When Spencer Lloyd-Pye's college lecturer called him "the greatest underachiever he had ever met", little did they both know that they would become good friends or that Spencer would actually go on to 'achieve' in the industry.
Resisting the temptation to headline this article 'The Great Dane' or even 'Danish through and through', we talk to Spencer about how he became Course Superintendent at one of the top courses in Scandinavia, the Lübker Golf Resort in Denmark, the challenges he faces and how he is enjoying his new lifestyle
My lecturer's comment turned out to be somewhat of a backhanded inspiration, confesses Spencer Lloyd-Pye and confirms that said lecturer still runs a very successful agronomy company.
Spencer came to Lübker Golf Resort in Denmark via a fairly standard career path. "I've never worked anywhere except on golf courses," he states. "Even while I was still at school, I would work in the summer holidays and at weekends raking bunkers and flymoing for a bit of pocket money. I then enrolled on a two year YTS scheme, where I earned the princely sums of £28 in year one and £35 in year two."
"I was on placement at Penwortham Golf Club near Preston, before leaving to study at Hutton College doing an HNC in horticulture/greenkeeping. I was then offered the position as Deputy Head Greenkeeper at Penwortham, so I withdrew from the HND course, but would return to it at a later date to complete it at Myerscough College, where I also spent two years teaching part time in the evenings."
"My first position as a Head Greenkeeper was at neighbouring Darwen Golf Club, where I spent five years, before moving to Bury Golf Club, spending three years there. I then received a phone call from Penwortham asking if I would like to return as Head Greenkeeper, and then the opportunity to work in Denmark came up."
Why Denmark? "After spending twenty years working on golf courses in the UK, I fancied a change," explains Spencer. "I started applying for jobs abroad and it wasn't long before I got a call to attend an interview at Lübker. After quite an intensive interview, I was offered the job. The resort was in transition after being taken over by new owners, and they wanted a fresh start as well. Denmark actually chose me."
Lübker Golf Resort is situated in the middle of "the nose of Denmark" just ten minutes north-west of Aarhus airport. It has been voted the best golf course in Denmark and was recently voted 17th in Europe by Top100golfcourses.co.uk. The course build was completed just five years ago.
The world renowned golf course architect, Robert Trent Jones Jnr, created three loops of nine holes each, designated Forest, Sky and Sand; names which perfectly suit their characteristics.
Eighteen hole courses are made up as follows, always allowing nine to be worked on so as not to interfere with golfer's rounds.
Sand/Sky Course: Denmark's best golf course, as rated by Golf Digest USA in 2012. Offers undulating and fast greens with manicured fairways.
Forest/Sand Course: Features a challenging combination of beautiful forest holes at Forest loop and challenging holes for golfers at Sand surrounded by numerous waste bunkers.
Sky/Forest Course: The course offers challenging holes cut into the beautiful scenery.
Spencer confesses that his current role is a completely new experience. "Going from managing an 18-hole parkland golf course to running a huge golf complex covering over 500 acres has been a challenge. Perhaps the most difficult thing has been getting to grips with the language, but I'm getting there, and can now understand most conversation in Danish, although my colleagues might not agree!"
Spencer has a team of twenty greenkeepers, that includes four women, his deputy Michael Eeg and a dedicated workshop technician, Peter Fast.
The courses are a mix of links, heathland and forest; "but mainly forest," stresses Spencer. "It sits on a 30 metre band of sand which is then sand capped to eight inches. But, in some places, not enough and causes a multitude of problems in some areas but, generally, it drains very well."
So well, that a fully automated watering system with over 2000 heads was installed to water greens, tees, bunkers, aprons, fairways and some rough. The system is capable of watering the whole course in one night, and can put on between 4-8mm in one cycle between the hours of 10.00pm and 6.00am.
Spencer is looking to appoint a dedicated technician to take on sward analysis to monitor moisture content, nutrition and performance using the latest GPS technologies, which will enable him to map and create valuable data on the performance of the greens.
To get some feeling of scale, Spencer rattled off some impressive stats for the course. "The greens alone cover over two hectares, whilst the tees cover 2.5 hectares. The fairways stretch over twenty hectares," details Spencer.
The one staggering figure, however, is that there are ten hectares of bunkers to rake. Some of these sand traps are over 200 metres long and it takes six staff a day to rake all of them, even utilising the two Toro Sand Pros. This operation is carried out once a week, with hand raking of the greenside bunkers done "as and when required".
The course is then set amongst 150 hectares of forest, with the rest being long grass, water and open land.
Spencer reports to a board made up of the joint owners and CEO, Niels Vester; "They've been great since my arrival," he confirms. "I set my own budgets for everything, from how many staff I need to keep the courses up to standard to all machinery purchases."
As you might expect, the weather plays an important part in Spencer's course maintenance and I ask how he copes with the extremes. "Hard work and church on Sundays!" he exclaims. "In summer, it can feel as though we are closer to Spain than the Arctic circle. Temperatures are often between 25-30OC, with daylight peaking at twenty hours and very little rain. But, in winter, everything is thrown at us, heavy snow, deep frosts and high winds."
"At the first sign of frost we close the Sand course, but the Sky/Forest courses remain open as an 18-hole course. They only close in snow but, generally, when we go out of season, we have no customers for four months."
With the very long summer days, Spencer often finds himself working fifteen hours a day. "I like to spend quiet time planning the next day's work schedule once the staff have finished."
Staff working hours are regulated to thirty-seven hours a week, with many being laid off during the winter months, but with an opportunity to return the following summer.
"The week is planned in advance by myself and Michael, but we make adjustments for the next day the evening before. In the morning, we convene when all the staff have arrived and, even though the jobs are already on a white board, they are still delivered by Michael at 6.00am, or 7.00am out of season."
"Presentation is my number one priority. The Danes have an unhealthy obsession with really fast greens," Spencer states. "To maintain our status as the number one course in Denmark - and Scandinavia, subject to opinion, of course - we have to present the courses in top condition. Our advantage over our neighbours in Sweden, Norway and Finland is that we generally thaw from winter a month before the other courses who are in direct competition."
The greens are pure creeping bent and are maintained at 3mm during the summer and at 3.5 mm during the early spring and late summer periods. They are pedestrian cut daily with Toro Flex machines and rolled twice a week with turf irons.
Due to the nature of creeping bent grasses, the greens are verticut and aerated (needle tines) and topdressed with local sand once a month during the growing season.
Tees and aprons are cut three times a week at 8mm all year round using Toro Triple 3250 cylinder mowers.
Fairways are cut using Toro fairway 5410 cylinder mowers set at 10mm, cutting three times a week.
Feeding and applying wetting agents is targeted around a monthly programme. No granular feeds are used; it is all in liquid form using a range of products, including feeds that have been specifically formulated for his course and imported from England. Some seaweed extracts are also used. Spencer is not looking for a boom and bust feeding programme; it simply needs to be consistent and even.
The use of fungicides and pesticides are not permitted in Denmark, so it's a case of maximising cultural practices such as feeding, aeration, grooming and verticutting to reduce the incidence of disease. "I still suffer outbreaks though," bemoans Spencer. "More often than not it's take all patch which appears when humidity, air and soil temperatures are high. I try to combat this with applications of trace elements incorporating manganese and copper sulphate."
On the pest front, chafer grubs continue to be the bane of Spencer's life, causing a lot of damage, especially around bunker faces. He is limited to what he can do to alleviate the problem, but is looking into the use of parasitic nematodes to control them.
The courses are a haven for wildlife with nineteen areas designated as 'Red Spots', conservation areas monitored by Government agencies similar to the UK's SSSI sites. No input is allowed and the club put aside £9,000 a year to help conserve these areas.
There are large colonies of rare great crested newts, spade foot toads, crown deer, and even salmon have been found in the stream that runs through the course, with many other mammals seen out on the course. Wild Lupins are also found out on the course.
The resort is obviously geared for the summer season, with many people either renting or buying one of the thirty-five lodges or houses and using the wealth of facilities that include swimming pools, wellness gyms, sub tropical baths, treatment rooms and saunas.
However, their reward is playing well maintained golf courses that offer many different challenges. Having the opportunity to play three distinctively different course in, what are, stunning surroundings, with some of the biggest golfing hazards in the world, is what attracts visitors.
Spencer is certainly enjoying his new job. He confesses that he still has a lot to learn, but picking up the language has helped, as has getting to know his staff better.
When he is not working, he enjoys his two favourite pastimes - cycling and supporting the England football team. He has, over the years, spent thousands of pounds following them around the globe.
State of the industry
What would you consider to be the state of our industry? There is little doubt that the industry is suffering a slump, but if you can make your course that little bit better than the next one, the mentality of today's casual golfer means you will be the one club that survives. But, if there is one word that is relevant it is 'proactive'. Never think you are safe; things can only go down from this point.
Are we undervalued? I'm sure some people feel we are, but I feel this image can be created by the individual. If you are professional and proactive, most of the time you will be treated that way.
How would you raise our profile? Follow the lead of the GCSAA or the AGCSA. Get more people involved! These organisations have full-time staff doing a job, as do we, but we rely on the greenkeeper down the road who has to make time to provide information for the magazine or website!!! Go out and get it yourself, like Pitchcare do. The GCSAA provide video tweets daily, and industry stalwart Richard Campey is now doing his own video tweets!
I only get scraps of info from BIGGA. They have to realise that, if they provide a service, the money will come! But you must provide that service. People want service!
Do you and your staff attend industry shows, seminars, demo days, road shows? Yes, I always attend Harrogate and visited the GCSAA/GIS show in Florida this year.
What's in the shed?
Toro Flex 21 x 10, plus 5 extra units (greens)
Toro 3250-D x 6, plus 6 extra sets of units (tees)
Toro 1600 x 3 (collars)
Toro Groundsmaster 4500-D x 2 (rough)
Toro Groundsmater 3500-D (Rough)
Toro Reelmaster 5410-D - four machines (fairways)
Toro Workman 2110 x 10
Toro ProCore 864 x 2
Toro ProCore 648 x 2
Toro 1250 600 litre sprayer x 2
Toro 5700 pro sprayer 1200 litre
Toro drop speader
Greens irons x 2
Fiat 70-90 tractor
Iseki TG 5470 tractors x 2
Toro 3300 Workman 2WD x 2
Toro 4300 Workman 4WD x 2
Windfoil for sprayer booms x 2
Vicon fertiliser spreader
Toro Sand Pro x 2
Toro TransPro 80 trailer x 5
Toro TransPro 100 trailer x 5
Toro Pro Sweep 5200
Toro debris blower x 3
Toro Groundsmaster 7210
Tycrop MH 400 fairway dresser
Tycrop Propass 180 topdresser
Foley grinder 652
Flymos x 6
Strimmers x 6
Back pack blowers x 6
Chainsaws x 6
Toro hand rotary x 2
Scotts fertiliser spreaders x 6
Sisis multi slitter x 2
Sisis fairway aerator
Ryan core harvester
Preastbro trailer T654/1
Car trailers x 3
John Deere ProGator