In an area rich in golf clubs - Robin Hood, Forest of Arden, Gay Hill and Hatchford Brook are just a short 'drive' away - and close to Birmingham International Airport, Olton Golf Club is a green oasis in the sprawl of the city suburbs.
Founded at Olton in 1893, the club moved to its current site in Solihull in 1903, choosing to retain its name following the move.
The Midland Counties Championship was the first major tournjament to be held at Olton in 1908. A professional tournament followed in 1910, with many top players of the day taking part. These included Arnaud Massey, James Braid, Harry Vardon, Alex Herd, Tom Ball, Ted Ray, James Sherlock and George Duncan who, between them, won The Open Championship on twenty occasions.
Spread over ninety-five acres of attractive parkland, the course is a good test for all levels of golfer. It is highly regarded in the Midlands, and remains a regular venue for prestigious tournaments.
Last November, Olton's long standing head greenkeeper took retirement, and the search was on for his replacement. Out of eighty-two applicants, Mark Smith, formerly an assistant head greenkeeper at the Belfry, was appointed as Course Manager. It is his Belfy experience that, Mark believes, helped him to get the nod.
He has a young team of five greenkeepers, along with a part-time gardener during the summer months, and has recently promoted Ben Timms as his deputy, who is an experienced member of the team, to help with the management of the course.
In the short time Mark has been at the club, he has already made significant improvements, as he tells our editor.
"After the bad spell of weather, up until the end of January, I felt we had some serious catch up to do with the greens, as they were left very badly scarred from the disease during the last two months of 2010. After the Graden treatment in October they didn't seem to recover too well and this is still visible to this day.
The greens, in general, looked very tired and weak, with moss patches appearing in early February, whilst the turf seemed very spongy and soft to walk on. This was particularly noticeable during spraying operations, as the tyre tracks left severe indentations.
In my view, the greens could have been prepared a little better going into the late autumn/winter period, and a preventative spray applied well in advance of the cold weather and snow.
After taking a few profiles on certain greens I found, in general, that the soil profile was quite good, but the top 20-25mm contained a high percentage of thatch. This surprised me as the Graden work had been carried out quite late in the year and I had, therefore, expected to see a lower percentage. After looking closely at the profile, I could see that the moisture was trapped in the top 10mm of the turf, causing the softness and high risk of disease re-occurrence.
The greens do seem to drain fairly well, but I have approached the start of this year by trying to attack this top 20-25mm thatch layer and also increase surface firmness.
I have put a preventative spraying programme in place and the greens have been treated once a month and, so far, we have had no signs of disease returning.
We solid tined the greens in early February, down to about 5" depth, and left the tine holes exposed for a week before rolling. We have had two demo trials of greens rollers (Smithco side roller and Greentek vibro units), and have noticed a significant improvement to the surface of the greens considering the poor coverage and scarring. The pace has also increased slightly, stimping at around 9.5, along with the mowing.
The first topdressing of the year was Chelford 30 dried sand, applied at about half a tonne per green, to lightly dust the surface and fill in any scars or old Graden grooves that had not recovered which, again, improved the overall level of the surface and run on the ball. The sand did take a while to work into the the turf but, obviously, at the time of writing, we had not had sufficient growth to take in the sand quicker, but the greens do seem better for it.
A liquid soluble iron was applied to toughen up the turf and control the rapid moss increase on certain greens.
We double verticut the greens at around 1.5mm to lightly lift out material and moss patches and encourage new growth through the fusarium scars.
We fertilised the greens with 17.6.10 Yara Turf Royale, five days before carrying out our Graden treatment in the first week of April. We also went down the sand injection route to help stabilise the turf and draw out any unwanted moisture. I am confident the greens will respond better with an early year treatment, and also recover fairly quickly with the better temperatures and drier working conditions.
We will then concentrate on recovery and surface improvement, with the use of PrimoMaxx and soluble urea to encourage lateral growth and to repair and heal scars.
The tees are mown at 12mm all year round and have also been solid tined, treated with soluble iron and heavily topdressed with Fendress 70/30 mix, ready for the season. The tees seem to be in good condition, and only a few built with rootzone seem to leach a bit quicker. These may need additional treatments to match in with the rest, as they seem to lose growth and colour more quickly.
The fairways were deep vertidrained to a depth of 12 inches in February, to relieve the heavy compaction, and then treated with Headland soluble iron for moss control and a general pick me up for the turf.
This year, instead of scarifying with the Beaver equipment, I set the groomers on the fairway units to 5mm to stand up the grasses and gently lift any moss patches out. The scarifying equipment seemed too abrasive on the undulated fairways and, with the dry weather, would put us behind on these surfaces.
We will use Monsoon soil wetter when conditions allow, to prepare the turf for the drier conditions throughout the season. This is very important as we have no fairway irrigation to compensate.
I have decided to keep the fairways at 12mm throughout the season, as 10mm seems a bit too low for the plant and this will help cause less stress. The overall coverage isn't bad for the time of year, and the growth is picking up well.
This year, I am changing the presentation of the course slightly and cutting the fairways in a clockwise (half/half) method. This will allow us to keep on top of them better as it takes less time to carry out. It suits the look of the course and also uses less fuel, less man hours and minimal turning in the rough, which means less wear and tear on the mower arms. This will allow me more time to improve other areas of the course.
I will not be applying any fertiliser to the fairways throughout the season, only liquid seaweed to keep a good colour and avoid rapid growth. This will help to reduce the frequency of cuts.
So, in a nutshell, the changes I have made to the ongoing maintenance since joining Olton Golf Club have been; the introduction of rolling greens to improve firmness, speed and trueness; cutting patterns and contours on greens, tees and fairways; introducing a preventative spraying programme, rather than 'spray when you see'; early year greens renovation work for increased recovery, so they are stronger going into the end of year; changed the raking methods, using shorter teeth on rake heads and adjusting sand levels and changed topdressing and sand types.
I've also replaced all the course furniture that was very old and tarnished.
On top of that the staff have been busy, completing their winter works programme, which included some new tees and paths, plus a complete refurbishment of the 4th green.
I like my staff to take on challenging winter projects, and use the opportunity to learn new skills and experiences. I was keen to improve the aesthetics and challenge of the 4th green, which was achieved by adding a new bunker and reshaping the green and contours around it. It also means that the members see the value and quality of the work being done by the greenkeeping staff, and this helps to improve the way the greenkeepers are perceived. It's an important factor.
We have also invested in new Ransomes Jacobsen greens and fairway mowers to help improve the cut quality and general presentation out on the course. We bought two of the latest Jacobsen Eclipse 322 triple greensmowers and a Jacobsen R-311T batwing rotary mower for the fairways. The club have been using Ransomes Jacobsen equipment for many years and I've been impressed with these new models. It generally takes less than two hours to cut all the greens using the two Eclipse mowers which, in turn, has allowed us extra time to improve the aesthetics of the course.
I'm really looking forward to my first full season at the club and to gauge how both the grass and the members respond. To that end, I have introduced a regular newsletter to the members (see side bar) so that they are fully informed about the work being carried out, and the reasons why we do what we do."
Mark Smith is one of a number of young course managers making their 'mark' in the industry. Like his friend and colleague at nearby Robin Hood Golf Club, Andy Wood, he has taken a tired club and brought a fresh approach to its maintenance.
Talking to a few members during my visit, they where very complimentary about the work Mark and his staff have carried out since his arrival last November, particularly the new 4th green and the way the course is now being presented.
Footnote: since my visit, Mark has provided the following update: "Andy Cole's visit went very well, and he was pleased with the course surfaces and presentation. He loved the 4th hole. Readings from moisture meter and clegg were very good for the time of year."
"The greens are recovering very well from the graden work in April, and have nearly healed up already with the high temps and rain."
"We have applied a good few topdressings since then - 70/30 fendress and 80/20 mix - to help recovery and level/firmness on greens."
"I'm already looking and planning my winter projects for 2011 to make my 'mark' at Olton Golf Club."
Mark Smith has introduced a regular monthly newsletter to the members to keep them informed about the work being undertaken by the greenkeeping staff
"This is my first monthly message to the members, I intend to report each month on greens activities over the previous month and for the following month.
We have managed to make good progress on the 4th project work over the last few weeks despite the 'up and down' weather conditions.
The turf that has been laid will need time to knit together and settle in as we approach the spring. I am constantly being asked when I think we can open the 4th hole, but this will strongly depend on the growing conditions during the month of March and early April.
When conditions allow, our plan is to work on the three bunker bases, by importing 2" of sand and then compact it as necessary. The rest of the sand will be added just before we open the hole, but with enough time to settle down.
The front section of the green will need time to recover fully and, by regular dressing and rolling, it will improve the overall level and firmness.
We have started the course preparation for the new season. Some of the bunkers have been edged and topped up with sand. The team have also been busy stripping, preparing and re-turfing some of the G.U.R /worn areas around the course, including the lay-up area in front of the brook at the 5th hole.
The greens, tees and fairways will have all been vertidrained to aerate and decompact the soil ready for the season. This will aid drainage as well as improve the soil structure before a season of heavy machine and foot traffic on them.
A sand dressing will be applied to the greens and tees to help improve the surfaces but can only be carried out when we have a dry window to do so.
Disease control measures are in place on the greens as we have aerated, sprayed and are removing dew on a daily basis and, when nature takes its course, the scars will grow out and heal. No one has been more frustrated with the fusarium damage than me and the team but, hopefully, we can monitor it more closely and prepare better in future.
The winter course condition policy is now in place, and available to view on the website, giving information on greens protection procedures and trolley/buggy use notification.
Obviously, this time of year is very difficult to be consistent on some of the decisions made, but we try to keep a balance of meeting golfer's needs whilst protecting the course.