0 Highly proactive at High Legh

Something's stirring in the North-west's golfing venues, which will soon spread across the UK, transforming the sport's traditional model. Greg Rhodes meets the team at High Legh Golf Club to find out more

When new owners acquire a golf club, the future for the incumbent greens team can seem uncertain to say the least as fears rise over replacing manicured holes with residential development.

Not so at High Legh Golf Club in Cheshire, where course manager Steve Stringer is upbeat over what lies ahead for the 27-hole golf estate acquired this spring by American Golf

Despite its name, the golf retailer, turned international leisure brand, hails from nearby Warrington but is driving forward on a new course, fuelled by investment in golf facility ownership.

"Under our strategy, we want to be seen as Europe's largest golf leisure provider," states Martin Robinson, Regional Sales Manager UK for American Golf, "involving golf club and driving range ownership and development across the UK."

Some may know Martin in his previous life as general manager of Top100 course Fairhaven Golf Club in Lytham St Annes' fertile golfing acres. He is now the go-to guy travelling the UK, ensuring American Golf's leisure sites operate efficiently.

"The American Golf model is about driving inclusivity, focusing on leisure destinations offering golf for all the family. Our Master blueprint for golf is to be the best in class for everything we do."

"Every site will feature Italian American cuisine, Il Corso sports lounge or clubhouse, retail store and Adventure Golf.

Although keeping American Golf's next acquisitions under wraps, Martin reveals that "every site we are targeting is successful in its own right."

Course Manager Steve Stringer

High Legh is the operator's first golf club but it's first acquisition was Rossendale driving range in Lancashire, which reopened on 29 March as a statement of intent - a family golf centre providing 22 bays, indoor dining and Il Corso sports lounge, within the picturesque backdrop of Rossendale valley, and planning permission for Adventure Golf.

"Driving ranges are attractive propositions because operating costs are so low and visitor numbers have gone through the roof," Martin explains.

Turning to its next acquisition, High Legh, he continues: "We are considering things from every angle, with a full professional appraisal of the courses focusing on making them conducive to a quick round of golf and accessible to all."

Amongst its 700-strong membership, the club boasts one of the largest ladies sections in the UK, which fits perfectly into American Golf's efforts to make the sport more inclusive, whilst plans are afoot to create a national golfing academy to help foster the next generation of talent.

By tapping into today's host of independent golfers, helped by the freedom to continue playing during lockdowns, despite clubhouse closures, American Golf could also benefit clubs in the region, it argues. "We would stage regular group golfing lessons within the club setting of High Legh," says Martin, "which could, in turn, result in players wanting to become members near where they live. We are very supportive of local clubs."

And, beyond that, is the ambition to raise High Legh to the next level to make it an Open Championship regional qualifying course and host to national competitions.

"Once every element is in place, High Legh could run a very successful championship. We are engaged with several organisations to help make this happen."

Though still "very early days yet" in rethinking High Legh, Martin ponders the possibility of introducing nine or 18-hole Adventure Golf. "The site's ponds lend themselves to introducing fun features like crocodile models and other animals."

The planning process can prove tortuous though, he concedes, as it did at Rossendale, where a larger car park and wider entrance had to run the gauntlet of the local authority.

"We work in a fast-paced business," says Martin, "and sometimes need to act quickly. Our golfing model is far more commercially minded than the traditional one so may take longer to be viewed in a more modern context, in which the independent golfer is our perfect customer."

Reflecting on his career change, Martin adds: "I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Fairhaven and it was a shame I had to leave, but this was a huge opportunity to open a lot of doors - one that I couldn't refuse. I believe in the family model of golf and to be a part of the American Golf vision is super."

Already busy restoring High Legh's clubhouse to its original plan, and opened, with the 27 holes in 1997 under golf's era of rapid expansion, the uplift will include 120-seat lounge and main bar, with upstairs provision too, three large meeting rooms for renting out and a captivating patio, with the academy building close by.

Billed as 'The perfect destination for any golfer', High Legh already features a 24-bay indoor driving range, with a floodlit facility outdoors, fitting snugly within American Golf's golf model.

Celebrating its 25th year in 1992, the 27-hole "big resort-style" course complex was designed by Mark James and Steve Marnoch with thirty USGA greens and sand-based tees.

"The last owner bought the proprietary site when the original owners were going into receivership in 2003/4," recalls Steve, "and they invested heavily in improving provision by building the driving range six years ago and reconfiguring some holes. That proved a big turning point for the club."

Then the financial crisis hit the world and golf suffered a "big dip" in its fortunes "until now", states Steve.

"The previous owners closed off nine holes to create an academy course, which pay and play golfers use mainly, as well as visitors and juniors.

That's when we became far busier, with a pay and play catchment stretching to Lymm, Knutsford and Manchester."

The 18-hole 'championship' parkland course, though "flattish", remains a challenging round for many, Steve notes.

Steve joined High Legh in June 2018 from another course near Manchester, owned by farmers who had diversified into golf. "They developed a nine-hole course then extended it to eighteen holes before closure in spring 2018 - selling the site for development when golf suffered a downturn."

That's when Steve had the chance to switch to High Legh. "The move was a seamless transition for me. I fell into the job here," he says.

Following general improvements since then, American Golf acquired the club "bang in the middle of a prolonged dry period and a key priority is keeping the greens watered and fed as they are extremely thirsty, hungry surfaces."

Steve met Martin out on course recently to look over everything and the feedback was very positive, reflecting the work the team has devoted itself to over the years, and the commitment of the previous owners to raising standards.

"They wanted to get more into golf in winter," Steve recalls, "and invested heavily in laying more than 1km of paths, with edging boards, in the last two years of their ownership to improve traffic management and limit buggies' intrusion on to the playing areas."

"Constructed from permanent stone and crushed Tarmac, the paths are topped out with crushed plumb slate, laid loose then compacted using a wacker plate. Keeping them in good condition is part of our ongoing maintenance."

Steve's conversation with Martin focused on the championship course. "It does get wetter than the academy course and parts can become unplayable in November or December after heavy rain. Also, certain areas are tough to access when the course is too wet."

Year-round golf is the aim though as USGA greens remain playable throughout most if not all weathers. "We've never used winter greens and I can count greens closures on the fingers of one hand."

Bunkers are Steve's next phase of course maintenance. "Working to a five-year plan, we'll be laying drains to prevent them standing in water," he explains. With forty-two bunkers on the championship holes and some eleven on the Academy course, the team have their work cut out. "Most are the originals and are of manageable size. We'll replace contaminated sand with new, do a little reshaping where needed and consider installing bunker liners."

But under the planned programme, lengthening holes is not a priority. "Our ladies section is thriving and younger women are coming into the game. Golf is hard enough as it is, so there's no need to keep hitting the ball further. We are changing to a more strategic approach. Hitting the ball longer is not something that the average player worries about." As an accomplished player himself, Steve probably has a fair point.

Team dynamic

Steve manages a team of four permanent and four temporary staff. Second in command Martin Eccles, 35, holds a degree in Sportsturf from Myerscough and enjoyed placements in Dubai and the US before coming to High Legh.

"He's very hands on", says Steve, "and I'm happy for him to do the day to day, including meeting company reps, to take the heat off me a little. The two of us handle the spraying across the course."

"Martin's arrival helped us complete existing improvements to the course and he'll play a key role in the work going forward."

Familiar with tough jobs is Craig O'Donnell who, at 33, has army experience as a mechanic in Afghanistan behind him, rescuing damaged tanks.

Already armed with Level 2 in greenkeeping, Craig's currently continuing his qualification journey at Oldham College, working towards his Level 3 under tutor Phil Lomas, who moved from Myerscough to set up a horticulture and greenkeeping department at the education hub.

"I'm lucky to have Craig," says Steve "who was already here when I took up my post. He sustained hearing damage while serving in the Army but is really keen to learn, gain his qualifications and develop his career."

Greenkeeping for three years, Nick Swift arrived from Cheshire club Shrigley Hall twenty months ago after previously working for sportswear supplier Umbro. Also an avid learner, Nick's Level 3 gives him the know-how to play a big role at High Legh.

"American Golf supports the team's training and development and that's a really positive sign for the future and a key factor when it's all hands to the pump at times."

"Although we don't have any apprenticeships currently," says Steve, "it's certainly something we will be considering."

Steve resigns himself to the realities of recruitment in the sector. "Greenkeeping should attract more people," he explains. "The job satisfaction of seeing a well-maintained course and taking in some startling scenery on a beautiful day is fantastic."

So, when you're lucky enough to have someone on your team who can bring a new dynamic to the greenkeeping process, you want to retain them. That's the case with Iain Latham. Formerly full-time at High Legh, Iain now works three days a week at the course whilst taking his Masters in Ecology.

"He'd be ideal to keep on," says Steve, "as he brings so many aspects to the job with a wider skill set. A single person cannot be expert in everything and Iain's knowledge introduces a wholly different dynamic to what we do here."

Applying ecological practices to a golf course can transform the public perception of golf courses, Steve believes. "It's about maximising a piece of land. Manicured areas are not that appealing for some people and golf's had a bad press as a middle class man's game. Iain has the potential to do so much for improving wildlife diversity across the estate."

He is already leaving his mark on High Legh's 200 acres, Steve notes. "We introduced a large wildflower area, which included poppies, on the left hand side of the 18th green. Members loved it, particularly the women's section, and bees and butterflies swarmed over the patch."

Meanwhile, on the Academy course, a beehive is attracting attention as High Legh continues to raise the ecological bar, continues Steve, who adds: "We're leaving areas of what I term 'ecological rough' along the course boundaries to create wildlife corridors, and have fitted bird and bat boxes."

The courses feature plenty of natural and constructed ponds to give High Legh loads of opportunity for aquatic species to proliferate.

The land has history too. "One of the holes is a Marlpit," Steve records, "whilst in wartime the area, part of The High Legh estate owned by Lord Grey of Codnor, was an army training and shooting site. The club has now bought the land lease for the area it occupies."

Tree management across the parkland will be handled increasingly by Martin, once he has qualified in chainsaw operation, Steve explains. "Some of the older stands, such as beech and oak, need managing to promote new growth and improve air circulation," he says, "and I want to be able to handle some of the work in house."

Irrigation uplift

With no borehole to tap into, Steve has to resort to mains supply which, in turn, makes efficient irrigation critical in controlling cost outflow. "The program for the computer-controlled Rain Bird system is due to be updated," he explains, "which will allow greater backup and control from my mobile, rather than having to go into the shed to operate the system."

Steve calls on Sandbach Irrigation Services to troubleshoot any issues and to check the system at the start of the golf season, although the continuous welded pipework minimises risk of bursts, he adds.

"The greens dry out quickly and need plenty of watering, fertiliser and turf treatments. We're aiming to acquire a moisture meter to monitor levels." The team hand-water a fair bit, so knowing when greens need moisture most will streamline that function.

"A POGO GPS-based system will be able to map sizes of greens and tees to tell us what's happening below the surface, across the entire putting area. We're looking at costs of £2,500 then £1,000 a year subscription."

"It's all part of moving course maintenance forward - giving me more management tools to do the job."

Greater operational control from his mobile device chimes with Steve's wider outlook. "I'm a hands-on person and could never be an office-lover," he states. "I have to be out there on course, using my eyes to see how things are and my role is to lead from the front."

That said, he admits that health and safety will assume an ever-greater role which, in turn, means more office duties and the need to be computer savvy.

Acquisition of the club by American Golf will now mean total overhaul of the kit that currently allows the team to do the job in hand. "Two years ago we renewed our frontline machinery," says Steve, "taking out a five-year lease on Toro kit. The fleet is pretty much diesel, except for one aeration machine, and I carry out the basic maintenance and servicing."

"I've always preferred Toro and believe they are the best for the money. As High Legh was already using them when I arrived, it was an easy choice when it came to renew."

Focusing on the feeding demands of his USGA greens, Steve notes: "The trade-off is deciding whether we rebuild 18 greens at a cost of around £1m or make the most of what we have already. USGA greens drain quickly, even after flash floods and heavy rain, and we need to check watering requirements constantly."

The team applies a granular feed, plus liquid fertiliser between times, to act as a consolidating "bridge" and encourage consistency of growth, Steve explains. "Nutrients can drain away from our greens very quickly."

High Legh putting surfaces have "a chequered history of thatch build-up", he continues, so accordingly Steve is seeking new cultivars. "Creeping bents are one option potentially," he notes, "as they are better for filling in."

"Poa will always be part of the greens make-up but at least we can try to out-compete it as best as we can."

Member communications form an increasingly important element of course management, more managers believe. Steve runs a Twitter feed as part of the member education process. "We've held a few meetings in an effort to get members more involved in what we do," he says.


What's in the shed?

Frontline mowing equipment
Toro Groundsmaster 4500D
Toro Reelmaster 5610
Toro Greensmaster 3420
Toro Reelmaster 310
Toro Reelmaster 5510
Toro Greensmaster 1000 (three)
Toro Procore 648

Utility vehicles, tractors and attachments
John Deere X748 Ultimate
John Deere 3038R tractor
John Deere Pro Gator
John Deere 855D Gator
Volvo EC27C Digger
Wiedenmann Whisper Twister
Reist Aera Seeder A0548
Dakota Turf Tender 410
Team Sprayer Demount 400L
Tru Turf RS48-11C
Lastec Articulator 721XR-CE
SISIS Megaslit Fairway Slitter
SISIS Multislit

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