Jon Wall is an English, 26 year old Turf Science graduate, currently working as the Superintendent of the Old Course at The Hong Kong Golf Club. Originally arriving on an internship, he transitioned into the Assistant Superintendent position, managing a team of twenty men (and women) where only Cantonese was spoken.
During this past summer, he was promoted to Superintendent and now also runs the same internship programme which took him out to Hong Kong, whilst dealing with the unique challenges which come with managing turf in Asia
Turning me into a Golf Course Superintendent probably wasn't the first thing on Caversham Heath Course Manager Jon Scoones' mind when he first laid eyes on me. It was the middle of a frigid British winter and, as a junior golfer, agronomy wasn't one of my strong points. With the course deserted, I had taken the pin out of the temporary green and placed it back onto the normal green, before chipping my entire shag bag of fifty balls onto the green. I figured no surface frost meant no problem. Jon, it turned out, had a strongly conflicting opinion!
Since then, I have worked as a part of Jon's greenstaff, completed my Turf Science BSc and found my way out to Hong Kong where I am currently the Superintendent of the Old Course at The Hong Kong Golf Club.
The Hong Kong Golf Club consists of three 18-hole courses (Old, New and Eden) in the north of Hong Kong, with a further 9-hole course on Hong Kong Island. Each course has its own superintendent and staff, whilst the entire maintenance operation is overseen by Randy Witt, CGCS (Certified Golf Course Superintendent). The club has a membership of over 2,500 and, each year, hosts the Hong Kong Open, which is a European and Asian Tour co-sanctioned event, won for the last two years by Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
Each course differs slightly in terms of age, design, construction and grass type, with unique difficulties facing each superintendent.
The Old Course was built in 1911 and has since been redesigned slightly, thanks in no small part to being bisected by a road back in the 1970s.
There are four grass species on the Old course, all warm season. Greens and surrounds are Bermuda grass (Cynodon transvaalensis), fairways and tees are Salam seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum), roughs are Carpet grass (Anoxus compressus) whilst there are also some areas of Manila grass (Zoysia matrella). Each comes with its own nutrient requirements, preferred cultivation techniques and temperature tolerances.
I could list the equipment I have at my disposal each day, although it is easier to say that, being an upscale club and having 54 holes to look after, there are very few pieces of turf equipment that we do not have. All machinery (including golf carts) is maintained by Derek Greenhough and his team of fourteen mechanics. I liaise with him each day about the machinery I will require over the following few days and he ensures that everything I require is properly set up.
With so much going on, and so much to maintain, it is vital to plan ahead and communicate ahead of time with the other superintendents to ensure that there is no confusion as to who is using what equipment each day. This becomes especially vital around the time of the course closure days, which occur on a monthly basis, and is when the invasive maintenance takes place.
Greens are hollow cored 3-4 times per year, lightly verticut throughout the growing season, and topdressed weekly. They are given a light liquid feed twice each week in order to minimise flushes in growth, whilst granular fertiliser is also applied during the summer months when the grass is at the height of its growth potential.
Paspalum surfaces are managed differently to the Bermuda; verticutting and topdressing are done more aggressively and less frequently, with more of the nutrients being applied with granular products. There is also a much lower N requirement in comparison with the Bermuda.
I like to think the water requirements of each grass on the course are best explained by being likened to people. Bermuda is like a young girl or boyfriend and likes constant attention. If I ignore it and don't give it enough water, it will tell me immediately. Then, once I have given it adequate water, it is quickly back to being happy. Paspalum is like a more stable relationship, it can go longer without being checked on, although if it is neglected for too long the problem will take longer to smooth over and recover from. Lastly, Manila is like your great-great uncle who survived two wars, six recessions and three heart attacks - it won't complain until it's dead.
My methods for maintaining adequate soil moisture are a little more scientific than this, and involve constant monitoring of conditions and meticulous irrigation planning to ensure that firm, fast conditions are maintained throughout the course, whilst providing all areas with enough water to be healthy and keep driving the roots downward.
All this planning, however, is at the total mercy of the weather. The five month stretch between May and September brings with it 80% of the annual rainfall amount of 2,400mm [HK Observatory]. This can be compared with London (591mm), Manchester (806mm) and Dublin (714mm) [MET Office]. Much of this can arrive in thunderstorms, as well as in passing tropical typhoons which generate in the South China Sea and around the Philippines. July 2012 brought a typhoon directly through Hong Kong, felling hundreds of trees on the courses and dumping 425mm of rain in the space of four days.
The May-September time period brings an average temperature of above 26°C, with maximum on course temperatures reaching 38°C. This combination of high-heat and high-humidity is the perfect growing environment for warm season grasses and, even with a comprehensive PGR programme and the correct nutrients, it can seem impossible to get the grass to slow down.
The winters are a stark contrast, with consistent cool and dry weather replacing the violent heat and storms of summer. Growth comes to a standstill in January with the Carpet grass roughs turning dormant, giving the course a completely different look to the summer months.
The winter period is also when the major club competitions take place and is the time when green speeds are fastest. The cool temperature, lack of rain and much lower humidity harden the leaf of the Bermuda, allowing putts to roll out much further. Greens can be cut as low as 3mm during winter, with speeds reaching up to 12ft on competition days through rolling and holding back water. In contrast, cutting heights are dropped in the cooler weather and raised slightly when the plant growth rate increases the chances of scalping. Cool season plants will generally slow growth once temperatures pass 28°C, whereas warm season will continue to grow faster with the increasing temperature.
One major challenge in winter is maintaining grass coverage. The pleasant weather ensures the courses are constantly full of golf, whilst the convenience of technology ensures that fairways are full of carts. However, with such little growth, divots, ball marks and traffic damage take much longer to heal, meaning that myself and the staff must be on the ball when it comes to traffic management and day to day course upkeep. Forget to move a rope for a couple of days and there will be a trail of cart tyre marks to remind you of your mistake for the next few months.
Traditionally with cool season grass, damaged areas can simply be seeded but, with the warm season grasses we use in Hong Kong, there is no seed. Grass simply spreads through the rhizomes and stolons. Patching damaged areas is an option, although I prefer to do this as sparingly as possible, since it takes years for the new turf to become totally inconspicuous with the surrounding turf. These reasons make it all the more vital to restrict any damage, be it from traffic, drought, insects or bigger animals such as wild boar.
Wild boar make rare appearances on the course during times of prolonged wet weather. The rain deprives them of their conventional food source and brings them onto the course to dig for worms and any grubs which may be under the turf. Repeated damage occurred during the summer on certain holes, necessitating security patrols and hunting teams to be present throughout the night during times when boar visits were likely.
This makes it all the more vital to have an effective IPM programme in place to minimise the presence of white grubs, mole crickets, billbugs and army worms that can be found in the soil and on the turf. The Hong Kong climate allows multiple generations of insect, in various lifestyle stages, to be present in the soil at any one time, ensuring that regular monitoring must take place to ensure that damage is kept to an absolute minimum.
In addition to general membership rounds, the Old Course also plays host to 'villagers' each day. As part of the lease deal on the plot of land, residents of the local village are eligible to play the course from 3.00pm through to 7.00am the following morning. This brings an additional forty rounds of golf to the course each day and seeing hundreds of footprints in the dew on a green before 7.00am is completely normal.
Another unique aspect of the course is the 'runway' system. The fairways are all built on a 12" sandcap which provides a firm, freely draining surface in all conditions and ensures that the course is never truly closed despite any extreme weather conditions. The surrounding roughs, however, are native soil, which don't drain as effectively. With pressure from membership to be able to drive carts on fairways throughout the year, special sandbased 'runways' were constructed linking the cart path to the fairway at both the beginning and end of each hole. This allows carts to be driven on fairways even after 25mm of rain. This system is popular with the membership and adds an extra challenge to keep the fairways in top condition.
Whilst it is true that many people in Hong Kong speak English, it is by no means the case throughout the whole region. Amongst the general staff, the majority will speak Cantonese, in various dialects, and Mandarin. There are very few people who are able to speak fluent English.
Following being promoted from intern to Assistant Superintendent just a few months after my arrival in 2011, I had to quickly pick up the essentials of the language in order to be able to effectively manage the crew. This left me with the ability to tell people to fertilise bunker surrounds, in Cantonese, but unable to order pork with rice in a restaurant. Since then, my language has progressed to a level where I can get by in most situations, although I still have a lot of room for improvement.
Since becoming superintendent, I have employed a local, tri-lingual Assistant Superintendent to ensure that ideas and instructions are communicated effectively and without confusion. When searching for an assistant, I had two main options: I could find someone with turf knowledge, but no language, or someone who could communicate with the staff, but with very little experience in turf. I chose the latter and am quickly bringing him up to speed with what is required to manage turf in this climate.
This is essential since, although golf is gaining popularity in Asia as a sport, the knowledge of the game amongst the general public and staff can fall a long way short of the expectations set by the club. Simple things, such as keeping quiet when golfers are hitting, may be done without instruction back home, but here you can often find yourself having to explain why a golfer may not enjoy having a backpack blower blasting away whilst he is attempting to escape from a greenside bunker.
As an extra challenge, the majority of staff do not hold a driving license and most new recruits have no driving experience at all. Teaching someone, twenty years your senior, to drive for the first time certainly shows how much patience you possess, and, as an upturned cart highlighted to me, also where your weaknesses in teaching are.
Alongside managing the course, I also run the club's internship programme. Established by the previous superintendent, Chris Chase CGCS, the internship programme gives high end club and warm season experience to those currently enrolled or recently graduated from Turf Degree programmes. The club has so far taken interns from the UK, USA, South Africa and China, with many of them now working as Superintendents or Assistants.
I arrived in Hong Kong as a part of the internship programme at the club, before progressing into an Assistant's position. Through some hard work and fortuitous timing, I now find myself in charge of the course and the same internship programme on which I started out.
It is one of the very few internship programmes for turf students running outside of the USA, and gives students a chance to see how turf can be managed in circumstances outside of the normal range, whilst also experiencing a culture which is totally different to what you will find back home.
Whilst I have future plans to continue to improve the course, time could be slowly running out. With land leases on some areas of the course approaching renewal, the club and Government are under pressure from local groups to redistribute the land so that new housing can be built.
Hong Kong continues to expand rapidly and, with available land at a total premium, there is a growing public feeling that a golf course is a luxury that will have to be forgone in order to provide places for people to live. The Government has commissioned a study to take place over the site in order to ascertain suitability. A final decision will be made over the next few of years, which will decide the fate of the course.
Whether it survives or not, I will be very happy to have been a part of the team which maintains the courses here. Every day brings a new challenge, and every day I feel as though I have learned something new. Courses featuring such a diverse array of challenges, whilst having such high expectations, are few and I am pleased to have the responsibility placed upon me.