Formed in 1913, Milford Haven Golf Club has enjoyed a long and mutually-beneficial relationship with those who use the adjacent waterway and its shores for sports, leisure and industrial purposes. Mike Bird visits a course whose maintenance needs occasionally lie a little deeper than normal
Laid out in a spectacular and historic waterside location, Milford Haven Golf Club is reminded, from time to time, that it shares its little patch of Pembrokeshire with an industry that is very much part of the modern age.
That industry is centred on energy, helping make Milford Haven the UK's third largest port handling, each year, more than twenty percent of the country's energy requirements in the form of crude and refined oil, liquid petroleum gas and liquefied natural gas.
Milford Haven's natural deep-water estuary makes it an ideal place to dock and unload the mighty sea-going oil carriers that bring in raw materials to be processed by the two oil refineries operating on the shores of the estuary - Valero on the south side and Murco on the north, less than a mile from the golf course's clubhouse.
Both crude oil and the refined end-products are pumped to and from the jetties through a network of pipes, fourteen of which lie buried deep beneath Milford Haven Golf Club, unseen and undisturbed until essential pipe maintenance is required.
The need for maintenance is determined by Murco refinery's maintenance team using a portable scanning device known as a PIG, the acronym for pipeline inspection gauge.
Inserted through purpose-designed hatches, the PIG travels the length of a pipe detecting and recording defects, which are then assessed by skilled oil industry technicians as to the urgency and timing of repair.
Normally taking three to four weeks from start to finish, repair work may be required at any time on the pipes, although the engineers strive to avoid peak playing periods and other important occasions on the golf course.
"Before the most recent work, in October 2012, we had not seen the maintenance engineers for around two years," pointed out course manager, Kevin Rawlins. "The refinery's staff and contractors keep us extremely well informed at all times, whilst ensuring also that noise and disruption are kept to an absolute minimum when repairs are proceeding."
"The engineers appreciate that they are working on a golf course and understand the importance of fostering and maintaining good relations. I would call the arrangement a great example of mutual cooperation and understanding which works well for both parties."
Whilst the on-course work is being carried out, members and visitors are still able to play a full round of golf, thanks to the foresight of the club which retained two surplus holes as spares when the parkland-style course was extended from nine to 18-holes in 1980.
Marked by a series of small discrete posts, the pipes, buried 2m beneath the course, actually date from the early 1970s when Amoco, the then owners of the refinery, reached agreement with the club to install them between its jetty and oil storage tanks.
To service the jetty, Amoco purchased, from the club, a strip of ground on the landward side of the 17th fairway on which a roadway was built. The club received around £12,000 for the land plus an annual rent.
"We do gain some other important benefits," commented Kevin. "Whenever excavation machinery and staff are working on the course, they are made available to help us out with landscaping or construction projects that would otherwise involve the costly hire of specialist equipment."
Last October, for example, Kevin arranged for the overgrown sides of a steep ravine to be smoothed and shaped by a long-reach excavator prior to having an attractive, yet sturdy post and rail fence, installed between the ravine and an adjacent pathway.
A backhoe loader, dump truck and driver were seconded also to help level an area of ground to the side of the clubhouse which had been earmarked for paving.
"Although not happening all that often, being able to call on additional specialist equipment and manpower has proved extremely helpful to the club and myself since we were forced by economic pressures to cut greenkeeping staff levels in 2008," explained Kevin. "Including myself, the course is now looked after by just three people, one of whom is a trainee part paid-for by a government salary-support scheme."
Kevin pointed out that, despite being maintained on a tightly-controlled budget, the golf course does benefit from having a modern and efficient machinery fleet, ensuring that work programmes are completed in a timely and effective manner by the greens staff.
"I liaise closely with the club's secretary and greens' chairman, both of whom understand that low labour resources demand appropriate mechanisation if the course is to be kept looking and playing to a consistently high standard," he said. "These essentials will take on heightened importance as we enter our centenary year and prepare for a number of high profile events."
Amongst the tournaments due to be hosted by Milford Haven Golf Club in 2013 are the Dyfed County Championship in June and the Welsh Team Championship in mid August, the first time that Wales' premier team event will have been staged in the far west of the country.
"I am expecting 2013 to be the most demanding of the eleven years that I have been managing the course," commented Kevin. "Not only will the Golf Union of Wales be advising on how the course should be set up for the team championship, but members and visitors will be looking to see a little extra polish around the course during the coming year."
To achieve this, he is able to call on a willing group of volunteers, drawn from the membership, who appreciate the benefits to the club if they assist with time-consuming tasks such as divoting, bunker raking and sweeping-in of topdressings following the main spring and autumn hollow coring programmes.
With appropriate back-up from members, Kevin says that he feels well prepared to handle the challenges of the coming year, supported by first assistant, Stephen Atyeo, and assistant greenkeeper, Shaun Dyson.
Kevin's confidence derives, in part, from the six years he spent as deputy head greenkeeper at Wentworth before moving the 230 miles west to Pembrokeshire.
During his time at Wentworth, he helped prepare the West Course for the annual World Matchplay Championship and for the PGA Championship. More recently, Kevin gained further valuable event experience by working as a volunteer during the 2010 Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor Resort. He is also a qualified Greenkeeping Level 3 assessor.
When he took up the course manager's position in autumn 2001, he found a golf club with high aspirations and ample potential for both expansion and upgrading.
To help achieve those aims, Kevin had access to a useful area of "nursery" turf, and a large amount of quality topsoil that had been secured by the club following the building of the refinery and other industrial facilities close by.
One of the first essential jobs identified by Kevin on the course was improvement of the nine greens that had been constructed in the late 1970s, when the original nine-hole layout was extended to 18.
"All of the newer greens are located on the lower side of the golf course nearest to the waterway, where the subsoil is predominantly silty-clays over sandstone," he explained. "I tried every form of mechanical treatment available to me, but the turf remained stubbornly poorly draining, adversely affecting the health, appearance and consistency of the greens."
Recommending a reconstruction programme for all nine greens, Kevin was given the green light by the committee and, between 2003 and 2010, progressively rebuilt the greens to USGA specifications.
Beneath each one was installed a new herringbone-pattern drainage system, piped to outfalls on the low side of the green. Using his stockpile of soil, mounding was also created around the greens, adding character and additional challenges.
Although costing around £250,000 in total, the work has had the required effect, with the newer nine holes now draining as well as the original nine "push-up" greens built in the mid 1930s when the club moved to its present site.
"It's amazing the difference that a few hundred metres makes to the ability of soils to allow satisfactory downward movement of water," commented Kevin. "I would have thought that the push-up greens would have been the ones to have caused problems first, but they remain level and continue to shed water really well almost eighty years after they were built, despite the high rainfall levels experienced in west Wales."
"Since completing the upgrade programme, all 18 greens can now support first-class play throughout the year, with a little assistance from ourselves."
That "little assistance" consists of 13mm hollow coring in March and early September, followed by heavy topdressing of a rootzone material matching the 70 percent sand, 30 percent soil mix used during the reconstruction of the nine greens.
The remainder of the 150 tonnes of topdressing purchased each year is applied over five or six separate treatments through the summer.
Amounting to little more than a "light dusting", the result, says Kevin, helps maintain a consistent putting surface, assisted by a fortnightly programme of verticutting between May and August.
"This action helps thin out and weaken coarser grasses, whilst avoiding the build-up of thatch," he explained. "Verticutting also promotes the gravitation of topdressing into the surface, producing the consistency of ball roll that is the number one requirement of our members, and of most other golfers."
Feeding programmes commence in early spring with Mascot Microflow 17:2:5 plus trace elements, a spring and summer liquid fertiliser formulated for fast uptake and response.
As the soil warms up, and then through the summer, Kevin alternates Microflow applications with Mascot Microfine 12:0:10 plus 2% Mg and 2% Fe, a controlled release granular fertiliser designed to provide sustained growth and good colour.
Kevin says that the USGA-specification greens receive a higher proportion of granular fertiliser, as he has found that the product does not leach as quickly as liquids.
Over winter, applications are made of Headland's Solufeed HI-K 13:0:45, a sulphur-free, high potassium, water-soluble fertiliser said to be well suited for low soil temperatures and turf that requires low, but readily-available, nitrogen input.
To combat the worms which favour the course's natural "push up" greens, Kevin uses systemic worm cast control, taking the opportunity to spray against leatherjackets at the same time.
Although the course has not suffered from moss infestation since the upgrading of its newer greens, Fusarium Patch remains a threat, which is dealt with pro-actively by Kevin according to the weather and the season .
"Mild, still, misty autumn mornings usually herald a bout of preventative spraying," he said. "The longer I've been at the club, the better I get to know the warning signs."
Groomers are fitted to the club's principal greensmower - a John Deere 2500B - which is set to cut at 5mm every other day through the winter months, reducing to 3.5mm over summer, when the turf is cut daily. For tournaments and major club and inter-club competitions, the cutting height is bench set at 3mm.
The club's previous greensmower, which was replaced by the JD 2500B, has been retained as a back-up both for mowing purposes and as the principal verticutting unit.
Tees are kept at 13mm during the summer months by a JD 2653B triple ride-on or a JD 220B pedestrian mower. Despite having only hose points and no pop-up irrigation, the tees have rarely suffered from lack of rainfall during Kevin's tenure, maintaining good, even grass cover from spring to autumn.
Most of the credit for this is down to the fact that the grass tees are taken out of play over winter, golfers moving onto purpose-built winter tees with high-quality synthetic surfaces, a number of which were sponsored by the Murco oil refinery.
Staying off the natural tees over winter frees up time also for the greens staff by removing the need for constant divoting.
Fairways are cut at least once a week with a John Deere 8700 five-gang mower, depending on growth rates, and Kevin makes a point of using the machine to create stripes which accentuate the flowing contours of the fairways and the demarcation point between fairway and semi-rough.
"I am conscious that some of our fairways are quite wide in places, and I am expecting to be asked to reduce widths ahead of the Welsh Team Championship in August," he said. "Although this may not be welcomed by all members, it will provide more time for other essential greenkeeping tasks if we can reduce the number of passes on some of the existing wider, more open fairways. It will also save on diesel!"
Ever since staff numbers dropped to three in 2008, Kevin has been looking for ways to cut the daily workload, especially on jobs that have to be carried out by hand, rather than by ride-on machine.
With the agreement of the club's committee, he instituted a programme of sand bunker reduction, both in number and in size.
Around a dozen sand bunkers have now become grass bunkers which can be mown rapidly by the club's JD 1600 Turbo three-gang rotary mower, instead of having to be constantly raked and topped up with sand.
Reducing the overall dimensions of a bunker has had a similar effect, whilst allowing Kevin to train his staff in revetting skills.
In addition to providing a firm and stable bunker face, the result has created a heightened challenge for golfers, as smaller bunkers with steeper faces are invariably more difficult to escape from, raising the importance of good club selection and shot accuracy.
A further time-saving measure has seen gorse being planted on the steep, rear-facing slopes of several elevated tees. As the gorse grows, it should provide an attractive covering on an unused part of tees that previously had to be maintained by hand.
"All of the measures introduced are designed to save time, labour and costs," explained Kevin. "Although proving a challenge, the steps being taken are helping the club meet its financial commitments and still produce an excellent golf course set in a superb location."
"However, it could not be done without the support and cooperation of everyone associated with Milford Haven Golf Club, both within and outside its boundaries. As we head into our centenary year, I would not want to be anywhere else."