Prestbury Golf Club is located in beautiful Cheshire countryside and is one of the select few golf courses in the British Isles to bear the architectural stamp of Harry Colt. Whilst being told to all stay at home and stay safe, Lee Williams spoke to Course Manager Mark Crossley, over Zoom, to find out the challenges an elevated position presents on the hilly terrain.
Mark first got a taste of working in the sports turf industry after undertaking two-weeks work experience at Skipton Golf Club, working with now Agrovista Amenity specialist Gary Potter. However, being a greenkeeper was not
the career he had in mind at fifteen years old. "My first thoughts were that I wanted to go into the Royal Navy so, when the time came at seventeen, I went to Preston to carry out my physical and interview whilst I already had my bursary in place to do a Sports Science degree at Cranfield University. The navy wanted me to sign up for seven years and, at such a young age, I just wasn't prepared to give up that many years of my life."
"So, I was back to square one - what else did I want to do? I enjoyed working outside and was used to the physical aspect as I had worked with my dad a lot who was a paving and landscape contractor. Coupled with my experience on the golf course with Gary, I decided to embark on a career in greenkeeping and I attended Myerscough College to do a HND in sports turf. I failed my first year, as I was too busy partying - as you do at that age! I knuckled down in my second year and, in the third, I did a twelve-month work placement at Amarilla Golf and Country Club in Tenerife, which was fantastic. When I came back, I took a job as first Assistant Greenkeeper at Nelson Golf Club and completed my HND part-time. I then progressed onto Stockport Golf Club as First Assistant for a few years - first working for Warren Bevan, then under Mike Goodhind."
Course Manager Mark Crossley
At the young age of twenty-four years old, Mark took on his first Head Greenkeeper position in Derby at Mickleover Golf Club, but he openly admits it was probably a bit too soon. "I was a million miles away from being ready, but I will always be grateful to Mickleover for taking a punt on a young lad. As soon as my name was over that door, I learnt an awful lot - not just in terms of the job, but the management of people. Trying to manage a team, not only older than me, but also more experienced was difficult and I had no previous management experience. Still, I got through it with the help of the Club-Pro Tim Coxon and the Secretary Graham Finney. Five years later, I ended up at Chesterfield Golf Club, which was a much more management-based role. Instead of having a Greens Chairman, I had a place on the board and ran the Green Committee meetings and took the minutes. It was a steep learning curve dealing with people who have been in business all their lives and you can't fail to learn from people like that. I spent five years there before moving to Prestbury, where I have been for the last five years."
The course is very much a parkland course in nature, but with heathland characteristics and is built on a sandy sub-soil, which helps it drain well. "Over the last few years, we have been working on reducing the organic matter throughout the course. This will help it drain better and, at the same time, it will enable firmer and faster play. We also have a couple of holes with heather which we are trying to regenerate and reproduce more widely across the golf course."
The construction of the greens is indigenous. "I can't say they are clay push-ups because they are not clay! They have little or no drainage but, for one-hundred-year-old greens, they work well. It is quite a special course; they are a great club to work for and financially secure (touch wood) - I just hope this pandemic doesn't affect us too much."
Mark is fortunate to have a good team to rely on, aided by an apprenticeship scheme through Myerscough and Oldham College. "This helps us keep salary costs down whilst, at the same time, offering young people a way into the industry."
The team includes Callum Goodhind - Deputy Course Manager, NVQ Level 3 Sports turf (4 years' service); Mike Goodhind - 1st Assistant Greenkeeper, HNC Sportsturf (2 years); Brandon "Pickle" Hayward - Mechanic/Greenkeeper, NVQ Level 2 in Sportsturf and NVQ Level 2 in Landbased Engineering (3 years); Steve Millar - Greenkeeper, NVQ Level 3 Sportsturf (9 years); Callum "Jnr" Atkinson - Greenkeeper, working towards NVQ Level 3 Sportsturf (3 years); Ollie Tovee and Sam Jackson - Apprentices, both working towards NVQ Level 2 Sportsturf (1 year).
The irrigation system is old and needs updating, which is something Mark hopes can take place in the near future.
"We have Toro pop-ups on tees and greens, controlled by a Bailoy computer system. A few years ago, we did some remedial work around the eighth green, redoing the bunkers and run-offs. So, we took the opportunity to extend the system to the approaches and install valve-in head sprinklers - which I would like to do all around the course. I would also like to extend the system out to all the approaches."
"We have an extraction licence that enables us to feed the irrigation system through Spencer Brook, which is a tributary to the River Bollin. We extract from the lowest point, which is by the twelfth hole, to the feeder tank which holds 90,000 litres of water."
Mark talks me through the annual maintenance of the greens. "We will hand cut five or six days a week, with Toro Flex 21 mowers at a height of 3.5-5mm throughout the year. If we are lacking a bit of speed, or we are prepping for a competition, we will take them down as low as we need to. We are looking for an average of ten on the stimpmeter.
"We don't do a lot of scarifying, as a lot of what we are trying to do is encourage the bent grasses. We will try not to do anything too intrusive, we might tickle the surface with the verti-cut units as and when two to three times a year to try and stand up any lateral growth and potentially any seed heads. Something we are learning is to try not to put the Poa under too much stress when it is seeding because that exaggerates the problem. On the Toro Flex 21s we have brushes so
the greens are getting brushed everyday which reduces the need to scarify and verti-cut often. The organic matter we have in the top 20-25mm is lower than three percent, and we are pleased with that. It's all about keeping the plant ticking over at sensible heights of cut to allow us to provide the speed and quality we require."
I asked Mark if he believes there is an advantage with hand mowing greens, over using a ride-on greens machine. "Personally, I do. Not only in terms of aesthetic value, but our hand machines only weigh around 120kg which means all the weight is on the roller - unlike a ride-on where all the weight is on the wheels. In terms of quality of cut, I don't think there is any great difference, especially with the machines available to us now. If we plan to double cut, we use the Toro Greenmaster 3250s and follow up with the hand mowers, which are also used at the weekends."
Mark likes to overseed the greens at least three times a year and has been trialling various cultivars of bent grass seed. "We mainly overseed with Johnsons J All Bent; a brown top bent mixture. We have also been trialling creeping bent grass seed mixtures (with three different cultivars) on the putting green, to see how that will establish over the coming years. What we found, in 2018, was that bent grasses loved the drier weather we experienced, and the stress the Poa was under allowed the bent grass to flourish. Unlike in 2019, where everywhere was drowned out; we overseeded in August and October and saw very little germination. However, we have not overseeded since and, in the last few weeks, there is seed coming through, which is interesting."
Over the winter period, Mark has an aeration programme to help keep the profile of the greens open as much as possible. "We will aerate every two to three weeks, conditions permitting, using the Toro ProCore 648 - with 10mm tines at a depth of between 3-4 inches. Every month, throughout the year, we will verti-drain and get as deep as possible. We also like to bring in a contractor with the Air2G2."
Topdressing is carried out throughout the season, with Mark aiming to apply around 200 tonnes of sand per year. "We will attempt to apply 80-100 tonnes before the start of May. Then, we generally have a renovation week in the first or second week in August (depending on fixtures), where we will apply another 50-60 tonnes. The remaining tonnage will be applied little and often, generally on a Monday, throughout the playing season. I think it is so much easier now to get high quantities of topdressing into your greens without too much disruption to your membership. We use the Dakota topdresser and the sweep and fill brush."
In April 2016, the club invested in a new Toro fleet of machinery to help improve the course. Each machine (in the £300,000 deal) was chosen by Mark, with a particular purpose and anticipated result in mind. For example, the two Reelmaster Sidewinder 3100-D mowers were selected to increase productivity, which they have done by halving the time taken to do the same job of the previous machines. "We have just paid our final payment, so all the machinery is now ours. Machinery, such as the tractors and Verti-Drain, we bought outright. We have also purchased a couple of second-hand pieces of kit this year from GGM; an Amazone Profihopper and a Toro Workman from Cheshire Turf Machinery. Also, a great piece of kit (which we invested in last year) is the Bernhard Grinder which is being used far more often than I anticipated. It's all about what fits in with the business model of the club and the finances available for that year - the club has been pretty flexible as well."
Ecology in and around the course is important to the club. The members have created an ecology committee whose first task was to look at reducing the Himalayan balsam across the course. "They have done a great job with that; the group is made up of a few long-standing members who have a passion for such things. They have also undertaken a lot of work clearing out the scrub and woodland, so now you see the bluebells coming through more. We have recently introduced compost bays, where we are looking to regenerate our own material for construction and topdressing purposes. A reed bed is going in, to replace the existing wash down facility, at the back end of this year. We have a lot of worthwhile initiatives going on at the golf club at the minute; even including such things like not using plastic cups, cutlery and straws in the dining room and clubhouse, as well as reducing the amount of paper we use in the office."
Mark gave me his thoughts on the issue of attracting more young people to embark on a career in sports turf. "Through Myerscough and Oldham College, we have taken apprentices for the last four years. This has worked really well; however, I think sometimes sixteen to eighteen-year-olds are not looking at greenkeeping or groundsmanship as a career, and it's more a case of completing the NVQ Level 2 qualification and then seeing what they think of it. I believe recruiting good staff is becoming harder and harder - whether that's me being an old taskmaster, or our location, I am not sure."
"From a PR point of view, I think greenkeeping still has a long way to go - in terms of how we are viewed throughout the wider society. You go out to the States and the course managers out there have a Masters degree and/or a PhD and are seen as professionals. I do not feel we are seen that way - at least, not as much as we should be. There as some great greenkeepers in the UK who are passionate and would give their right arm for the industry. But, that is lost within golf club politics, committees, and membership and that's where our governing bodies need to be doing more. The education at BTME has improved year on year, however it is the likes of those speakers who need to be educating the members, board members and committee members on what it takes to produce a golf course we are all proud of. My final issue, is that of the mental strain placed on people in our industry. I think it's good that we are now starting to talk about mental health issues more openly. However, it is still too easy for clubs to turn a blind eye."
Harry Colt was the original architect, and Hawtree and Son had a hand in the development after the Second World War. More recently, the club has employed the services of leading course architects Mackenzie and Ebert. Founded in 1920, the nature of the site coupled with the sandy subsoil means that the course drains exceptionally well and, unlike many others in the area, hardly ever closes due to heavy rainfall.
Colt's partner (along with Charles Alison) was Dr Alister MacKenzie whose course designs span four continents. He is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. He designed more than fifty golf courses including three that are in the Top 100 golf courses in the world; Augusta National Golf Club and Cypress Point Club in the USA, and Royal Melbourne Golf Club (West Course) in Australia.
The layout at Prestbury is outstanding, especially when considering the comparatively small scale of the site. The back nine is routed around the front nine in a horse shoe like fashion with the 6th green and holes 7 and 8 being the open ended part of the shoe. Interestingly, the back nine covers the highest part of the property at the 10th tee and lowest part at the 12th green with an ease few architects could match. Whilst the walk back up to the clubhouse involves some gentle climbing it never requires a long green to tee walk. In 1934, Colt said of Prestbury: "Owing to the natural formation of the ground, the golf is, in my opinion, very interesting and the variety provided is excellent as every hole presents some distinct feature and impressive character."
The club has hosted many county and national competitions, including the English Seniors Championship and Open Championship Regional Qualifying.
What's in the shed
Toro Greenmaster Flex 21 x 4
Toro Greenmaster 1600 x 3
Toro Greenmaster 3250 x 3
Toro Reelmaster 5410 x 2
Toro Reelmaster 3100 x 2
Toro Groundmaster 4700
Toro Reelmaster 5510
Toro Multi Pro 5800-D sprayer
Toro ProCore 648
Toro Workman MDX x 2
Toro Workman MDE
Toro Workman with Dakota topdresser
Toro Greens Pro 1260
New Holland TN75 tractor
New Holland TC45 tractor
New Holland Boomer tractor
Ford 1520 tractor
JCB excavator 3 tonne
SISIS brushes x 2
John Deere rotary mower
Trailers x 5