Live Chat Interview with David Whitaker MG Course Manager at The Wisley Golf Club
Dave Saltman: Good evening and welcome to all of the members. Tonight we are pleased to have Dave Whitaker MG, Course Manager at The Wisley Golf Club in Surrey, Good evening Dave, thank you for joining us tonight.
Dave Whitaker: Hello Dave, it's a pleasure to be here.
Dave Saltman: Perhaps you could give us a brief outline of the golf facilities at the club.
Dave Whitaker: The Wisley Golf Club consists for a 27 hole private members golf club. There are no other associated sports facilities.
Dave Saltman: Wisley is renowned as an exclusive club, why is that so?
Dave Whitaker: Wisley is owned by 700 shareholders (the members). The club has a policy that does not allow other golfers to visit, so there are no societies or green fee golf.
Dave Saltman: How is the club financed then, by the shareholders?
Dave Whitaker: Yes, annual dues are decided ultimately by the board of Directors and these dues obviously have to cover the complete running costs of the facility
Dave Saltman: The running costs will include your annual maintenance budget-do you get adequate funding?
Dave Whitaker: The maintenance of the golf course currently runs at about £1 million per year including all staff costs, maintenance, improvement work and depreciation. However, members are very demanding and we do have a large "wish list" of things which are not always affordable
Dave Saltman: £1million is a lot of money, particularly for 27 holes, how many staff do you employ and what is the expectation of the club in return for that outlay?
Dave Whitaker: We employ about 30 staff on the course, and for this the members expect conditions and service levels to be comparable to the best resorts around the world.
Dave Saltman: How do you manage disruptive maintenance work on the course, whilst providing the highest standards of play?
Dave Whitaker: We are very fortunate with 27 holes (3 loops of 9), which allows 9 holes to be closed each Monday during the playing season. During the winter we also have flexibility to close 9 holes for the season if work levels require it.
Dave Saltman: A member asks: What's on your 'wish list'?
Dave Whitaker: Varies depending on time of year, some include: Drainage, Irrigation, Drinking water fountains, Golf buggy paths, lightening shelters, increased landscaping etc. Probably no different to any other golf course!
Dave Saltman: What remedial works have you done this winter and did that close part of the course?
Dave Whitaker: 9 holes have been closed from November, We have "re-surfaced" 9 greens as part of our poa annua control programme, built 2 new tees, installed over 1500m of drainage pipe, re build several bunkers. Installed brick edge trackway and planted about 300 trees and thousands of shrubs.
Dave Saltman: That's a fair amount of work-are these now complete and if not when will the course re-open? Are you pleased with the works carried out?
Dave Whitaker: Work was delayed in January by heavy rain and localised flooding but we are now on schedule for opening in the middle of April with only paths to install and bark chipping of new landscape areas.
Dave Saltman: A member asks: what range of turf machinery do you have on site?
Dave Whitaker: We have a vast range of equipment probably too long to list however, about 7 hectares of turf are hand mowed with Toro 1000, 1600 and flex mowers. Fairways are mowed with ride on triple units (with clippings boxed). Green, tees and fairways are regularly hollow tined and top dressed with a fleet of 3 Multi-core machines and various top-dressers. I hope that gives a flavour of our type of machinery.
Dave Saltman: And a flavour for the work that you and your staff undertake, it sounds like a massive operation, is it difficult to plan ahead?
Dave Whitaker: Yes , during the playing season we basically manage 14 hectares of fairway turf in a similar manner to that normally undertaken for greens only maintenance. Planning is usually easy, however I obviously place large demands on my key staff to ensure that work is carried out to the correct standard and time frame. Our two biggest problems are not surprisingly weather, and members expectations.
Dave Saltman: Just going back, you mentioned poa annua control, this is an enormous problem for most of us, but you seem to have taken poa to task more than most Green keepers, including hand weeding?
Dave Whitaker: We are fortunate to have a Board of Directors who are committed to the principles of have a predominantly poa free sward, and are able to provide the finances necessary to deal with this problem. Cultural measures like hand weeding and re turfing are very expensive as well as disruptive.
Dave Saltman: A member asks: if a contractor is brought in for a bigger job, do you find opposition from members in that they question why it needs to be done, and are they hard to convince?
Dave Whitaker: We rarely find a need to bring in outside contractors and most jobs such as irrigation installation and greens construction etc are carried out in-house. However, we do often have the problem of convincing the members of why a job is necessary and why it costs so much.
Dave Saltman: No different to other clubs in that respect, when would you bring in outside contractors then?
Dave Whitaker: Only if the project work load was so large that undertaking it in-house would compromise general standards of maintenance or if very skilled work is necessary and outside the scope of our own team.
Dave Saltman: An earlier question asked about the level of machinery-how often do you carry out tasks such as aeration, scarifying, verti-cutting etc?
Dave Whitaker: Fine turf areas (greens, tees fairways) are generally verti-cut and top dressed every 3 weeks. Liquid fertiliser is applied every 2-4 weeks. We hollow tine about 3 times per year. Our programme is very flexible, and although hollow tining dates for greens are fixed in the members calendar in advance other procedures are decided on an ad-hoc basis.
Dave Saltman: A member asks: have you ever wanted to get involved in other sports?
Dave Whitaker: In my early years in training I also worked on Football, Rugby, Cricket and Lawn Tennis although only at club level. Wisley involves the management of a 110 Hectare site and I find the job more enjoyable because of all the varied aspects of the work .
Dave Saltman: How do you determine your fertiliser regime?
Dave Whitaker: Over the past few years we have worked with most types of fertiliser programmes. I now find that by applying small amounts of nutrients through a liquid spray programme, I can regulate growth better, respond to problems quickly and tailor the programme around the disruptive practices we talked about earlier.
Dave Saltman: Yes, but do you do soil analysis and what type of fertilisers do you use generally.
Dave Whitaker: We do not use soil analysis on a regular basis, and only if we encounter problems. With regard to actual products, we depend mainly on "straight" products like prilled urea, potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate with the addition of iron and magnesium on a routine basis.
Dave Saltman: All of these products sound granular-how do you apply them as a liquid feed?
Dave Whitaker: We have our own mixing machine to dissolve the products quickly. The mix then goes through a custom built filter system before entering the spraying machine. Wetting agents or growth regulators are often added at this time combining two sprays in to one.
Dave Saltman: A member asks: with so many staff, do you have days when there is nothing to do for all of them?
Dave Whitaker: Never, in fact we also bring in temporary help in the summer and staff often work overtime. But I should explain further. Golf is a 7 day per week, 365 days per year sport. Staff work long hours in the summer covering full maintenance programmes at weekends as well as during the week. A large amount of time is accumulated and taken as time in lieu in the winter.
Dave Saltman: Sorry to chop and change the questions, but on the use of fertilisers do you find this system far more effective than traditional applications of bagged compound fertilisers?
Dave Whitaker: Yes, our regime uses small doses of quick release fertilisers. I feel that I am in more control and requirements can be judged on a day to day basis without the question mark of possible delayed release of "slow release fertilisers". It is obviously much cheaper as well.
Dave Saltman: With the trickle feed, do you have much of a problem with diseases such as fusarium and leaf spot etc?
Dave Whitaker: My personal view is that disease pressure can be reduced by correct management of nutrients, and whilst I would be the first to admit that I don't always get it right I am confident that day to day management is the key.
Dave Saltman: What kind of grass mix do you use for your fairways, tees and greens?
Dave Whitaker: Greens have been re-turfed with Penn A4 creeping bentgrass. Tees and fairways are predominantly Penncross creeping bent although invaded by Poa annua and Yorkshire Fog. Primary and Semi roughs are 100% dwarf Rye.
Dave Saltman: Keeping on the same note a member asks: what are your views in the use of rye grasses on greens?
Dave Whitaker: I can see a great future for further use of Rye, but I have not personally used or seen it used in greens. I do hope to seed a nursery plot this year.
Dave Saltman: Do you think that the new rye cultivars can produce the right playing qualities and green speeds required?
Dave Whitaker: I think this depends on the requirements of the club. If new Rye's can produce a better surface than what the club currently has it can only be a good thing. In the case of Wisley we mow at 2.5mm producing a daily green speed of 10ft. I doubt if Rye can yet do that.
Dave Saltman: A member asks: how committed is the club regarding staff training?
Dave Whitaker: The club has a strong commitment to training, and it is the only way that Wisley can achieve it aims of highest possible standards of maintenance.
Dave Saltman: Are you able to retain staff, particularly once they have been trained?
Dave Whitaker: At the moment we have high staff retention levels, although as you can imagine some staff turn over is good because it allows a chance of internal promotion.
Dave Saltman: Going back to the course maintenance, what is the soil make up and what types and amounts of dressing do you use?
Dave Whitaker: The natural top soil is a fine sand with silt deposits left from historic flooding of the river Wey. We have had a policy of top dressing the 100% sand as part of a long term drainage improvement programme. During the summer season we often apply 100 tonnes of sand to 9 holes of fairways each 3 weeks if weather and ground conditions are good.
Dave Saltman: That's a lot of sand, have you got shares in the local pit?
Dave Whitaker: I'm still working on that one!!
Dave Saltman: How intensive is your maintenance of the greens, given that the mowing height is 2.5mm?
Dave Whitaker: Mowing is one of our biggest problems. Its almost impossible to work top-dressing in to the sward when mowed at that height. The mechanic often replaces bottom blades after only 10 days use. Brushing and light verticutting form the main part of the programme combined with careful hand watering and rolling at weekends to increase speed as necessary.
Dave Saltman: I'd imagine that mowing at that height would keep the mechanic very busy grinding-is that a bench set height?
Dave Whitaker: That is the bench set height although it sometimes goes down to 2mm and up to 4mm during the winter season. Two mechanics are employed and we try to rotate one Greenkeeper through the workshop on a weekly basis.
Dave Saltman: With regards to your winter work, can you explain a little more about the re-turfing of the greens?
Dave Whitaker: From initial construction of the greens in 1989, we instigated a hand weeding programme. Eventually the level of poa became too much to economically remove. We have since re turfed all greens over the past 3 years and instigated a new hand weeding regime. The clubs currently policy (although it may change) is to re turf greens again when hand weeding becomes non viable.
Dave Saltman: Can you elaborate on how you undertake the re-turfing of the greens please Dave?
Dave Whitaker: Nine holes were closed each November. Turf was cut about 60mm deep to ensure any old thatch was removed at the same time. After turf removal a second cut was made in some low lying areas where thatch was found to be a bit deeper. Levels were finally checked to ensure adequate surface fall before re-turfing with the new sward. Surrounds were also lifted and relayed and shaping in levels. A Rye collar was also laid at the same time to help act as a cultural barrier to poa invasion.
Dave Saltman: Was the turf grown specifically for use at Wisley?
Dave Whitaker: Yes, the turf was pre ordered and grown to our specification. Good forward planning is obviously important to the success of such a programme.
Dave Saltman: Indeed it is, a member asks: do you and the staff get the chance to play the course?
Dave Whitaker: All staff are encouraged to play Wisley. We have two tee off times each day Monday to Friday and have some organised internal competitions.
Dave Saltman: Is the landscaping as important to the club members as the upkeep of the course?
Dave Whitaker: The playing surface is of primary importance, but the club also places a large emphasis on landscape maintenance. We use to operate with a dedicated staff of 4 gardeners, but this has now been reduced with most tasks being completed as part of the Greenkeepers roll. The landscape work is continually expanding and if we counted man-hours it would equate to 5 - 6 full time staff.
Dave Saltman: Two members have asked: what does MG stand for?
Dave Whitaker: MG stands for Master Greenkeeper and is awarded by the BIGGA following accreditation of prior learning, and course inspection and formal written examination.
Dave Saltman: Thank you David, it has been a real pleasure to have you here this evening, so on behalf of the members and myself thank you and good luck for the coming season.
Dave Whitaker: Thanks Dave, I have enjoyed the evening look forward to listening to your next interview. Keep up the good work with Pitchcare.
Dave Saltman: Goodnight