Heythrop Park is one of many jewels in the Cotswolds crown and is situated close to the market town of Chipping Norton, and fifteen miles to the north of Oxford. At the centre of the 440-acre estate stands a grand Baroque-styled country house that was restored and converted into a luxury hotel and country club by businessman and former owner of Oxford United Football Club, Firoz Kassam.
Tom Mackenzie, of Mackenzie & Ebert Ltd., designed Heythrop Park Golf Course, which opened for play in October 2009, and the 7,088 yard par 72 course weaves throughout the estate.
Mackenzie, and contractors White Horse and J & E Ely, had to work closely with Natural England (formerly English Heritage) to ensure the site retained and maintained key historic landscape features from its wonderful past. This included a commitment to refurbishing a circular bowling green that was built in 1707, along with two large croquet lawns, numerous tree avenues, apple orchards, dry stone walls and other ancient buildings found on the site.
No golf furniture, bunkers or greens can be seen down the two main views from the house, and the course had to meander its way through existing historic features such as man-made lakes, follies and woodland.
Phil Helmn is the Golf Course & Estate Manager responsible for ensuring the restoration projects are carried out, meeting the time frame of the planners. He has until 2020 to achieve the targets for planting new trees, restoring buildings and refurbishing the historic croquet lawns and bowling green.
Phil has been on site since the early development and construction of the course back in 2008. Tom Mackenzie had originally asked Phil if he would help manage the course, and so was on hand throughout the grow in period. Three years later, he is still overseeing the day to day running of the course.
It was a call to Pitchcare that prompted my visit, and I soon found myself entering the main drive of the estate, a 1.5 mile long meandering drive up to the breathtaking house.
Once in Phil's office, I began by asking him what influenced him to come into the turfgrass industry?
"Golf has always been in my blood, with my father being a PGA golf pro. My childhood was spent in his golf shop or out on the golf course during lunchtimes and after school, so I was never far away," recalls Phil. "Once I left school, I had the usual dream of becoming a golf pro but, unfortunately, lacked the gift needed to be successful in that line of work. Instead, I concentrated my efforts on the maintenance side of the sport, and gained a three year full time place at Myerscough College, completing the course with high qualifications. Whilst there, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to work in Florida for my one year work experience. John's Island Club's West Course at Vero Beach was under construction at the time, and it was this experience which influenced my passion for construction and growing in courses, which I have since used on numerous occasions in my career."
"My qualifications include a National Diploma in Sports Turf and I became a Master Greenkeeper in 2001. I am also an A1 Qualified Assessor."
"I have worked my way up through the ranks since leaving full time college. I started out at Camberley Heath Golf Club in Surrey, before becoming deputy head greenkeeper at Collingtree Park and then head greenkeeper at Overstone Park in Northampton. I went on to become grow-in course manager at Minthis Hills Golf Resort in Cyprus and, now, here I am at Heythrop. The course is currently ranked 123rd in England, so there is still some work to do!" suggests Phil, although he is delighted with the progress made in such a short timescale.
"The soil type is Cotswold limestone. Drainage is excellent due to the stone content within the profile. A full Rainbird irrigation system has been installed to greens, tees, aprons, bunkers and fairways."
"Greens and tees have been built to a typical USGA specification, with a 300mm 80/20 sand peat rootzone on both. An extensive drainage system to all areas, including secondary sand banding to fairways, to facilitate faster surface drainage, was installed by White Horse Contractors. Spring water has been cleverly capped to move natural water back to the man-made irrigation reservoir and streams to ensure free flowing water most of the year."
Phil has a staff of ten, with Senior Greenkeeper, Mark Davies, overseeing work out on the course, assisted by greenkeepers Laurence Nicks, Greg Smith, Shaun Kench, Sam Evans and Nick Jones.
Andy Hill is the Senior Estate Gardener who is assisted by Dan Blaney and Chris Widdows. David Capes is the Senior Mechanic.
For any technical advice, Phil calls on either Tom Mackenzie or agronomist David Stansfield.
"We have a full playing membership, capped at 400, but we are always busy with corporate golf events, so we need to present the course in tip top condition," explains Phil.
"Aeration plays a big part in our maintenance regimes. We slit the fairways continually through autumn and winter, to a depth of between 200-300mm, using our Sisis Megaslit. We also slit the greens, tees, aprons and collars once a month through the winter, but to around 150-225mm."
"We vertidrain greens and tees twice a year, in spring and autumn, using our Charterhouse 1.8m model, to between 225-300mm."
"Greens are mown daily using pedestrian cylinder mowers at a height of 5mm in the winter and 3mm in the summer. Tees are mown at 9mm twice a week. Collars and aprons are also kept at 9mm all year round, with fairways set at 15mm in the winter, 12mm in the summer and mown three times a week."
"Rough areas are mown at 75mm on a rolling mowing cycle. The long driveway verges alone take a whole day to mow!"
"We use a balanced mixture of granular fertilisers, combined with liquid foliar/crown feeds. We use the Andersons granular fertiliser range along with Floratine liquid feeds for fine tuning nutrient levels. Applications vary, but usually at four weekly intervals, something like a 13:2:13, followed by a 19:5:19 and back to a 13:2:13."
"One selective application of weed control is made during spring for all fairways, semi roughs and deep rough areas. Ornamental areas and paths are controlled with applications of glyphosate, as and when required."
"The combination of a good aeration programme and applications of turf tonics means disease outbreaks are rare, and this helps to keep fungicide applications to a minimum but, when conditions are extreme, they are used."
"Being a Grade II listed estate - records are found in the Domesday Book - means that we work closely with a wide range of conservation/nature bodies. We have large areas of the estate which are managed under a conservation 'historic' programme. This means that we need to embrace environmental issues at all times."
"As you might imagine, with such a huge estate, there is an abundance of wildlife. We have, however, been very fortunate in the small amount of damage the wildlife inflicts, but one of our problems is animals searching for either chafer grubs or leatherjackets. We spray Grazer to discourage foraging, and Merit Turf to combat the grubs."
So, how does Phil measure playability and greens performance? "We record all the usual weather and ground conditions every day in order to build up a 'picture' of any trends for use in future maintenance schedules," explains Phil. "We measure and record soil temperatures, soil pH, nutrient levels (on greens only), an irrigation water quality and pH, as this can have major implications for the turf's ability for nutrient uptake."
"We also monitor the surface quality of the greens, the percentage of weed grass invasion (currently running at 3%) firmness, trueness and ball speed. Stimpmeter runs average 12 feet in summer and 9.5 feet in winter."
"Although very labour intensive, we have an annual programme of physically removing any weed grass which has 'crept in' to the originally seeded 85% fescue/15% bent greens. We use either 50mm plugs, hole changing 138mm plugs or, occasionally, the Turf Doctor hexagonal cores to remove unwanted species. On average, we have cored (from our own turf nursery green) 4,000 per annum (200 plugs per green x 20 greens), and this has significantly helped to maintain the quality of the sward."
"I do believe that the quality of cut has a big impact as well. We use Toro mowers for all areas of the course (see What's In The Shed for full list of major equipment), although one of my favourite pieces of equipment has to be my tractor mounted Agrimetal 3500 leaf blower. It has saved so much labour when it comes to blowing leaves from fairways and rough areas. It's also great for blowing debris and worm casts from fine turf areas, and significantly reduces the time taken to blow the drive which leads from the entrance gate-house to the golf clubhouse."
"Unfortunately, no new purchases have been made, but a recent capital expenditure 'wish list' includes grinders, Toro electric utility buggies (silent running instead of our petrol versions), greens rollers, for increased speed and trueness of surface, and large area rotary mowers for the extensive lawns around the estate."
"It is our intention to offer play 365 days of the year. The drainage system installed during construction (three years ago) is extremely robust. Local wet areas are quickly tackled by my team, simply by 'tagging' pipework into the existing system."
"With the golf course covering nearly every square inch of the estate, some parts have been crafted into woodland areas, giving rise to air flow and light issues. Along with our own chainsaw operatives, we employ a tree surgeon to help us with the woodland management programme of thinning selected areas. This has helped minimise disruption, and has considerably helped the fine turf areas growing in very shaded areas."
"As you can imagine, with such a massive estate, my team of ten is stretched considerably during the busy summer months, so we supplement them with seasonal workers; two for the golf course and two for the estate. Drainage, air flow, shade, lack of resources, staff, machinery can always pose problems, but our job is to overcome them and present the course in the best possible condition all year round."
"I'm a strong believer in ongoing education and networking. As a team, we attend the BTME Harrogate trade show but, unfortunately, due to the busy nature of the estate workload, are only able to do so in alternate years. When there, we take full advantage of the free training and lectures available. For us, though, based in Oxfordshire, it would be more convenient for it to be located more centrally."
"There have been major improvements in training, pay and greenkeeper status in the twenty years since I first embarked on my career, but I would like to see continued advancement in these areas for future generations of greenkeepers, thereby making it a more attractive career choice. It's important that everybody works together to achieve this."
With the formalities out of the way, Phil took me out on the course to get a true picture of the work he and his team are undertaking.
Our first port of call was the unique circular bowling green, which has remained unchanged since its construction in 1715, and the two croquet lawns at rear of the magnificent hall. "I'm planning to start the renovations this summer," said Phil, "removing unwanted thatch, reseeding and topdressing to restore levels. They will then become part of the annual programme of work carried out on the greens. Once they have recovered and become playable, they will be an added attraction for the hotel guests."
We then moved on to see some of the signature holes, all the time taking in the wonderful views. Water is a major feature of the course, with Archer Bridge being the backdrop of the 6th green, a testing 314 yards par 4. Its stunning appearance is a great example of what course architects would describe as a 'risk and reward' hole. The long hitters might choose to try to drive the green, but they will discover there is no margin for error down the left, where the water eats into the green.
The closing hole - a par 5, measures 596 yards from the championship tee, and has a strong claim to be regarded as the straightest hole in world golf. It appears even longer because the view is elongated by the majestic main house which sits some 100 yards or so behind the green. It's a clever layout, designed to retain the original avenue view of the house.
Phil also showed me the newly restored dry stone wall which runs the full length of the course and, that, to date has cost the club some £600k to rebuild. It's certainly impressive and will be admired for many years to come. There are also a number of other walls and follies that need to be restored, again with the aim of completing the programme by 2020.
Phil is delighted with how the course is maturing and developing. Part of the long term plans is for the course to host a European tour Senior event. Heythrop have already successfully completed a stringent course inspection and are confident that it will be considered in the near future.
It has been a hectic, yet rewarding three years for Phil and has staff, who are now seeing the benefits of their hard work. The sheer scale and size of the course, coupled with the estate's history, ensure this course will be one to watch out for in the coming years.
What's in the shed?
Many of Heythrop's fleet of machinery have had pet names stencilled onto them. For example, you could be sitting astride Monty, Arnie, Fuzzy or Pricey, or scooting around on the Shark or the Golden Bear. However, Boo appears to have been tinkered with!
4 x Toro 1000 pedestrian greens mowers
2 x Toro 3250 ride on greens mowers
2 x Toro 3100 sidewinder apron mowers
2 x Toro 5610 fairway mowers
2 x Toro 4100 semi rough mowers
4 x Toro workman MDX utility vehicles
1 x Toro workman HDX utility vehicle with sprayer/dresser & back box
3 x Ford tractors
1 x Charterhouse vertidrainer
1 x Bobcat woodchipper
3 x Sisis slitters
1 x Sisis fairway scarifyer