0 Marley and me at Estonian Golf and Country Club

The Estonian Golf and Country Club has been voted in the Top 100 courses in Continental Europe four times in a row. Offering two courses with spectacular views along the Baltic Coast and Jagala River Delta, Head Greenkeeper Paul Marley spoke with us about managing the courses and the challenges his team face. Kerry Haywood reports.

The club offers golfers a 9-hole links style Stone Course and an 18-hole championship level Sea Course. The Sea Course surprises with its spectacular sea views impressively framed on its signature 3rd hole. The historic Stone Course meanders through impressive stone wall formations and massive boulders from the ice age telling of a history dating back over five thousand years.

Paul has a team of eight staff, plus three/four seasonal staff. Paul commented: "The majority of the staff have mostly been here for several years and they know the golf course very well. We also have an in-house mechanic and, with our old equipment, we couldn´t do what we do without him. We undertake most of the servicing and maintenance of the machines in-house, however, we do get help with some of the bigger jobs. Certain team members take on specific tasks (bunkers, tee maintenance, mowing tees etc.) but, for the most part, everyone is able to perform multiple tasks and be flexible with what gets done and when."

"From May-September, we also employ three or four seasonal staff who primarily help out on the driving range, line trim and blow. Currently, we do not have an agronomist, however, I do have several on speed dial who I can call up and ask for help at any time."

Head Greenkeeper Paul Marley

© Kadri Palta Photography

The profile of the course is predominantly soil/clay everywhere, except the tees and greens. "We are just beginning the process of amending the rootzone by adding a sand/soil topdressing, as our cation exchange capacity (CEC) is extremely low. We have a lot of problems with our greens that begin with the low CEC, namely poor nutrient and moisture retention. As we get more organic material into the rootzone, we hope that this will help solve those problems."

"Estonia can have long, dark winters, but we don't suffer too much from natural occurrences. During my time here, there hasn´t been anything too extreme - aside from the snow cover from early January until mid-March. Despite this, we very rarely have to use temporary greens. We generally close the Sea Course down late-October or early November, but up until then, we try to keep the golfers on the summer greens. Our Stone Course is much more tolerant, so we will allow golfers to play there as long as possible. Generally, when temporary greens might be used, the days are so short that we close the Stone course down (December-March). However, if the weather allows, we will keep that course open. During the winter of 2019-2020, we experienced such a mild winter that the Stone course was closed for a total of twenty-one days! But, seeing as every year is different, we keep a close eye on the greens even during the winter months and, if necessary, we will remove snow cover."

9th green on the Stone Course

"Having said that, when there is snow on the ground, we will groom a 5km cross-country ski trail on the course grounds. The trail is maintained by the maintenance staff and is open to the public."

"We used to suffer with both shade and air flow issues on the Sea course, however, we have started a tree maintenance programme to take down problem trees and to clear under-brush - which will increase airflow and sunlight to certain greens."

"We mow greens just about every day and, depending on the tournament schedule, we will roll 1-2 times a week. Depending on growth, tees, fairways and collars will be mowed 2-3 times a week. We cut the rough on the Sea and Stone Courses once a week and then tidy up some spots that grow quicker prior to the weekend. We work to the following height of cut guidelines: greens 4mm, collars 10mm, tees 10mm, fairways 14mm and rough 55mm. We try to do a light verticut on greens every 2-3 weeks but, if we get it done once a month, I am OK with that."

"Presentation is important. Whilst we don´t have too much striping in the fairways, approaches and rough, we obviously like the course to be very presentable and tidy."

"End of season renovations generally revolve around adding additional drainage. Although, I do hope to start undertaking bunker renovations this autumn, as a lot of our bunker sand is old and contaminated. Currently, after a lot of rain, our bunkers have a hard time draining."

During the winter months we groom a cross country ski trail through the course that is free to use for club members

I was keen to find out about the climate challenges Paul faces. "The biggest challenge is the changing weather patterns and the later onset of winter. Usually, November is quite dark and chilly, however, over the past few years, the weather has been quite mild - making for increased disease pressure. This is often the case in December as well. Keeping an eye on the greens during the off season is much more important now, as opposed to several years ago when you could rely on cold weather to prevent disease."

"Fusarium in the fall, winter and spring is always a struggle, but we try to spray as little as possible. Once a year we do have to spray some herbicides to keep various weeds from taking over tees, fairways and rough areas. We are quite lucky to have very few weeds on our putting surfaces, so we take care of those by hand whenever necessary. We take regular soil samples and the findings show that we have a very low CEC, so we are trying to increase the organic material in our rootzone for better moisture and nutrient retention."

Paul went on to tell me how he got involved in the industry. "I loved the game of golf and I knew that I wasn´t somebody who could be an 'office rat' so I needed to work outdoors. I had worked in a ProShop and been an instructor at a children´s camp, as well as helping to organise a few community tournaments. However, after about a week of working as a greenkeeper, I knew that I had found something that I could make a career out of. I undertook the Golf Court Technician Programme at Seneca College and worked at Thornhill Golf and Country Club (now The Thornhill Club) in Toronto, Canada."

15th green

"I felt there was no room for me to move up at Thornhill and I had always dreamed of living in Estonia, even if for a short while. I had Estonian citizenship, spoke the language and figured being young and single was the ideal time to make the move. I have now been at the club for ten years."

The biggest difference between Estonia and Canada is the accessibility and speed in which you can get your hands-on products. In Estonia, when you need to order something (especially spare parts), you can almost plan on not getting them for close to a week. In Canada, you generally only have to wait a day or two.

Whilst some larger purchases were put on hold throughout Covid-19, Paul was still able to purchase what was required. "I tip my cap to our Club Manager, Hanno Kross, who was able to make sure the greens department got everything we needed despite us having to really tighten our belts.

"For the most part, our club has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic. A couple of the clubhouse employees received positive tests and had to self-isolate, however, by some luck, the greens department has been unaffected. 2020 was the busiest year that the golf course has had; generally we average approximately 25,000 rounds per year, however, last year, we were over 35,000 rounds."

Mowing greens during National Championships

"The past eighteen months has shown how quickly our club has been able to adapt to an ever-changing situation. We would come up with one plan, start executing that plan then, two weeks later, have to do a total 180. Communication from the maintenance department, to the clubhouse, to the teaching pros was never ending. Everybody helped each other out whenever, and wherever possible."

It wasn't all so positive though as Paul's mental health suffered greatly mid last year. "There were changes in management within the maintenance department, namely me being promoted to head greenkeeper. Being short staffed in the spring and having to work long hours took its toll on me - both mentally and physically. Again, I give full credit to our club manager for being very understanding and letting me take a week off to regroup in the middle of June. Whilst I did seek medical assistance, I think it was probably more of an issue of being over-tired."

"I knew greenkeepers were a tight bunch before the pandemic, however, in the early months, it was amazing to see how much we were all willing to help each other out. With rules regarding golf constantly changing and us having to figure out various ways to keep the courses open and safe, everyone was willing to share ideas. And, by some stroke of luck, Estonia was one of the few countries in the European Union that never had to close its golf courses during the pandemic. I think that is certainly one reason why we had significantly more rounds played in 2020."

Mowing the 3rd fairway in mid-August

With all that behind Paul and the team (hopefully), the future is bright. "Whilst we currently have some issues with our greens, we are starting to deal with those. The progress will be slow and painful, but at least we are moving in the right direction. Due to the low cation exchange capacity, we are starting the process of incorporating more organic material into the rootzone - along with other soil amendments."

"To date, we have cleared a lot of underbrush next to many fairways and greens to increase sunlight and airflow. However, the major undertaking has been adding drainage throughout the golf course. Many areas in the rough are very wet and, in the spring and fall, we spend a week or two adding drainage."

"Whilst undertaking any projects, I think it's really important to communicate what we are doing to our members. I am very active on social media (Facebook and Instagram), where I regularly share photos of what is going on within the greenkeeping department. The club also has a newsletter that gets sent out ideally once a week, but definitely every 10-14 days."

Paul added: "We could really use a whole new fleet of equipment, as a lot of our machines are getting on in years. Our equipment is all the colours of the rainbow ... some orange Jacobsen, a few green John Deere and red Toro. As long as we keep replacing a piece of machinery every so often we should be okay. Our most recent purchases have all been Toro. Last year, we purchased a Campey TB 220 brush. It was constantly in use during March and April (to help stand the turf up after a snowy winter) and we have used it to brush in topdressing. It is a fantastic piece of kit!"

I was keen to get Paul's opinion of the industry from a European perspective. "I think the greenkeeping industry overall is in good shape. However, we do need to worry about encouraging the next generation of greenkeepers. I am far from old (37 years old), but in Estonia, I don´t see any younger people getting into the industry or considering it as a career. For the most part, it seems like people are getting involved in greenkeeping just as a job - with no real interest in becoming a trained and qualified greenkeeper. They need to see that there is more to greenkeeping than just your own golf course, and that if you are a trained and qualified greenkeeper, you have the opportunity to work anywhere around the world."

"It doesn't help that we are undervalued!... All we do is cut grass, right? What can be so difficult? What a lot of golfer's don´t understand is just how much goes into growing turf. Grass is not meant to be grown at 3-4mm and have over 100 people walking on it every day. Getting golfers to understand the stresses that the turf is under on a daily basis is a never-ending battle."

"The 'Thank a Greenkeeper' initiative organised by BIGGA, FEGGA and the GCSAA I think was a great idea. Now, we have to build on that. Making sure golfers know who the head greenkeeper is at your golf club is also very important."

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