Royal St Georges, Sandwich is one of the great links courses, the ultimate in natural testing conditions, but it is also a delightfully private and understated club of which its 900 or so members are very proud. It is probably the best viewing course among the Open venues - literally the most open of them all. The excitement is mounting as it prepares itself for the great challenge of hosting the 2011 Open Championship.
The arrangement John Deere has with Royal St Georges is clearly a key feature of pre-Open work at the famous Kent coast course. On a cold, blustery day in February, emphasising the close liaison between manufacturer and the course gearing up to stage its 14th Open, Club Secretary Christopher Gabbey was expecting in a day or so a visit from Peter Bateman who heads up John Deere supplier Godfreys. This may only be a routine check to see that equipment was performing as it should, but it shows the level of attention to detail that an Open course expects and gets.
"Our stated aim is always to keep the course in championship order," says Christopher. "Since our last Open in 2003 we've had major championships here every year, so striving to keep standards at the highest level is simply what we do, but of course when the Open comes here public gaze, not to mention television scrutiny, means we have to seek even higher levels of excellence."
"The full blast of the media means we're focussed on an awful lot of detail. I think we can honestly say that since the last Open here we've managed to raise the standard of the course yet higher. Our John Deere equipment is an integral part of this."
The R&A retains an STRI agronomist, Alistair Beggs, for on-going advice on its Open courses. He's been visiting Royal St Georges four times a year to take a detailed look at all areas of course soundness. Christopher Gabbey says his recommendations are taken very seriously, the more so in the run-up to an Open. It's a service that has been working very successfully for a number of years. It was his advice that prompted the use of John Deere's lightweight 8500 PrecisionCut fairway mowers over the last three years to facilitate lower cutting. Boxing-off, sanding and brushing are also recommended routines that help produce superb fairway conditions at Sandwich.
In charge of this year's pre-Open work is acting Head Greenkeeper Graham Royden. Joining him as his assistant is Paul Larsen, who returned to Royal St Georges in February after a spell as head greenkeeper at a course in Holland.
"The two of them and a dozen other greenkeepers form a strong, well-bonded team," says Christopher Gabbey. "The 2011 Open course and our John Deere equipment are in excellent hands."
In February, five months ahead of the Open, it is bunker repair that is top of the agenda. December's snow, though less severe than in other parts of the country, held this winter work up, but the St Georges' greenkeeping team working flat out had pretty much put things back on schedule. John Deere tractors and the eight Gators there were vital in the huge amount of material shifting involved - cut turf for revetting, top soil and fresh turf for surrounds repair, and finally fresh sand.
Traditionally greens had been cut at Sandwich by John Deere Triplex units, but in recent times the course has moved to hand cutting for ultimate accuracy and presentation. The 180C walk-behinds used there now mean the greenkeepers are really in touch with the surface and according to Christopher Gabbey the greens have never looked and played better. The 2500B Triplex machines are now mostly used for tee work.
A particular challenge for Royal St Georges as it prepares for the world stage this summer is the demand put upon them by the R&A to cut the fairways in one direction. This is an image characteristic that has been introduced at the last couple of Opens. It means that at Sandwich rather more than the two 8500 mowers currently doing the job will be needed nearer the time. Hitherto, fairways have been cut 'light and dark' - one side in one direction, the other in reverse. It's excepted as the most efficient operation, and perfectly pleasing in appearance. Aesthetics for the television camera are reckoned to be the prime reason for what the R&A are now requesting. The club will do what it can to oblige and Godfeys will be supplying four or five additional 8500s in time for work on achieving the required Open look to the fairways.
'Fairway cutting will become a completely different operation for us this summer," says Christopher Gabbey. "The machines will have to track back off the fairway and potentially effect the semi-rough. We'll need to designate more of our team to fairway cutting and for the state of the semi-roughs just hope and pray that conditions are not damp."
This year's Open means not just more John Deere mowers, but more greenkeepers too. In additional to the regular 12-strong St Georges' team under Graham Royden, four more will be engaged for the changed fairway cutting regime and there will be six brought in to help with the daily double-cutting of greens immediately prior to and during the Championship.
Looking out across the windswept course in February the John Deere livery was nearly as much in evidence as the club's iconic thatched shelters. Club Secretary Christopher Gabbey has been at Royal St Georges for 10 years and retires after the Open. He's hoping for a sunny Championship and more than 200,000 spectators over the four days. John Deere might not have any say in either of these, but they certainly wish for them too.