In recent times, Southport Old Links Golf Club has built a new clubhouse and are currently undertaking major reconstruction work out on the course. This investment will help improve the aesthetics of the course and attract a broader range of golfers. Lee Williams met with Course Manager Tony Rimmer, who has been a very busy man since he joined over thirteen months ago, including the planning and managing of a redevelopment project.
The club is a nine-hole course situated in Churchtown, just ten minutes from the famous Royal Birkdale Golf Club. It is not the biggest, or indeed the best-known golf course, but it is among the oldest. Golf was first played here in the late 1800s, well before many of the area's bigger and more famous golf clubs got underway.
When it came to accepting the job, a pulling point for Tony was the club's army of volunteers and, over the last few months, he has really seen the value of those members that give up their valuable time to help. "You hear about people that say they love their golf club, well these guys go beyond that and show it in a big way. We have a small hardcore team of members who have worked with us throughout the pandemic, obviously socially distancing. With the major project we have been working on, we had up to thirty volunteers; both men and women, working on a rota basis. I take my hat off to one gentleman in particular, 'the Boss' (aka Will Baxter) who has grafted many hours every week helping the team out. To be fair though, they're all legends and we couldn't have achieved everything we have done without them."
I asked Tony what kind of jobs the volunteer members had been getting involved with. "They are currently painting car park fence panels, which is a light task compared to some heavy-duty work they have completed throughout the project. They've helped re-turf the new green and new tees in terrible weather conditions, which was hard work for any seasoned greenkeeper, never mind a volunteer. But, all credit to them; not one of them complained and they all just got on with it. I've affectionately nicknamed them 'Dads Army' as most of these guys are over sixty. Keeping the men fuelled up, volunteer members from the Ladies section would bring over cups of tea and coffee to keep us going. I want to say a big thank you to each and every one of the volunteers."
Right: Hardcore team of volunteers
Prior to joining Southport Old Links, Tony was made aware of an ongoing nuisance issue with a neighbouring household close to the line of play to the ninth and eighteenth closing hole. In his first few weeks at the club, he was tasked with helping to solve the issue and to put a plan in place. "Firstly I got in touch with Marc Westenborg, a golf course architect who I had previously worked with at Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club and with whom I had developed a very good working relationship. Designs were drawn up and presented to the greens committee and the Council, the question we got back was "When can we start?"
"I was fortunate to be able to bring in the highly skilled DAR Golf Construction, who I've also successfully worked with in the past alongside Marc, and it was great to get all three of us back together again. Following periods of torrential rainfall, we started the project in October 2020. The aim was to move the green approximately fifty yards down the fairway.
At the same time DAR were moving the green, local contractor Ian Rylands was tasked with progressing the second part of the project. "Their remit was to work on the fairway bunkers, plus the 1st, 10th, 9th and 18th tees. Alongside this work, the volunteers lifted and removed two and half thousand square metres of turf, which had to be laid out down the first and ninth holes before being lifted again and laid back down as part of the project."
For most courses, it has been a harsh winter up and down the country with heavy rain, frost and snow, and it was no different in the seaside town of Southport. Tony talks me through the difficulties such weather conditions have caused to the project. "We did not have the best conditions to work in, but it was a matter of just getting on with it. Luckily, amidst all the poor weather, we got a window to get the gravel bed down, ring the green with drainage pipe and then build up the rootzone layer supplied by Whitemoss Eco. By mid November, the race was on to get the turf back down as it had been lying around for two to three weeks. Again, the volunteers were called in to help and, once the green was completed, we started expanding out to the surrounds and the fairway approach; all this was carried out before Christmas."
"We then moved on to the ninth and eighteenth tees. A combination of problems had arisen whilst trying to move the project forward; the main one being weather, which was impacting our progress. Unfortunately, the maintenance track the heavy plant had been using for transporting material had started to disintegrate due to the influence of heavy rainfall, plus the local contractor had other commitments meaning the project ground to a halt before Christmas. Work commenced again at the end of January and we've been able to make steady progress, we're nigh on completion now."
"All the tees have now been shaped, irrigation installed and turfed. Again, top work as always from Anthony at Arden Lea Irrigation and Andrew Church at Lancashire Turf Supplies. Previously, we had a watercourse running in front of the first and tenth tees which has now been culverted. This has given us extra teeing ground with the addition of two stone headwalls making a feature either end of the pipe."
The clock was ticking for Tony and his team to complete as much of the outstanding work as possible before the course reopened at the end of March, which they did with success.
Southport Old Links is not your typical links course as it is situated two and a half miles from the coast, but it has many resembling features. "One thing that did stand out to me when I came to look at the course was the amount of fescue in the fairways - it's as good as any course you will see around here. The course is constructed on old farmland, which is relatively flat with a shallow sandy layer of rootzone and then a deep layer of peat." I asked Tony does the peat layer cause issues with drainage. "Yes, the course does have problems with drainage, but it also offers a slight advantage in summer as it seems to keep hold of the moisture, but I must admit I'm still trying to get my head around this whole peat thing."
Tony has worked on a few true links courses in his past and I was interested in getting his views on whether you can really class this course as a links, as the club's name suggests. "The fairways and greens I have managed in the past are not a million miles away from what I have to work with here. We get plenty of run on the ball and challenging bump and run shots into firm greens, hallmarks of links golf. We do not have the dunes unfortunately, which is a pity, as I love the nature of the dune landscape and what it brings to a links golf course. Instead, we have a large number of willow and silver birch and, needless to say, when we get some strong winds they shed branches and leave a lot of debris around - which adds to the workload!
The greens are predominantly push ups, again with a layer of sandy rootzone, with what Tony describes, as a darker material down below! "Some of the greens have drainage, which the lads have installed in recent years, this is something we will have to continue to address moving forward. The greens are primarily made up of bents, poa and a small amount of fescue. They have made a name for themselves for being in top form throughout the playing season (as they do on other courses along the line) and I have to keep that trend going. This did add extra pressure when I was interviewed for the job, but that's all good with me as I'm used to working with these types of greens."
When maintaining the greens through summer and winter, Tony likes to rely on the techniques and skills he has learned in his many years as a greenkeeper. "I have taken my philosophy into Southport Old Links, but I also base a lot of the work on the feedback the team give me with their greens' experience here at SOL. I have combined the two and last year, as we went through testing times, I found that I didn't have to push the greens too hard to get a standard I was happy with"
"Cutting heights vary depending what is required; I am pretty happy to go down to 3mm, but I mainly work around a height of 4mm whilst using groomers and verti-cutting techniques along the way. I'll recognise what the turf needs, what resources I have, how I can get the best out of everything available to me including the weather and basically run my decisions on that."
Left to right: Chris Sperrin, Darren Rimmer and Tony Rimmer
Talking with Tony and walking the course, I can clearly see his passion for the job and it shows with the quality of the greens I saw on my visit; he even 'listens' to the turf. "I know that's hard to believe, but it is something I encourage my staff to do. It is great to see what kind of reaction I get personally from the lads and what they feel the turf is telling them. it's a way of them gaining more knowledge in turf management, because I will then ask them for feedback. I like to be proactive as well as reactive in my approach."
Tony relies on the same philosophy he has in his approach to maintenance regarding the greens' feeding and aeration programmes. "This may go against the grain with many people, but I'm not a programme type of guy. Yes, you have an idea of what you want to do and where you want the turf to be at certain times of the year, but I thrive on knowing what the plant wants.... and what I want! Generally, we fit aeration in when we can; most of the verti-draining and hollow coring is carried out at the end of the season so as not to disturb the busy summer play. Last year was a bit different though, for an example at the end of March we solid tined the greens at a depth of 3 inches and undertook some remedial verti-draining on the fifth, eighth and practice putting green; they had been problematic with ponding over the winter. This was followed up with a topdressing of sand at around a tonne per green."
"I base my feeding and wetting agent applications on what I have done in the past. My go-to guy is Dave Weir from Rigby Taylor, who I have worked with for many years and who has become a trusted friend. At the start of the season, I always like to apply a base granular and then I will have a selection of liquids at my disposal to use throughout the playing season."
Like many clubs in the area, the course suffers with a variety of pests and diseases. "We have issues with leatherjackets, and a new one for me personally is chafer grubs. Unfortunately, we have had a lot of pecking on the greens and are now waiting to see how much damage we will actually get from the pests. Damage on the fairways has been minimal so far."
Ecology is an essential part of Tony's course maintenance and, using his experience, he aims to put a plan together to further enhance what is already in place. "Whilst at Southport and Ainsdale, I worked with Bob Taylor from the STRI who put an ecology plan in place. We spent many hours together and I gained a lot of knowledge from him and I hope to bring that experience to the Old Links."
"Prior to my arrival, the club had a woodland management plan drawn up, which is an excellent document. With the help of the volunteers, we have made a start on the plan and have been able to clear out scrub and open the place out a little bit. Further to this work, we dug out what we called a 'borrow pit', as we needed material for the shaping of the new green, bunkers and tees. We plan to keep the pit and it will now become a water feature that will attract a variety of wildlife onto the course."
"In this article, I have named a few people who have been instrumental to the ongoing work here at Southport Old Links this past thirteen months or so. But, it would not have been possible at all without the dedication and support of the staff and the Council at SOL. Paula, Daz, Chris, Andy, Jade, Paul R, Peter C, Dave R, Dave B and finance director Mr John Hall have gone all out to make ideas work. It's a team effort, so huge gratitude goes out to all these guys in what has been a truly eventful year."
What's in the shed
John Deere 3245C rough mower
John Deere 2500E hybrid greens mower
John Deere 2500B greens mower
John Deere 8700 fairway mower
John Deere Aercore 800
John Deere Aercore 1500
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D
Iseki TH4335 tractor
Iseki 5470 tractor with front loader
Wiedenmann Terra Spike
GreenTek greens groomer brush
Lloyds Paladin hand mowers x 2
Charterhouse Rapidcore 1600 aerator
SISIS Variseeder 1300
Dakota Turf Tender topdresser
Hardi 400 litre sprayer
Tru Turf greens roller
STIHL MS181 C-BE petrol chainsaw
STIHL MS231 petrol chainsaw
STIHL leaf blower
STIHL pressure washer
STIHL FS360 C-EM petrol brushcutters x 2