Silloth on Solway Golf Club is one of the best hidden golfing gems in England. Situated on the Cumbrian coast, the course is blessed with stunning views of the Galloway Hills to the north, south to the Lakeland fells and, in the distance, the Isle of Man. Lee Williams met with Brian Story, the club's Course Manager who has been carefully manicuring the course to perfection for nearly forty years.
From a young age, Brian knew what career path he wanted to take when leaving school in 1983. He believes he is one of the few at that age who actually thought about being a greenkeeper; so much so, he told the careers officer that was what he wanted to do. His mother had other ideas and wanted him to work with his older brother, who was a manager at a cellophane factory. "I ended up going there on a YTS scheme at the back end of eighty-three, and I spent all winter hating the job (although I did meet the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited on the company's fifty year celebrations). It was a good education though as I got to see what life is like in a factory, and it made me even more determined to follow my chosen career path."
I asked Brian how he discovered greenkeeping and how he got his first job? "When I was twelve years old, I had a mate who was a nine-handicap golfer, and he introduced me to the game. Also, I was always interested in how the pitches were presented when I watched football matches like the FA Cup on TV. My first passion though (at sixteen), was to be a professional golfer but I realised pretty quickly that I did not have the nerve."
"A job came up here at Silloth, and my mum still wasn't keen about me wanting to pursue a career in greenkeeping. There was very little money in it at that time, and the club was not doing very well and was in the red. They had borrowed money for the original irrigation system in 1979 and were struggling to pay it off."
Despite concerns from his mother and the club's lack of funds, Brian took the opportunity to join the greenkeeping team. He quickly realised there was no actual structure in place, especially when it came to the training of staff. "I wanted to go to Elmwood College who were advertising courses in sportsturf, but I could not convince the club to send me as they did not have the money and, at that time, it meant seven weeks away from work. It eventually took me four years to convince them to allow me to enrol at the college/complete the course, and that was thanks to a schoolteacher who was on the committee. I told him what I wanted to do and, in the end, they let me carry out a distance learning course in supervisory/management provided by Elmwood College."
"I worked hard to show what I could do, and I achieved the second student award; this convinced them investing in training was the right way to go. You could say I then took a step backwards and did three years at Elmwood and gained my National Certificate. In all three of those years, I was nominated for top student of the year. This led to me being nominated for the Toro Student Greenkeeper award in my second and third years, where I got to the finals each time. At the second attempt, I won it and, at the same time, I was made course manager in 1991."
Once out on the pure links course, you could be mistaken for thinking you are in the middle of a traditional straight out straight back course in Scotland. I was taken aback by the stunning views throughout the course. "The inward back nine is slightly more heathland with a bit more heather whilst, on the seaward front nine, the soil is slightly more alkaline, making it a more of a pure links."
Brian tells me they have used the STRI in the past to provide agronomic advice, but have managed well without their advice since parting company with them in 2016 when Alistair Beggs left. But now, he feels it is the right time to look at getting them back involved. "The main reason for this is for the passing on of information to the club and its members regarding the reduction in contact fungicides and the revocation of Chlorpyrifos, which are massive issues for us. In particular, the leatherjackets in this area which have always been prolific. Personally, I do feel we are being let down by our governing bodies such as BIGGA, Golf England and the R&A. They should be doing more to help us; many greenkeepers are suffering up and down the country."
I see many greenkeepers on social media platforms using silage sheets on their greens to encourage the leatherjackets to the surface. I asked Brian if this was something he would consider carrying out. "I do not see it as a long-term viable option. If we do have to go down that route, then we would have to look at closing the course for a couple of days when the weather is right. But on a windy links course, it would prove challenging to keep the sheets down. And it's only a short-term measure in my eyes."
"The whole thing worries me, and the webinar that BIGGA put on the other week did not answer many of our questions. Guys like me have been reliant on these products for all of their careers and used to seeing the control they gave. To then think, at this stage in my career, I have to accept there will be a lack of standards compared to what we have produced before is tricky to get your head around."
"No matter how much you educate your committee and those members who will stand in front of you and ask the questions, the vast majority of golfers are simply not interested in any reasoning, never speak up and just watch championship golf on Sky Sports over the weekend, then expect the same standards when they play their local course on a Monday. Unless the likes of Sky Sports who, let's be honest, are not interested in educating golfers, were to explain why these courses look so pristine compared to their local course, we will never get this information out to the broader world."
I understand where Brian is coming from. Our industry faces many issues at this present time, and it is alright for us to scream and shout about problems with pay, finances, recruitment and working hours, but all this is done through social media channels related to the sports turf industry. Unless we can get the big sports broadcasters to set aside some time before an event to speak to the groundsmen and greenkeepers about the challenges they face, to help educate those who think we just cut grass for a living, unfortunately this will always be the case.
Brian makes a fair point. "I would like to see someone come out and tell us what they are doing on an Open Championship venue that has the potential to be affected in the year they host a championship. They cannot afford for one piece of grass to look out of place. If they are having the same problems and they have figured out a way to prevent or deal with the situation, it would be helpful for them to get it out in a magazine so we can all benefit from their ideas."
Greens construction is varied around the course - many of them were built around the turn of the 20th century with one or two constructed just after World War Two using the Dew Pond Method, so they are clay-lined, which causes Brian some problems at times. In recent years, they have reconstructed two of the greens in-house. "To help relieve our issues on the Dupont greens, we have used the Robin Dagger regularly to help get through the clay; it has done a great job. We have rebuilt two of the greens to a modified USGA rootzone on top of dune, so we have put more fines in there to help slow the movement of water down a bit."
"In 2004, we did the tenth green, and put the old turf back on, and in 2007 we did a complete movement of the fifth green, so that one was seeded. But in both cases, we have struggled to get any real root growth through the specified rootzone as it has been so inert. On the tenth, where we put the turf back on, it started in a low way because it was all meadow grass, but we have managed to get more bent grasses into the sward. The fifth we seeded with a fescue/bent mix, but not a lot of the bent came through, so we ended up with a lot of fescues and then, after two or three years, the meadow grass really caused a problem with the mosaic effect. It's taken quite a few years to get the surface to a point where it has got a good mixture of bent/fescue, and the meadow grass is mixed in amongst it."
Brian talks me through the seasonal maintenance of the greens. "Cutting heights depend on the weather; if we get a severe winter, then the height of cut can be as high as 6mm. If it's a mild one and the grass keeps growing, we will stay around 5mm. I do not like to go below 4mm as a rule in the summer, but if they need to be a little quicker, then I will drop the height to 3.75mm. We cut with the John Deere 2500 greens mower throughout the season as the greens remain firm all year round. In winter, we will cut when necessary, and in summer, we cut every day."
"When we verti-cut, we will carry out two passes in different directions using the GreenTek Thatchaway units on one of the older John Deere 2500's. Again, this is a process we will carry out when I feel it is required. Sometimes we will do it every few weeks, and then, in some years, we can go the whole season without verti-cutting. Last season, we put stiff brushes on front of the greensmower instead of the groomers, and I have found using the brushes has reduced the need to verti-cut. It is helping to keep the grass a little bit finer, and they do not put as much stress on the plant as the groomers do, so it's a win for us."
"We will overseed the greens at least once a season. The regularity rates at which we seed depends on how much play there is and the available time. We will double pass with the sorrel rollers, then overseed with a mixture of Browntop Bent using the speed seeder. When choosing seeds, I will always opt for the top cultivars. For the last few years, we have been using Arrowtown, but this year we have gone with Barenbrug's All Bent with Charles and Barking, as Charles has come out head and shoulders above the rest in the STRI seed trails."
Aeration of the greens would typically depend on how Brian feels the greens are playing and their health. But, lately, he has started to back away more and more from aeration processes because of the issues they face with leatherjackets. "It is pretty well known now that leatherjackets eat around the aeration holes, making it more or less impossible for the holes to grow in until they are gone. Glen Kirby, Technical Manager for Syngenta, used the term 'they are using them as elevators'. This makes it much easier for them to make their way out of the rootzone at night and go back down in the morning. This has certainly made us look at aeration in a different light than what we did before. In the past, we would have been more regimented in our approach."
"To reduce the amount of compaction happening in the first place, we have started to apply more dressings, so we do not have to carry out any deep aeration, and if we do want to open up the surface, it will just be in the top one or two inches. This year, I have bought the GreenTek slitters, which do not go in that far, helping concentrate aeration in the top and reduce the need to do anything more profound. I have also purchased a new deeper greens slitter with the aim to reduce verti-drain operations."
The club has recently invested heavily in replacing their old irrigation system. First installed in 1979, the system has been modified over the years to keep up with the modern demands placed upon it. They had taken the system as far as possible and were also being told the PVC pipe was past its best and would only last twenty-five years until they ran the risk of the pipes splitting. "In 2010, the first phase of replacing the system was to remove the old water tank from near the clubhouse, which was mains fed using a tiny pump. A new water tank, pump station and borehole were installed in the middle of the course, which fed two loops; this upgrade immediately made a massive difference to the reliability of the system but also meant we could pressure the system all the time."
"The first design for the placement of the pipework and sprinklers was carried out in 2010. This meant that, when we came to carry out the work, the plan was seen to be obsolete, plus the guy who designed it was no longer in the business. In 2019, it was decided that, if the club was going to spend a substantial amount of money, we should get an independent consultant to redraw the plans, with the instruction to make it future proof, and then put this out to tender."
"Full Circle, who carried out the first phase of the project, provided the best tender, so they got the job. Work started in winter of October 2020, which was fantastic as there was no one out on the course due to the pandemic, enabling the contractors to get on with the job. All the pipework that has been put in has been sized correctly to irrigate all the greens, tees and fairways if we want to. As part of the installation, we have done one trial fairway on the seventh to show what difference it will make when we get droughts like the one in 2018, which was an eye-opener."
I asked Brian why he opted to install the Hunter irrigation controller and heads? "It was between Hunter and Toro in the end, and there was not much between them.
The thing that made us go with Hunter was down to the research I was doing, and what stood out for me was listening to the Americans who see Hunter's reliability over Toro, so that was one thing. Also, over the fourteen years, we have been testing all sorts of sprinklers from various manufacturers. We found the smaller sprinklers from Hunter were much more reliable and more robust than the other makes and would run independently without the computer at the time."
Brian concluded: "We have lost a couple of key greenkeepers in the last twelve months and that always makes things difficult for a while. We are trying to piece together a young and enthusiastic team and the three new members of staff are very keen to make greenkeeping a career, rather than a stepping-stone to other work. The future for Silloth looks very bright."
Graeme Henderson - Assistant Course Manager
Graeme is currently in his 16th year working at the club. As a two handicap golfer as a teenager, he decided to work on the course and quickly decided to pursue a career. Through an apprenticehsip, he completed his Level 2 and 3 in golf/sports studies through Myerscough plus spraying and chainsaw qualifications. He also holds a ILM Level 3 qualification. His eye for detail and practical abilities are of the highest order and he is very capable of heading into course management.
Graham Allen - Mechanic/Greenkeeper
Graham comes from an agricultural background; twenty years in farming, followed by a few years as a plumber, means he brings with him a wide range of knowledge. He thrives on new challenges and can turn is hand to most things. Since starting with the club, he has taken on the role of mechanic and uses the internet to learn a great deal about a wide range of machinery issues.
Graeme Teasdale - Greenkeeper
Graeme has been an assistant greenkeeper at a couple of local clubs for six years. He has recently joined the team at Silloth and, in a short time, is proving to be a very popular, proficient greenkeeper who is always keen to learn and gives valuable input into discussions. He has Level 2 Greenkeeping and Level 3 Horticulture qualifications.
Colin Todd - Greenkeeper/Labourer
Colin has been with the club since 2013. He is very much an old school labourer who undertakes his work in a timely manner, allowing the qualified greenkeepers to carry out the more technical tasks.
Spencer Irving - Apprentice
Spencer is a local lad who started working for the club two years ago. It has been a difficult time to be an apprentice, but Spencer is a popular member of the team and has progressed a great deal. He is nearing his end point assessment and says he cannot wait to be come a qualified greenkeeper. He is keen to carry on his learning, loves the job and the club have high hopes that he will develop in to an invaluable member of the team.
John Johnston - Apprentice
John has worked at the club for four years; part-time in the pro shop, whilst continuing his education. This has given John a great insight into the demands of the golfer and sometimes this is difficult to teach apprentices. He joined the greenkeeping team this year and believes he has made a great career choice. The aim of the club is to allow John to achieve his full potential through the education system and through on site practical training. He is doing some great work and has great potential.
Tony Fielding - Part-time Greenkeeper (Retired Head Greenkeeper from a local course)
As a life-long greenkeeper, Tony retired in 2016. As a member of Silloth, he volunteered for sand patching and as a result was talked into returning to part-time work to help out. The skills and knowledge he brings are proving to be invaluable by helping the younger members of the team.