On a beautiful summer's day, a round of golf at one of Yorkshire's oldest golf courses, in a picturesque setting along the banks of the River Wharfe, is hard to beat. The river provides a natural water hazard and a challenge to all golfers; coming into play on eight holes, it has wrecked many a scorecard. But the beauty of the river is one of the Club's biggest assets and creates unique holes like the par three 3rd which is situated entirely on an island with the river meandering down both sides of the hole.
A river runs through it!
Ilkley Golf Club lies at the southern boundary of North Yorkshire, just outside the town of Ilkley in West Yorkshire; the River Wharfe forming a natural boundary between the two counties. It was founded in 1890 and is the third oldest golf club in the historic county of Yorkshire.
In 1898, as golf started to grow in popularity, work began on a new course alongside the River Wharfe, one of the fastest rising and falling rivers in the country. Today's course is mainly a tribute to the combined architectural skills of Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt.
As you might expect, the biggest problem in the winter months is flooding. The club suffered major flooding last year with the water levels on the course as deep as six feet in places. Head Greenkeeper Duncan Campbell tells me each flood brings problems, but the main issue is the amount of silt left behind on the greens, tees and fairways that have to be cleared up once the flood subsides. "Clean up comes with practice, and we do have a system in place that we have developed over the years," begins Duncan. "We start with the greens. This, for us, usually means pressure washing the silt out of the greens with the drain jetter that has an adaptor for the power washing. Other methods we use are running the irrigation and squeegeeing the silt off and, if we are lucky, we may only need to switch a green off."
Head Greenkeeper Duncan Campbell
"There are different clean-up levels depending on how long the river stays up, how fast the silt settles and various other things. Once the greens and tees are clear, we will assess the situation and work out the best route for the tractors to reduce any damage when clearing up the fairways and bunkers, which are done last. The main thing is to get as much done as you can to get golf back on the course as quickly as possible."
I asked Duncan how high the floodwaters can get and how much of the course ends up underwater when they get a significant flood. "A golf flag is six foot, and you can barely see the top of it on some greens. Out of eighteen holes, there are two holes - fourteen and fifteen - that are unaffected. We have sixteen greens that will end up under the water."
Whilst on our walk of the course, I asked Duncan to show me where they dump the silt they have cleaned up. I was shocked at the mound's size and how many tonnes of silt they must have to move. What was more shocking is that it was only what they had moved last year. "In February, it flooded twice within ten days, and we took around two hundred and fifty tonnes off one fairway. When it flooded on November 2nd last year, we took another one hundred and fifty tonnes off."
"We have devised an operation which includes using our three-tonne digger to scrape and remove it. We have a power brush to help us brush it clean, and we hire in a fourteen-tonne digger to pile it up into a big heap."
The 18th green. Floodwater almost six feet high / Looking across the 18th from the clubhouse
After seeing the pictures of the mess left behind, hearing about the amount of work he and his lads must do to clear the course and the floods becoming a more regular occurrence, this must have a demoralising effect on Duncan and his team.
"That is the nature of Ilkley Golf Club; we have become accustomed to it over time. We have been there many times and got the t-shirt. Over the years, we have got the clean-up operation down to a fine art. As I say, it is nature and we can now get the majority of the course back in play within a few days. The members are happy with this and accept that it is a flood and the course is not going to be perfect."
Duncan and his team certainly seem to take any flooding in their stride. "I am fortunate to have a great team working alongside me, many of whom have been with me for over twenty years. Even the newer members of the staff are not afraid or phased by the amount of work involved in cleaning up after a flood and just get on with it and get stuck in".
This positive attitude is crucial in returning the course to play as soon as possible, but also to a high standard for the busier summer months when the Club often play host to regional and county matches and events. It is also a popular venue for corporate golf days and visiting parties.
This was never more evident than last year when, following the floods in March and the challenges presented by the first national lockdown when only essential course maintenance was permitted, the Club were offered the opportunity to host a major Senior Professional tournament at only nine weeks' notice. The inaugural Welcome to Yorkshire Senior Classic, hosted by Ian Woosnam, attracted some of the biggest names in Senior Professional golf to Ilkley for a two-day event with a double shotgun start Pro-Am on day one, followed by the Professional tournament on day two.
The clean up begins / Silt piled up after the November floods
With an intensive works programme in place and lots of hard work and overtime, Duncan and his team prepared a course that was widely acclaimed by the professionals, including former Ryder Cup Captains Ian Woosnam and Mark James, as well as current Solheim Cup Captain, Catriona Matthews. Many of the Club's members also commented that they had never seen the course in better condition. All this in the most turbulent of years.
Duncan, perhaps modestly, said; "we got a bit of a break with the weather in the run up to the event and it worked well for all the maintenance and preparation work that we had planned. The team worked extremely hard and put the hours in, working evenings and weekends at times. We were also very grateful to the team of volunteer members that turned up on the week of the tournament to help put the finishing touches to the course. It all came together, and I think everyone was pleased with the result. It was a real highlight in a difficult year".
Being next to the river, the general soil structure ranges from predominantly sand for the first seven holes to clay further up, then silt, and stone and silt at the top end. The greens are soil-based push ups which have not changed since the club first opened. The fourteenth and fifth greens had a drainage system installed long before Duncan joined the club and the other sixteen have no drainage at all. "The ones with no drainage seem to drain alright but, because we are in a flood plain, our drainage levels are governed by the river and are hellishly low. Richard Sharrock from Danvic Turf Care Ltd has just recently been in to look at a drainage job for me, and I have just learned from him that the river authorities take a dim view of you draining directly into the river. They want it to flow into a slow-release area, so if we want to drain a fairway, we will have to drain it into a pond or wetland that then releases the water slowly into the river."
The Ilkley team from left to right: Duncan Campbell, David Featherstone, Craig Ramplin, Tom Day, Nick Holmes and Marcus Orrell
As we talk through Duncan's maintenance regime on the greens, one thing stands out to me is that he insists on hand mowing them all year round. "We cut with Baroness LM56 hand mowers; we do not use a triple. We do have one in the shed for emergencies or if we are pushed for time, but it is very rare. Three lads will cut the greens seven days a week in summer at the height of 4mm. In the winter, we will cut when needed, lifting the height to 6mm. We do not undertake as much scarifying as we used to; we moved towards using the verti-cutters once a month, but we have recently been using the rotary and zig-zag brushes. I do not see the need to stress out the plant, especially at the start of the year when it is already under stress from its natural environment. After the floods in February last year, we did not get any growth until the back end of June."
"Aeration wise, we have a Toro ProCore, and we try and spike them once a month with 8mm tines at full depth. I am a great believer that, if you are spiking, you want to go down as deep as possible. A lot of greenkeepers now focus on the surface and not what is underneath. If we are verti-draining, again, we will go to full depth. You have to be brutal in your approach and get as much out of it as possible. That is why they design and manufacture tines as long as they do. It may be a bit old school now with the advancements in machinery, but I like to do a lot of slitting, which we have done for years using our old Huxley slitter attached to the Cushman."
Ilkley's 12th and 13th holes
"We have to have blades made up for it, and they are big and brutal and give us a depth of seven to eight inches. I am a great believer in slitting as much as you can when it is dry from September to October. Once we get to the end of October, we do not touch the greens with any spiker until the end of March. The key when aerating the greens is to vary the depths to avoid creating a pan. A machine I have been very impressed with is the Charterhouse OxyShot which we have been hiring in to treat our problem areas, and it has done a great job."
Duncan likes to take advantage of the school summer holidays. As soon as they come around at the end of July, he carries out his renovations on the greens as he believes most people seem to go on holiday then. "This is the best time for us to make a mess of them so to speak and, by the time everyone is back in September, they are back to their best. We have used the Graden on the greens for the last six years, but we missed last year for the first time. The process has benefitted our greens tremendously with them being push-ups."
The club is investing heavily this year in a new irrigation system to replace the old Toro system initially installed in 1976. In 1996, they replaced the wiring and valve boxes, but they have been getting a lot more breakdowns and leaks in recent years, and it was decided it was time to replace the whole system.
"Full Circle started work in January and it will be a sixteen-week project if all goes well. If we get a flood it could be twenty weeks and, if we get another after that, it could be twenty-four! It will great once the all singing all dancing system is put in as we have a mish-mash of sprinkler heads around the course and some are forty years old."
The 16th and 18th holes at Ilkley
For many years, the club's policy has been to buy all their machinery outright, no matter what it is or the cost, but this may change. "We are now starting to look towards a little bit of leasing with machines getting more expensive, along with other expenses around the course like the new irrigation system and drainage work. Machines we would look to lease in the future would be what I call frontline machines, for example, the fairway, rough, surrounds and greens mowers. Machinery such as tractors tend to last longer, and you could even lease them for over ten years."
"The bulk of our equipment is Baroness, and we do have a little bit of Toro. I would not say I am loyal to any one manufacturer, but we do like the Baroness brand as we find the machines are well built, the quality of the cut is excellent, and they are reliable. Some people might not like this, but I believe you should not look at the name on the bonnet or the colour of the machine, instead look at what each machine gives you and choose what is best for your site."
Worm casts have become a big problem for many golf courses since products that we knew were effective have been taken off the market and Ilkley is no different. "I have trialled six or seven different worm products that are currently available, and I have not seen good enough results from any of them where I would be comfortable in asking the club to spend thousands of pounds. We have had to look at cultural control methods, and we have bought a big 18ft, Wiedenmann Terra Rake which does a great job on the fairways when the worm casts are dry. We also use it to clear up after the floods. The unfortunate problem is that, since June last year, the weather has not wanted to turn dry, so you end up smearing the worm cast out when you have to cut."
What's in the shed?
Baroness LM2700 fairway mower
Baroness LM331 tees mower
Baroness LM56C pedestrian mowers x 2
Baroness GM2800 rotary mower
Allett Buffalo 24 cylinder mower
Toro Greensmaster 3250 x 2
Toro Reelmaster 3100D x 2
Toro Reelmaster 5610D
Toro Procore 660 aerator
Toro ProCore 648
John Deere hydraulic gang mower
Cushman Turf Truckster
Iseki TK546 tractor
Kubota RTV 990
TYM T443 tractor
Deutz Fahr Agroplus 310 GS tractor
Lely greens iron
Wiedenmann Terra Rake
SISIS HD spiker
SISIS Veemo MkII
SISIS Scarifier MkIV
Huxley HU84 slitter
Flymo XL500 petrol hover mowers x 2
Trilo leaf blower
Wessex 3 tonne trailer
Billy Goat truck loader
Gambetti tractor mounted sprayer