Jim McKenzie MBE, Director of Golf Courses and Estates Management at The Celtic Manor Collection, is the latest of our Keynote interviewees. He speaks to editor Kerry Haywood about how a bucket of water thrown over him one day paved the way to his career in the golf industry.
Pitchcare: Are you still hands on or do you generally oversee everything?
Jim McKenzie: I like to get out on the practical side whenever I can. Just last week, I had an afternoon whereby I had no meetings planned and managed to get out on the 2010 course to mow the approaches. Of all the directors and managers within the company, I'm the only one who doesn't wear a suit! If I came to work corporately dressed, I think it would give the impression that I'm not willing to help, whereas I can always jump in to lend a hand washing down machines or cutting where necessary and I think my team respect that. Having said this, about five years I got a bit of a shock when I had carried out some work on the course and one of the summer guys turned to me and said 'I didn't realise you were a greenkeeper' … so maybe I should do practical work more often? However, after half an hour of practical work now I realise that it hurts more as you get older to carry out physical tasks.
Were you interested in golf or any sports as a youngster?
I played football, as most kids did from the west of Scotland, and I also played a lot of golf from the age of twelve - which was when I first became attracted to the industry.
How did that lead you into this career?
Originally, I didn't want to get into golf, and I had spent time at school thinking that I wanted to work in the Forestry Commission. I liked the idea of jumping in the back of a Landrover and cutting trees down (it's at this point Jim asked me to picture the muscly guy from the Yorkie advert). However, my father died when I was just sixteen and, as the eldest of three boys, I felt it was important to be around for my mum and brothers, particularly as my mother didn't have immediate family close by. At that point (and without my mother knowing), I applied for a job to be a printer and, one Thursday afternoon, she returned home from work early and intercepted the letter from the Job Centre. This caused a blazing row, but I told her I'd made my mind up and was leaving school.
So, on the Friday, I lay in bed technically unemployed and my aunt came around to put some money in our rented television (this will make no sense to readers under the age of forty - but that was life). She realised I was in bed and proceeded to throw a large pan of water over me and dragged me to the Job Centre. It was on that day (in 1978), that I saw an advert for an apprentice greenkeeper at Haggs Castle, so went to the interview and got the position, where I stayed for the next six years. I was very fortunate that the Head Greenkeeper was Chris Kennedy, who later moved to the prestigious Wentworth Golf Club and, during this time, we held the Scottish Open where Bernard Langar won his first European Tour event and a grand total of £13,000. I then moved to Cawder Golf Club for three years on one of their courses where we hosted the Ladies European Tour and I gained a vast amount of experience working under Course Manager, Alistair Connoll.
Director of Golf Courses and Estates Management, Jim McKenzie MBE
From there, I went to Renfrew Golf Club and I got my first Head Greenkeeper position at this amazing place. It was one of the first modern style courses to be built in Britain by Commander John D Harris (Architect Extraordinaire), who only designed three courses for this country, and they all had the reputation of being very tough courses to play.
In 1990, I went back to work for Chris Kennedy at Wentworth as Head Greenkeeper on the West Course. Amongst many events, I was involved in three PGA Championships and three World Match Plays and stayed there for three years before joining Celtic Manor.
Chris had received a phone call from the Trent Jones Group, who were building the courses at Celtic Manor, and they were using George Shields to spec the materials. He had been involved in a couple of projects we carried out at Wentworth and had recommended me to Trent Jones. The rest, as they say, is history and I've been here for twenty-six years.
How many job titles have you had during this time?
I've had many titles throughout my time at the Club but the current one is probably the longest standing. In the early days, I was Construction Manager then I was Course Manager. Between 1999 and 2004, I was also Director of Golf which meant I also ran the shops and every aspect of golf operations, including memberships. I don't mind admitting that this was a time I didn't particularly enjoy! As a greenkeeper, despite the fact it's early starts and late finishes, you usually get home at night and have most of the weekend for family time; however, when I was Director of Golf, I would get phone calls at all times of the night to say a buggy had broken down or someone hadn't turned up for a shift etc. and it was never ending.
In 2003, we started to think about construction of the Wentworth Hills course which was built, developed and then subsequently closed down to build the 2010 Ryder Cup course. At that point, the job got much harder and, fortunately, I had a really good number two on the golf side, so he was promoted and I could concentrate on the Ryder Cup and Montgomerie construction.
Can you pinpoint the highlight of your career?
There's actually been a few. The first Head Greenkeeper position I got at Renfrew was certainly a pivotal point for me. Leaving home and going to Wentworth was another. And obviously coming here … meeting the owner of Celtic Manor for the first time, Terry Matthews, was a huge turning point. I had never met Terry before but, after half an hour in his company, if he had asked me to punch a hole in the wall, I would have replied 'do you want me to use my left or right hand'. He is so inspirational, and he's still involved to this day.
People always ask if the Ryder Cup was the highlight. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable week due to the pressures, and I think if you ask many greenkeepers who have been involved in tournament golf, they will all agree that they don't define your career. You learn so much during events such as the Open and Ryder Cup, but you will never be able to put those skills into practice again - unless you're fortunate enough to go to another tournament venue, but then it might not be the same anyway. I learnt so much and would do things a lot differently, if I ever got the chance again!
How has the industry changed since you joined?
The biggest thing is education. When I first joined the industry, opportunities were limited. It's with thanks to people like Cecil George (who recently passed) and a few others, that the education side was slowly ramping up. Certainly, over the last few years, there has been a lot of good education programmes at BTME and publications like Pitchcare all help to share information and educate.
The other major change is machinery. When I first started, we would drag mowers along banks and ditches without much in the way of health and safety provisions, and we certainly didn't have help from hydraulics like the machines of today. I think the job is much easier now with the help of technology. I actually have a couple of guys who complain with recurring back problems after sitting on machines for too long and, when they do something physical, they're not used to it. In my day, you were on the go all the time.
Another important change is the professionalism. When I first came into the industry, the PGA had done a great job in persuading clubs that the guy who sold the Mars bars, took the greens fees and held the odd lesson was a professional, and we greenkeepers weren't held in any regard. I think we are now viewed very differently.
The biggest, most recent change though is the non-certification of certain chemicals and how this effects maintenance and disease control. It's going to become harder over the next couple of years without moss killer, insecticides and worm control. There are new fungicides being released, and we wait with bated breath to see what they are, but the learning process will be a long one. I think it will be very different for people coming into the industry in five years' time, but this is going to be an interesting transition for all of us. We can't just say 'chemicals are gone, let's do something different.' It's going to take a long time to learn new methods and for the grasses and soil to adapt.
90% of the golfers who play here do so for the first time and the remaining 10% are members. Therefore, we only have one chance to make an impression and the stakes are high here. In the summer, the courses are busy from 7.00am right through to 4.00pm, which means I can't topdress or cut tees/fairways in the afternoon like private member clubs might do.
We have trialled a few of the new products coming into the market but it's very difficult to ascertain success to one particular method or product. These are not laboratory conditions, where you can set temperatures and conditions to be 100% certain what has worked. We currently buy a vast amount of BioMass Sugar from ALS and this seems to work well for us in conjunction with keeping the height of cut short (even throughout the winter months).
Do you have to treat each course differently?
There are very slight differences. The 2010 and Montgomerie courses are fairly similar given the USGA construction. However, the Roman Road course has old UGSA specifications which means we don't just have a gravel and sand profile, there is a choker layer in-between. These greens are designed so that the rootzone will fill up with moisture and, when it reaches capacity, will then drain away which means they are managed slightly differently to our other courses. We try to maintain the Montgomerie and Roman Road with a softer surface, as players on these courses (with a handicap of 12 upwards) want the ball to stop on the green.
What are staff levels for each course?
There are thirteen full-time team members who work on both the Roman Road and Montgomerie courses alongside a head greenkeeper, and then we also employ an additional eight seasonal staff. The 2010 course has a strong team of ten full-time staff, which includes the head greenkeeper, and they have an extra six team members for the summer. It's not as many as people think and, of those, only a third have previously worked on a golf course.
It's becoming increasingly difficult to recruit people into this industry as it's not a school leavers number one career choice, let alone trying to obtain qualified staff. That may be down to Wales being out on a limb in terms of location; however, in speaking to other clubs such as The Belfry, everyone seems to be experiencing the same issues. I would say, 80% of our recruitment over the last couple of years has been down to keeping on seasonal staff and effectively we've 'grown our own' by them completing our own in-house training programme.
Do you think social media is affecting recruitment in a negative way?
I'm not really sure about that! I think criticism from pundits about pitches and courses doesn't help. One of the interesting things about social media is that everyone only tends to promote things they're good at or projects that have gone well. For smaller clubs, with smaller budgets, I imagine this could be quite disheartening. Over the last few months, I've been thinking more about publicising things that we have tried that maybe haven't gone so well, which provides an opportunity for others to learn from our mistakes. Around twenty years ago, I remember speaking at an education seminar as part of BTME and discussing all the things I had done wrong … it was quite therapeutic to outwardly admit these things and put them behind you.
What's the one piece of advice you would give anyone joining the industry?
It would be to keep an open mind and expect the unexpected. I don't care how well you map your career out, it's never going to go according to plan. It's a rocky road and your direction will probably change multiple times, but stay true to yourself and your goals and you will get there.
Do you think the culture of communication has changed over the years?
Yes, definitely. Historically, greenkeepers would see each other at the odd golf day, or the occasional educational meeting and you didn't tend to share information. There was no social media back then, or mobile phones etc. which meant there was no way of getting in touch with other professionals. Now, you can reach hundreds of people at the press of a button and, whilst I'm at an age where I've come to accept this type of media, for the green staff of today it's second nature. I have an eight-year-old granddaughter who can find YouTube and Netflix on the TV quicker than I can, so it's a way of life for the younger generation.
What have been the biggest machinery developments throughout your career?
The biggest thing has been the introduction of hydraulics and the ability to easily operate equipment using hydrostatic drive for example. We're 100% Toro machinery here; the ProCore is by far my favourite piece of kit and the one we use the most often. The ability to solid tine, hollow core etc. makes life so much easier.
A lot of machinery now is being released with diagnostic features and, for me, that makes things a little bit too complicated. Particularly sprayers whereby you have to pay £3000-4000 every time the diagnostic box breaks down whereas, in years gone, you could just go out and buy a Hardi sprayer. All you needed to know was your speed, pressure and the nozzle output - that was it! And now it's getting more and more complicated for someone of my age.
What's your opinion of battery powered mowers?
I think they're definitely the way forward. We're not running pure electrics yet but we're already on hybrid fairway and green mowers. We pretty much follow the car manufacturers lead and that's obviously been driven forward over the last three to four years, however, I do feel that people will hold back a little bit until all the initial high costs and issues are ironed out. It's very rare that we go straight out and buy new technology now … after being burnt on a new all singing piece of kit a few years ago, I will always wait a couple of years now.
Do you have developments planned for the courses?
We have a special projects team and carry out all our redevelopments in-house, from planning to the construction, and we very rarely use outside contractors. We seem to spend a lot more time reconstructing bunkers than we do on greens, and we're always building new tees and extending greens etc. across all three courses. It's getting to the stage (maybe this coming winter) that we take a step back and say 'let's concentrate on the customer needs and catch our breath,' because we have been so busy over the last couple of years.
This has involved building new holes on the Roman Road course to facilitate the new £84.5m International Convention Centre and car parks. Wales currently gets less than 3% of the huge UK conference market and the new centre will encompass the largest conference room in Europe. It's a 50-50 venture between Celtic Manor and the Welsh Government and an opportunity to put Wales on the map. My gardens team have, so far, planted 16,500 trees around it which has been time consuming in itself.
What's been the biggest challenge/problem you have had to deal with over the years?
Currently, I would probably say the Human Resources aspect of the role. Dealing with lots of different people (from ages nineteen to sixty), all of whom have their individual needs and issues, can be really hard. No previous role or management training prepared me for this side of things. I am faced with an extensive array of issues that people expect me to sort out for them and that's becoming 30% of the job at the moment.
Three years ago, we unfortunately had a death on site and that's by far the most difficult day I have had in my career.
Is there anything you would do differently, professionally or personally, if you had the chance?
I can now look back on a couple of opportunities (in the early days) to go abroad, which I didn't take, and I always wonder where those would have taken me. Sometimes, when guys ask me about applying for other positions, I tell them to go for it. Learn new languages, experience different cultures and encourage them to do all the things I decided not to do.
I feel very fortunate that the Resort has developed around me into what's now known as the Celtic Manor Collection and I'm the only guy who has ever been in this post. The site has changed so much over the years … when I first came here it was going to be an 18-hole course with an 85-bedroom hotel. By the end of next year, we'll have 800 hotel rooms on site as well as many other attributes in the portfolio (over five sites) including: 3.5 golf courses and a further one in Canada, a country pub with bedrooms, ten lodges overlooking the 2010 course, a local estate we look after, a municipal course and the Coldra Court Hotel.
How would you sum up your career?
That's difficult. Every year, we hold a long service award ceremony and, last year, we had 189 years of service and experience on a table of ten staff. There's a lot of people that have been here a long time and it's been a privilege to work alongside them. To go to exhibitions such as BTME and catch up with friends I have made over the years (some who I've worked with at Celtic Manor) is a delight.
Do you have any regrets?
There isn't anything that keeps me awake at night, so that can't be a bad thing! Maybe, if Celtic Manor hadn't evolved into what it is now, I might think differently and that I should have gone abroad when I was younger. Someone said this to me a while ago, whilst sat with Terry Matthews: 'When you think there is light at the end of tunnel, it's usually a train coming the other way.' That has always stuck with me and you just have to keep going and developing in your personal life and career.