in Preston."
"In 1997, we opened up the first 9 holes (whilst construction carried on with the remaining 9 holes) and it was officially opened by Michael F. Bonallack O.B.E, Secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, in May 1998. It was built so that we had somewhere for our own trainees to practice but, for this to work, we needed greens staff to look after the course, and greenkeeping tutors to instruct our students."
"Myself, Andy and other members of the team undertake the theory and course manager Greg, along his team, teach the practical. That is where the two marry together and that's why we have a golf course and an educational establishment … the two fit hand in glove."
In addition to golf education, the club offers local golfers a season ticket membership and they currently have five hundred season ticket holders. There is a driving range, which includes an indoor video analysis room, six covered bays, twelve outdoor bays, and a grass teeing area that can accommodate up to sixteen golfers at a time. There are three greens for chipping and pitching, and two large putting greens alongside.
Michael continues: "We also offer HNC and HND distance learning; so the students can study remotely - we have 188 on our books at the moment. Normally, we will have around one hundred Scottish Educational Qualification students (the equivalent to an NVQ down south), who are fully employed; they will attend for two years, three weeks at a time on block release. This year, because of Covid-19, that hasn't happened and we have had to move everything online, but we adapted to that quite seamlessly."
"On Friday, I was dealing with the Course Manager at Silver Lakes Golf Club in Pretoria, South Africa. We get around twelve students from there every year. They have their own trainers out there and we supply the materials, registration and verification for them. We are very well connected with the industry; we are lucky be surrounded by prestigious courses such as St Andrews, Muirfield and Carnoustie (to name a few), but we also have some courses that have fewer resources. One thing all these places have in common is they want great greenkeepers and trainees."
The big issue I hear all the time on my travels is how do we get more young people interested in starting a career in our industry. Whilst speaking with Michael, I could tell that they were very proactive as a team, and I think many other colleges and governing bodies should be following their lead - if they aren't already.
"Historically, our students have come from a golfing background; their parents have played golf, they play golf and they see greenkeepers doing their jobs, so they know a little bit about the maintenance of a golf course. It dawned on me a long time ago: 'what about the children in schools who have no golfing background and have no idea what a greenkeeper is'."
"So, with the help of our marketing department, we have three to four open evenings per year and we visit local schools. I know Royal Dornoch and Carnoustie greenkeepers have also been into their local schools to advise pupils on what a greenkeeper does. The open evenings have become very popular and cover everything from what a greenkeeper does, to what do professional golfers eat. We explain what a career in greenkeeping can entail and encourage them to visit their local golf club, where they can speak to the greenkeepers and, perhaps, get a wee taste of what the job is like with a bit of seasonal work."
"Another initiative, which Andy O'Hara manages, is to bring local schools in for an afternoon each week. They work alongside Greg undertaking some basic work and also get to hit a few balls. It quickly establishes who is really keen and, from last year's group of fourteen pupils, we have had four sign up for the course. Parents whose children have joined us see the benefits of a career in greenkeeping, working outdoors, promoting health and wellbeing, meeting people and all the new skills they learn."
A big part of being a greenkeeper is the hours of work, getting up early in the morning and working most weekends. I was interested to know how Michael approaches that subject with potential students. "That is an excellent question … During open evenings or interviews, I will ask the youngster if they ever had a paper round and the parents will usually question why I asked that. I advise that greenkeepers generally get up early in a morning and, if the child had a paper round, they are less likely to have an issue. Where it goes wrong is if you do not tell them this and they come to us at college. It can become a problem if you're not open about the hours when they have to undertake work experience, with 5:30am starts."
I now turn my attention to Course Manager Greg, who fell into the industry by chance in 2001 (at the age of twenty years old), after deciding he needed a change of career from working in a call centre. He applied for various educational courses at local colleges and Elmwood was the first to offer him a place on their National Certificate Course in Greenkeeping. "Whilst on the course, it opened my eyes to the realisation that greenkeeping is more than just cutting grass sat on a lawnmower. I did my first season's work here and then went back and did my HNC. In my second season, we started to remodel the course; this gave me my first taste of construction work at that point. After completing my HNC there were no full-time posts available, so I started my HND and, halfway through that, a full-time post came up as a greenkeeper instructor which I got. I have been here ever since, working my way up to deputy before becoming course manager in 2016. I haven't had quite the varied career some of the guys sat in this room have, but I have been lucky to get the experience of remodelling the course between 2004-2008 and also saw the construction of the driving range. I'm lucky to have fallen into this job … I also applied to be a bricklayer, so things could have turned out a lot different!"
Greg's position is different from other course managers around the country. He has the unique position of managing the trainees as well as his own full-time staff. "It can be challenging as we want to give the students the best possible experience, but we have to factor in the health and safety aspect and balance that with the delivery of what it takes to maintain a golf course. We must also strike a fine balance between teaching the students what they need to know (as part of the curriculum) and keeping the golf course presented in the way in which members are accustomed to. The students normally start with us in September, but this year it is delayed until further notice due to coronavirus. Back when I first started, each season was much more prominent and, by September, the golfing season would start to wind down and you would start to see slower growth, but now it keeps growing right up until November."
Greg's greenkeeping team also have the responsibility for training students and maintaining the course on a daily basis. "I have my Deputy Ryan Stenhouse and two senior greenkeepers, Mark Hood and Daniel Lang. These three guys are the ones who deliver the majority of the practical training and are LANTRA accredited instructors. I also have one assistant greenkeeper, John Law, who completed his work experience with us; he enjoyed it and was a great wee worker, so I put him forward for the NC training and he has been with us ever since."
I asked Greg how he manages to juggle both sides of the job; how it affects maintenance planning with having to train the students and get the job done, all at the same time. "A lot of people think when you have a class of fifteen students, the course will be amazing with so many hands-on deck. In reality, until they are near to finishing their course, that is not the case. As you can imagine, there is a lot of handholding, as many of them do not have any prior experience at all. It is a case of John, our wee workhorse, will undertake as much work as possible ahead of the golfers. Then, we try to factor in student practical's into what is going on at the time. It can be a challenge; there are no two ways about it. We just have to find a good balance."
"When students initially come onsite, some of them have never been on a golf course, let alone worked on one! So, we start with tasks we can do in groups, such as divoting tees and raking bunkers which helps them to gel as a class and also understand the layout of the course. Once they understand the basics of getting from A to B safely, we start to introduce some of the machine work. At each stage, we are continually thinking about the student's experience; there is no point having fifteen students, one instructor and one machine because they are only going to get a couple of minutes using the machine and the rest of their time watching. So, we will split them into groups of five (and one instructor), with one of the students gaining experience on the machine while the rest will be nearby repairing pitch marks, weeding bunkers doing some of the less risky practical tasks."
The students start their day with registration at 9:00am, where they go over risk assessments for the days tasks, then they will be out on the course by 9:30am - which is another problem Greg has to get his head around. "I would love to use them for course set up; it would be brilliant to send ten students out in front of golf. But, because they are coming from all over Scotland, not many of them have their own cars and depend on public transport, so it's impossible for them to start any earlier. Students further afield will be staying in the halls of resistance, so we could ask them to start at 7:00am, but we would not get any consistency amongst the class. They work till 3:30pm, so we do not get a full day's work out of them, but they are not here to do a full shift, they are here to learn. We have students volunteer to come in and work on days they have not got classes and they are the ones you know have got the drive and the passion to succeed, so we want to accommodate them. They will get a bigger range of experience because they will fit in with the tasks we are doing on that day, rather than just the tasks we are doing to fit in with the curriculum."
The college also provides courses for professional golf students and, as part of their curriculum, they will take part in competitions at Elmwood Golf Club. "This gives the greenkeeping students an excellent opportunity to show off the skills they have learnt, and it is the NC students who set the course up for that day, which is a great experience for them. We sit down the day before, so they all know what they are going to do, then leave them to it on the day, with guidance, of course, if they need it."
Greg gives a brief breakdown of the yearly maintenance programme. "In season, we mow greens at 4.5mm daily and roll behind when we have competitions or parties playing. Aeration consists of weekly slitting or sorel rolling, pencil tining two or three times annually, hollow coring once a year on new greens and we Dyna-Core the old greens, as thatch does not warrant a hollow core. Throughout the year, we carry out minimal verti-cutting and topdressing and a brush is used to reduce lateral growth. We only apply sand during renovation week.
A compost tea is applied fortnightly when possible. Fertilisers are all selected for low salt content to help support the soil biology. Wetting agents are used routinely to keep surfaces dry and moist. We tend to hand pick weeds, but we have also used a selective in the past on areas of long rough, to reduce creeping thistle invasion and we use a knapsack for targeted weed control. This season, due to reduced staff, we have had to spray bunker bases and limit bunker maintenance, but this is the first application on a playing surface in four years. Our aim was to be pesticide free by 2020, which we did achieve until Covid restrictions came in. Fungal diseases are treated with citric acid, increased aeration and compost teas which have worked well for us; since working with the natural soil biology (rather than against it), we've seen a reduction in thatch build up."
The club is very proud of the environmental strategy put in place before construction of the course began. This involved the minimal movement of soil during construction and the planting of over 9,000 indigenous trees on the site. As a result, ongoing maintenance of the turf involves minimal (if any) use of pesticides. There has been a considerable increase in wildlife and wildflowers, and conservation areas within the rough, and other areas mostly out of play, are part of this strategy.
Greg continued: "Ecology is vitally important to me and the club and we are always trying to improve on our environmental impact. The biggest area which has the potential to create new habitat is in the long rough. So, we want to turn these areas into meadows to help encourage more wildlife and improve the biodiversity further. We have taken steps to prevent any negative impact by undertaking work on the ponds by the fourth hole - which we had to create due to this part of the course being on heavy clay. It is the one area of the course that does not drain into a soakaway; it leads into a storm drain once it reaches a certain capacity. To ensure water is cleaner going out of the site (than what it was when it came in), we have introduced willow bridges and reed beds that filter the water out. I am confident we have a far more beneficial impact than a negative one when it comes to the environment and biodiversity around the course."
With measures the club has put in place and the dedication to the ecology around them, they are now starting to see a much more comprehensive range of wildlife living and being spotted around the course and in the ponds. "Recently, we spotted a Short-Eared Owl, Woodpeckers have been coming to the bird feeders outside the clubhouse and we also have Sparrow Hawks now nesting on site. In the ponds on the fourth, we have seen newts, frogs and moorhens so, all in all, I feel we are heading in the right direction."
On a course walk, I noticed there were hay bales in the ponds near the fourth hole, which I found unusual. I also spotted some beehives out there. "The bales were put in the water as a trial to see if they help control the chickweed. We've used barley bales before to control algae and that worked a treat, but the chickweed is a bit of an experiment currently being carried out by SAC Consulting, part of SRUC."
"The beehives belong to a local beekeeper who was looking for a place to have his hives. We looked around the course and the area near the sand martin nest site was their preferred place, as it was out of the way with plenty of pollen close by for the bees. Once the hives start producing, we are hoping for some honey that can either be sold in the clubhouse or used in some of the menu recipes."
What's in the shed
John Deere 220SL handmowers x 4
Groundsman TMC46 turf cutter
John Deere Pro 47V WBM
John Deere XUV855
Stihl FS91R strimmer
Stihl FS460C-EM strimmer
John Deere R47KB
Stihl MS171 chainsaw
Stihl 0KM131 strimmer
John Deere HD200 sprayer
SISIS MS4 slitter
Horn 2.00T trailer
John Deere 22B WBGM trailer
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXI8
Lewis 2 tonne trailer
Campey Dakota 410
John Deere 2032R tractor
John Deere 2500B
John Deere 2500E
John Deer 8700A
John Deere TH Gator 6x4
John Deere 2030A ProGator
John Deere 8800A
John Deere 4049R
John Deere 8700A
Neuson Lifton 6001
Yamaha G29E x 4
GreenTek fairway groomer
To find out more about studying golf/greenkeeping at SRUC, please visit www.sruc.ac.uk