In his own words, Kenny Mackay 'got lucky', but it could only be through hard work and determination. He spoke to Kerry Haywood about his career path and life now at Wentworth Club.
Pitchcare: What is your official title?
Kenny Mackay: Since March this year, I have held the title of Director of Golf and Greenkeeping at Wentworth Club.
What sports were you involved with in your younger days - did you play golf?
I come from East Kilbride near Glasgow and football was 'the' sport we played the most. But I played everything really, usually depicted by what was on television at the time … when Wimbledon was on I played tennis and, when there were major golf tournaments, I wanted to play golf. I think that's a trend that still happens with the youth of today which can only be a good thing!
How did you become a greenkeeper and what was your career progression?
It was through my love of golf. I played a lot when I was in my late teens and subsequently applied for a few PGA assistant positions, but they never amounted to anything. So, over the next few years, I got into the industrial trade and worked as an apprentice builder, but I didn't like that, and it didn't last long! I then turned my hand to bar work and anything really to pay the bills until, at the age of twenty-seven, my passion for golf was still at the forefront of my career wishes and I enrolled in a full-time greenkeeping course at Elmwood College. I was lucky enough to get a placement at St. Andrews on the Old Course and, from there, I moved to the London Golf Club in Kent, where they were constructing two courses. It was there that I worked my way up the ladder pretty quickly, gaining various qualifications along the way, including management levels, leading to my position as Deputy Head Greenkeeper at Hanbury Manor Golf Club. In 1997, six years after giving up the bar career, I was Head Greenkeeper at Hanbury which was a really fast progression. I think my golf background helped and an element of being that little bit older as well as being in the right place at the right time!
Next, I moved to the Midlands as Head Greenkeeper of Forest of Arden Marriott Hotel & Country Club for two years and this led to me becoming the Group Golf Courses Manager for their sixteen hotels and courses. During this time, and now in my mid-thirties, I travelled round all the sites dealing with capital, investments, operational budgets etc. and I undertook a business school qualification. In 2005, Sean Quinn bought the Belfry Hotel and Golf Resort and my name was put forward to join the team. That was an important part of my progression to Wentworth as it's 54 holes, a huge golf estate and meant I was working on European Tour events so, when this position came up, I was fully equipped to take on the opportunity. It was always my dream to get here as I consider it the Real Madrid of golf courses, so when I got this position all the hard work was worth it.
Left: Director of Golf and Greenkeeping, Kenny Mackay
How long have you worked at Wentworth?
I started here in April 2012 and have held my current title since March 2019.
What would you consider has been the highlight of your career so far?
The pinnacle has to be getting to Wentworth. Over the last two years, we have taken the club to another level and it's so rewarding to see that happen and be a part of it. Where else would I want to be?
How has the industry changed over the years?
It's changed an awful lot; I think the biggest being in presentation. In the last ten years, machines and the technology behind them have improved so much, allowing us to present the course as we do. The biggest challenge for me is keeping up with the developments.
Do you find the skillset of youngsters coming into the industry is very different today because of the technology available?
Absolutely. With phones and apps being able to speak to machines and identify what's wrong, the need for in-depth machinery knowledge is no longer a requirement … which isn't a bad thing, but it's very different to when I trained.
Hard at work on the 18th hole
What machinery developments have helped you the most?
I think the biggest thing going forward will be the use of GPS precision sprayers. The likes of the John Deere AutoTrac increases application accuracy and consistency, lowers input costs through reduced overlaps and misses, helps protect the environment and increases productivity by reducing operator fatigue.
What's your favourite piece of kit?
When I was hands-on day in day out, I always loved using pedestrian mowers and hand cutting the greens; there was something walking behind the mower then standing back to appreciate what you had achieved. I also really enjoyed changing holes.
So, what does your day consist of now you're not doing the practical?
Dan Clarke, Golf Courses Manager has everything under control, but I still like to get out on the course - especially when there's a big event coming up. I also liaise regularly with Grounds Manager, Paul Robinson, to ensure that everything is running smoothly across the site and that members are happy, as that's our main aim! I'm based up in the Clubhouse now, so I have a lot of interaction with members, so the relationship is very strong and they like the fact they see me around to pass on any comments. I also oversee a lot of the customer service side of things such as concierge, retail shop, golf pros etc - there are a lot of touch points now and I oversee them all, so it keeps me busy. Currently, the retail side of things is my biggest challenge as I'm not so used to that. I'm very lucky that I live on site and I can just fall out the door, but that does also mean that I spend a lot of time at work - usually around twelve hours per day! That doesn't matter though when you love your job as much as I do.
Left: John Deere precision sprayer. Right: Golf Courses Manager, Dan Clarke
There have been many changes to the West Course over the past couple of years … have these all been finalised and received well?
In golf, you're always looking to see what you can do next on the course, but it would only be minor changes such as fine-tuning woodland/heather or changing the cut around the green etc. The guys are currently carrying out drainage improvements, but we certainly wouldn't be digging anything up again or adding bunkers.
I read you've spent over £165k per bunker. Is this true?
That's 100% fake news. We spent nowhere near that! The biggest outlay and also the biggest improvement by far was the installation of the SubAir system. It wasn't at the top of my list when I had it, but it's absolutely fantastic. People know about it, people talk about it, and we're lucky enough to have it. It's not something you can do retrospectively because of the sheer amount of power cables and disruption, so I'm so glad we did it at the time.
As home of the BMW PGA Championship, I presume this comes with a lot of added pressure?
There's always pressure with tournament golf. We have delivered for the past couple of years, and we're Wentworth so that comes with it's own pressures of performing. In June this year, we were delighted to announce our partnership with John Deere in the exclusive supply of greenkeeping and grounds machinery. This agreement represented a significant investment to ensure our fleet is always at the leading edge of technology and innovation and played a huge part in this year's tournament.
Early morning preparations during the BMW PGA Championships
The 2019 tournament moved from May to September, how did this affect preparations?
In all honesty it didn't make much difference. The main change during the tournament was having to use lighting rigs from hole to hole due to lack of daylight and ensuring the players got round and finished before it got dark. Once they were all finished, the team were out there, making sure the course was ready for the next day - which was more challenging than before in the dark! Going forward, I think the timing later in the year is a positive. It means we've had a whole season of golf and growth, rather than getting it ready in April when it's been wet and the course isn't quite ready. Having said that, if we had a summer like 2018 and the drought that went with it, we might struggle.
Is there anything you would have done differently, professionally and personally?
I honestly don't think so! I got lucky, but you equally have to work hard and prove yourself in order to get lucky. I had an ambition to get to Wentworth and I got here. I'm still progressing my career within the business and I can't ask for more than that.
What's the best part of your job?
The Club and the people at Wentworth are fantastic … from the staff right through to members, and being a part of this is a great feeling. It's an old club but it doesn't have that traditional feeling and everyone that works here wants to be here and the members are so friendly.
And the worst?
The weather obviously is something beyond anyone's control. There is no worse a feeling than when you have worked so hard in preparations for a tournament and then you get bad weather. We've been quite lucky (touch wood) but you just never know and can't plan for it.
Partnership with John Deere announced in June 2019
How would you raise the profile of greenkeeping and sports turf in general within the media?
I'm unsure what people outside of the industry think working on a golf course entails and I think they are usually shocked by the intricacies of the work involved. We've got a very big challenge as an industry to get into schools and promote ourselves. As well as trying to get a link into a couple of universities in the UK, we're also actively talking to one of the big universities in the US who do intern programmes. It may not be the case that school leavers want to be greenkeepers, but if they want to be involved in the greenkeeping industry in some way, we want Wentworth to be at the forefront of driving this initiative. This winter, my aim is to do some presentations and get some energy going around the Wentworth Intern Programme and I'm hopeful that it will be strong and pave the way for the years ahead.
Do you think those steps would encourage young people into the industry?
We have already signed a couple of people onto the programme and we hope that it will pay dividends in the future. We are also keen to employ more local labour - mainly because we believe they are likely to train and stick around - rather than moving on to other positions. We recently held a recruitment open day, which the industry has never really done before, but was very successful. It was held on a Saturday and provided an opportunity for the interested parties to watch presentations, see how we work, have tours of the courses and ask questions etc. Of the twelve persons who attended, we hired eight and an instant bond was formed amongst them from going through that process. I would encourage more courses to do a similar thing for recruiting purposes and think a little differently about how we promote ourselves.
Left: SubAir station. Right: West course
What advice would you pass on to youngsters getting into the industry?
Work hard and learn as much you can. Always ask questions of peers as they should always want to pass on their knowledge. Education and networking are so important. I'm such a dinosaur when it comes to social media and youngsters do it so well they show me up!
Thank you for your time.