Founded in 1901, St Annes Old Links is one of the many fine championship links of England's north-western coast, which also includes the likes of Royal Lytham & St Annes, Formby and Royal Birkdale. Having been forced to move from their original home due to encroaching building work, the club identified a barren, windswept stretch of Lancashire's Irish Sea coast, comprising dunes, sand and wild grasses which, ultimately, would provide a new and permanent home for the club.
The club's first professional, George Lowe, was charged with the responsibility of designing the initial nine holes and thus, the foundations of a great links were laid. Membership blossomed quickly and the links hosted its first major event in 1919, when the English Ladies Amateur Championship was played here, whilst, since 1926 the Open Championship has been held at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and the links has been an official Final Qualifying venue for the Open.
The pure links character of St Annes has changed little over the years, although building development is now surrounding most of the perimeter.
Every hole has its own individual characteristics, with the 171-yard par three, 9th hole, which offers a narrow green, well guarded by bunkers, is probably best known. Bobby Jones, in fact, when playing here in 1926, was so impressed with this hole that he reportedly took detailed measurements so that he could reproduce a hole of similar character in the United States. Yet, whilst the 9th is probably the most talked about hole, with its immense 46-yard long green, others certainly provide a stiffer challenge.
Whilst there are countless majestic holes at St. Annes Old Links, the purists often rate the 454-yard 7th hole as the most difficult on the course, particularly when played into the teeth of the prevailing westerly wind. Each hole on the homeward journey, beginning with the short but testing par four 323yards 10th, presents varying challenges, whilst the long finish of two par fives, with the railway lurking as out-of-bounds for over eleven hundred yards on the right hand side, demands the utmost in concentration and tact.
Looking after this historic course is Course Manager, Stuart Hogg, who came into the industry when his father organised an apprenticeship for him at West Kilbride Golf Club. "He was in contact with a local YTS coordinator and, between the three of us, we felt that it would fit in around my 'hopeful' football career - sadly, that never happened - and I wouldn't change a thing now."
"Starting off my career at a Championship Course on the West of Scotland, whilst also attending college, was a great experience, and I was fortunate to receive the runner-up 'Greenkeeper of the Year' in my second and third year respectively. Once I had finished college, I was taken on full-time and was part of the team involved in a major rebuilding of the sea defences along the course. However, after a year, I felt it was time to move on."
So, in 1992, Stuart joined the greenkeeping team at Fortrose & Rosemarkie Golf Club in Ross-shire as First Assistant Greenkeeper and was promoted to Course Manager in 1995.
"I felt, with this promotion, that I had finally arrived," says Stuart. "During my time there, I was involved in the building of new maintenance facilities and had full control of the golf course maintenance, along with producing reports for the Greens Committee and keeping the website up-to-date. I was also responsible for carrying out risk assessments, COSHH assessment and all other aspects of Health & Safety."
During my time in Ross-shire, I gained various awards, including Scottish Finalist at the 'Toro Greenkeeper of the Year', and the 'Committed to Green' award, which is working to a European Standard for Environmental Practices. We were only the sixteenth club in Europe to be awarded this honour."
"Yet, I think my proudest moment was when I was awarded Master Greenkeeper status, becoming only the thirty-seventh in the world at the time."
In July 2004, Stuart headed south to take up his current position. "It was straight in at the deep end," he confesses, "as, just ten weeks after my arrival, we were scheduled to host a European PGA Tour Event which involved working closely with their agronomists and tour officials."
This event continued for a further three years and, during this period, Stuart completed his SVQ Level 4 Amenity Sportsturf Management.
"We now hold regular major events every year, including the final qualifying for The Open, the British Amateur Championship and, this year, the Girls Home Internationals."
Stuart is supported by a full-time staff of six. His deputy is Greg Wellings who has been at the club for two years. Senior Greenkeeper Dave Feeney (3 years), Greenkeepers Chris Morris (4), Ryan Ayrton (5), Shane Donald (1) and Head Mechanic Bob Bould (42) complete the team. Two seasonal staff are employed to undertake bunker raking and fairway divoting.
"I'm keen that my staff continue their training and education and, to that end, I always take them to BTME Harrogate Week, as I think it is at the best time in the best location. The seminar programme is always very good and it's also great to meet up with colleagues and have a chat about our work over a beer."
"I've been a regular member of BIGGA's Open support teams over the years, and also worked at The Walker Cup at Nairn in 1999, but a highlight was working with the Royal Birkdale greenstaff during the 2008 Open when I was given the task of mowing the famous 17th, along with the 16th and 18th greens. I was also part of the greenstaff at Royal Lytham & St Annes for the 2012 Open Championship, again on the greens."
"St Annes Old links is a large site and covers 108 acres. It's fairly flat but, being by the sea, has a typically sandy native soil," explains Stuart. "I measure rainfall, soil temperature and water usage on a monthly basis. We do have fairly extensive irrigation for greens, tees, aprons and some high wear areas and fairways, which allows us to control inputs. It wasn't used that much last year during the summer deluge we all experienced but, in the first four months of this year, we've had 68.4mm less rainfall than in the same period for 2012. Scary!"
Between April and October, the greens are mown on a daily basis, and 'as required' at other times. Height of cut depends on the weather and/or when a tournament is scheduled.
Stuart stresses the need for regular aeration on the greens. "About every six weeks, throughout the season, we use our Aercore or Verti-Drain (fitted with 8mm solid tines), varying the depth to a maximum of eight inches depending on tournaments, conditions etc. We hollow core the greens, tees and aprons with 12mm tines in October, and then a contractor comes in during November to vertidrain everywhere!"
"As for fertilisers and tonics, we use mainly liquids here, except for a granular to kick off with. Our aim is to keep applications to an absolute minimum, however it works out to be around 50-60Kg/ha of nitrogen per year, with iron and potassium put down in the winter months. We use Farmsea 10 as a tonic."
"Daisies and plantains are our main weed problem and, this year, I have used Greenor for the first time, so I await the results."
"Our main disease problem is fusarium which, early season, we let work itself out. However, in September, I might use something to see us through as we have a lot of golf at this time, and it's never good going into winter with disease."
Stuart explains that their policy regarding the ecology of the course is simply working with the natural environment, although they have let the tractor paths grow in to create more corridors for nesting skylarks, along with a small planting programme of gorse around the course for strategic and ecological reasons.
When asked what piece of equipment has made the most significant different to how he manages the course, he says; "All machinery has evolved, so it's hard to pick just one but, if pushed, I'd say our Hunter Jupiter grinder is so important to keep all the mowers nice and sharp."
"In time, I would like to see new maintenance facilities, but that will be a few years off yet, I think."
"We had a few drainage issues, but most have been sorted and we'll finish them off later this year, along with continuing our small development of the course by recontouring the banks around our 13th green."
Looking to the future, Stuart confesses that ongoing finances are his biggest concern. "We do have a strong membership of around 700, but last year's weather certainly put a strain on income across the board. Hopefully though, if we can keep the course in the best possible condition, then members will remain here and visitors will keep coming back!"
Like many golf clubs around the UK, maintaining its financial viability is a continual headache. "Whilst we pride ourselves on having one of the best maintained true links golf courses in the UK, we still need to market its potential to a wider audience," says Stuart.
It was whilst discussing this very topic with the club professional, Daniel Webster, that one of the members, Peter Barrett, suggested an innovative idea.
Peter's son Ali, an ex-club member until he left the area for Southampton University, had been developing a helicopter drone which he had used for filming "mates" doing extreme sports; primarily kitesurfing and wakeboarding. So, why not use this same technology to film the course and allow prospective visitors to see the quality and standard of the greens and fairways before they visit?
Having concluded that an aerial video of the course could well be used as an innovative new marketing tool on the club's website, it was Stuart who suggested that it was not only useful for marketing, but would also enable him, as Course Manager, to gain a more holistic view of the course using the aerial perspective to track its progress over time and to help the development of future short and long term improvement projects.
With all these ideas growing, Peter contacted Ali and the drone was brought back to Lancashire for Christmas and a "draft" hole was videoed. Working with Daniel and Stuart, a plan was put together to film the whole course during the Easter holidays. The results can be seen at www.stannesoldlinks.com.
"To our knowledge," states Stuart, "St Annes Old Links is the first golf club in the UK to have an aerial video of the complete course available free to all on its website. Utilising this innovative technology enables us to showcase our wonderful course, providing an enhanced service offering to our visitors and guests. Equally as important, it provides me with valuable information in terms of course maintenance and development."
Work is ongoing to refine the videoing techniques and Ali and Peter have now set up a new business to further promote the use of lightweight, high tech drones for aerial filming of golf courses and other sporting events and venues.
"For members to keep seeing us professionally, and that we are actually well trained and always learning, is of the utmost importance," concludes Stuart.
The drone concept initially developed from Ali Barrett's enthusiasm for building flying machines and photographing extreme sports. Having demonstrated his ability to produce video footage of his own sports (kitesurfing and wake boarding), and getting some very positive feedback from those filmed, he decided to generate a website - www.Heliphoto.biz - to show off some of his new videos.
Within a few days of it going live, he was offered the opportunity to put forward a proposal to video some twenty sites totally unrelated to his own sports. Unfortunately, due to his final year university commitments, the timing was wrong to take the opportunity further.
However, over the past few months or so, with a number of unrelated opportunities coming to light, and particularly with the interest and enthusiasm shown by Stuart Hogg and Daniel Webster for the golf course videos, Ali and his father Peter decided to formally establish Heliphoto.Biz Ltd, and this was done in April of this year.
From a marketing viewpoint, the video gives a whole new perspective and richness to the golf club's website, allowing golfers to 'virtually' walk the course before deciding to visit. The benefits are that they would be able to familiarise themselves with the course before playing it to ensure that it is the sort of course they wish to play.
For the club, the benefits include a new dimension in publicity (showcasing the whole course, hole by hole), which should encourage visitors, thereby bringing in much needed revenue.
Heliphoto are aiming to expand its involvement in filming extreme sports, as well as specialising in the videoing and developing of marketing strategies for golf clubs, using this media as part of a package which could include filming other local facilities, golf or other interests for the non-golfing family members. In addition, they are investigating the use of its capability to inspect areas not easily accessible without specialist equipment, e.g. factory roofs.
The Civil Aviation are currently developing rules for the use of such drones, but the main constraints at presents are as follows:
- it has to be operated by a competent and qualified pilot supported by a competent observer
- the pilot must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft and its flight path to ensure safety of all other aircraft, persons, animals and obstacles.
It cannot be flown in:
- controlled airspace without permission
- at a height of no more than 400ft above ground
- over or within 150 metres of any congested area
- over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1000 people
- within 50 metres of any person (except observer), vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft
Whilst there are no specific rules, flying over private land without the owner's permission is not advised.
It is not an all-weather vehicle, particularly when it comes to rain and wind. The aircraft only weighs 2.5kg and, therefore, is sensitive to wind and gusts, so appropriate care must be taken.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 8700 fairway mower
John Deere 3535B fairway mower
John Deere 4320 tractor
John Deere 4520 tractor
John Deere 1500 Aercore
Allen Hover Trim 446 x 2
Flymo L47 hover mower x 2
Ford 2120 tractor
Ransomes G-Plex II tees mowers x 2
John Deere 2500E tees mowers x 3
John Deere 2500E greens mowers x 2
John Deere 220B pedestrian greens mowers x 3
John Deere 220C pedestrian greens mowers x 4
Toro 3100 Sidewinder
Charterhouse 7516 Verti-Drain
Ransomes Core Harvester
John Deere HD200 hand sprayer
Lastec 3696 H/M Articulator
John Deere 2030 Pro Gator
John Deere 2030 Pro Gator 4wd
John Deere Turf Gators x 4
Rodgers TE1000 walk behind sprayer
Turfmech Pro Pass 180 topdresser
Echo SRM 330 strimmers x 4
Echo PB6000 blowers x 2
Greentek Thatchaway units
Ransomes Turf Cutter
Various trailers x 5, back acter, back forks, power washer and vibrating plates and rollers