On the edge of the northern extremes of the Peak District, Saddleworth Golf Club in Lancashire is an 18-hole, par 71, 6196 yards parkland/moorland course. Close to the Pennine Way, the course occupies the northern and eastern slopes of Wharmton Hill and, from its vantage point 1000 feet above sea level, overlooks the villages of Saddleworth, Dobcross, Greenfield and Uppermill. Lee Williams went to meet 36-year old Head Greenkeeper David Roberts.
Hidden away in the moorland hills of Saddleworth, the golf course offers breathtaking views, no matter what time of the year. But, with the views, comes challenging conditions for Head Greenkeeper David Roberts, who is used to the ever-changing weather conditions associated with being, in places, 1,000 feet above sea level, with the surrounding hills reaching as high as 1700 feet.
David didn't start his career in sports turf straight from school; he stumbled into at the age of twenty-three. "When I was eighteen, I joined the army, and I was in the engineers, which took me to Afghanistan and Canada, to name a couple. After four years' service,
it started to get a bit boring so, when I left the army, I thought I would get trained up in air conditioning and earn an absolute fortune. Then we hit the financial crisis and there was no one taking on apprentices. That meant I had to have a rethink. Luckily, my mate told me there was a job going at Saddleworth Golf Club as he was leaving to join Royton & Crompton GC. I thought that would be a great opportunity until I could get back into air conditioning. I started here as an assistant greenkeeper as I had some transferable skills from the army. Plus, I used to look after the ground at Uppermill Cricket Club, so I could use a mower at least. I was able to take my NVQ level 2 in Sports Turf, but I then had a bit of a gap; we had a new greens chairman come in who changed everything around and made it not a nice place to work."
"So, I decided to go over to Australia to play cricket for two summers with all my expenses paid for. After those two years, I thought it was time to knuckle down and carve out a career for myself. I was fortunate to start back at Saddleworth as my position had been left open. And I was happy to be back as the atmosphere was a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. I was never really 'in love' with greenkeeping until I came back and got on with gaining my NVQ Level 3."
Head Greenkeeper David Roberts
"Daryl Smethurst, the Head Greenkeeper at that time, who was here for twenty-five years, told me he was going to retire when he was fifty. This gave me four years to put myself in the best position so that, when he left, the club wouldn't look elsewhere to replace him. So, I started my foundation degree in sports turf management, joined the R&A scholars and worked at Wentworth with the STRI agronomy teams in 2017; and I also worked at The Open at Royal Birkdale. I did my best to make myself into the only option they would look at and, thankfully, they gave me the job two years ago."
In January, David headed out to the Orange County Convention Centre in Orlando for the Golf Industry Show, as part of the BIGGA Delegation supported by Bernhard & Company. "We firstly had to apply through BIGGA and answer some essay questions about the industry, where we thought it was heading and our opinion on different matters within the industry. From the eighty that applied, twenty were selected for interview and ten were selected from there for the trip." David was lucky enough to be selected and headed off to Orlando towards the end of January.
Whilst there, he enjoyed two full days of educational seminars, manned both the BIGGA and Bernhard stands at the show and visited some of the top golf and sporting facilities in the area to see how they are run. "It was a once in a lifetime experience," he said.
David is grateful for the help and guidance that Daryl Smethurst gave him in their fifteen years working together at the club. "He taught me a lot over the years and, in the last few years when he knew he was leaving, he kind of put me in charge as Head Greenkeeper. He looked over my shoulder for eighteen months to make sure I was doing everything right, and that I wasn't going to blow the place up or break anything. This gave me the chance to manage the lads at the same time as gaining the experience I needed before I took over."
David is responsible for his budgets, but he is trying to input a new way of looking at how the club spends their money. "I will put a rolling figure for supplies, renovations and maintenance to the greens chairman who will then present that to the main committee. Then the finance officer will give me the verdict on whether they can afford it or not. I'm looking at a different way of doing things. It's ridiculous that golf clubs are run based on 'I think we will get this many members and we'll bring this much in for next year', but it just doesn't work."
"My idea is that, if we have a barren year, we do the basic minimum of construction work. Then, whatever was earned in that year is what is spend the following year. That way, we always know we are spending what we have got rather than taking the club down. It takes away the guessing game. You can't just say 'we will throw £50,000 at course renovations over ten years' as you don't know if you will have the budget for that money. Luckily, I have an excellent committee who are starting to understand the benefits some of my ideas will bring to the club."
The golf course is a mix of moorland and parkland. "The top of the course is more of a moorland character, whilst the lower reaches are more parkland, but we don't get parkland growth. We don't get much growth until around June and it stops around September, so we get a very short growing period up here compared to a lot of other courses. This can have a lot of negatives, but quite a few positives as well; the biggest one being the cost savings in diesel as we are not cutting all the time. It is a nice steady growth up here."
The course is next to some sandstone quarries, so it is no surprise when David tells me the course is on a lot of sandstone. "We do have quite a big peat level left over from the last ice age. Under the peat layer, it is free draining, so it's a matter of getting through that peat layer which sometimes works and other times not so much. This year, we have had so much rain yet it's been the driest the course has been in those kind of conditions for years. I have not done anything to the course to make it that way. I think, with the dry period we had the year before, it's just dried the profile right through enabling the rain to drain through a bit quicker."
"The amazing thing about this place is that it was a working farm. The owner spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to turn it into a grass farm to produce grass, and he couldn't do it. Then the land was bought to build a golf course on, so that gives you an idea of the position we are in."
The club used to own all the hills surrounding it, but over time the land has been sold off, so they are now right on their boundaries which doesn't give David much to play with. "We have no space to move a tee back and create extra yardage or make a little nine-hole course. This is a good thing in a way as it means we are not spending money on trying to make it longer, to try and get competitions in or attract golfers who like a long course. This enables us to get on with looking after what we have to the best of our ability, making little tweaks here and there."
Helping maintain the course to David's high standards are Pete Buckley, Deputy Head Greenkeeper, 34 years old who has served the club for sixteen years. He has an NVQ Level 3 in Sports Turf, chainsaw qualifications and tractor and knapsack spraying qualifications. Chris Hyde (30), First Assistant, who has been with the club for fourteen years. He holds NVQ level 3 in Sports Turf and tractor spraying qualification. Jake Standen (28), Assistant Greenkeeper, nine years' service. He holds NVQ level 3 in Sports Turf, plus knapsack spraying qualification. Chris Nicholls (21), three years' service and holds NVQ level 2 in Sports Turf and is working towards level 3 now with Oldham College. He also has knapsack spraying qualification. The club also has an army of volunteers who help out on the course and run the clubhouse day to day.
In addition to David's current staff, he would like to set up an initiative with Oldham College in the near future. This would see him take on two apprentices every two years. "We would give them an intensive training programme to work to. In those two years, we would give them all the skills they need to be a greenkeeper, at the same time gaining a qualification. The advantage for me is the chance to start hand cutting greens in summer and take the golf course up a notch. There would be no guaranteed position here, but if someone were to leave, we would have a perfect replacement."
Left to right: David Roberts, Jake Standen, Pete Buckley, Chris Nicholls and Chris Hyde
The greens are old clay bowl push-ups with native soils. "We are trying to change the top thirty centimetres with continuous topdressing. This has been going on for years; we now have a nice sandy loam coming together. We had drains installed on all the greens twelve years ago which work pretty well. One or two may need redoing, but we will look at a different kind of drainage, I may look at passive capillary drainage, so I'm going to see a few courses to see how it performs."
Not that David has had much use for his irrigation system of late, especially with the amount of rainfall we had last year. A borehole feeds the automatic irrigation system and has Hunter pop-ups around the greens.
Being so high up, the course can suffer from differing natural occurrences throughout the year. "We get a lot of high winds up here, the beast from the east was a good example of that. We have a lot of pines which are all shallow rooting so, if we do get any strong winds, we will get a few come down. I believe we have far too many trees for a moorland course, so it's not a bad thing when a few come down!"
"When it snows it really snows up here, and it can be horrendous. I have had days on end when I have been clearing and chipping ice off the road up to the clubhouse just so that we can accommodate a christening or such like. That said, for quite a few years now we haven't had much snow. Perhaps what we are being told about global warming means it's going to get milder but wetter in the winter and I think that is what we are starting to see. It doesn't just rain anymore, it batters it down, rather than the constant rain. It helps having the slopes; the water just runs straight off rather than sitting on the surface."
"We also get quite a few frosts and the club's policy is to use temporary greens. We have been doing a trial on the putting green by letting the golfers on it in frost. We have seen bits of damage, which tells me enough that we wouldn't want it on the rest of the greens. I know a lot of other clubs are starting to let golfers on the main greens in frost, which may work for them. But, for now, we are happy to continue using temporaries."
David talks me through his monthly maintenance regime on the greens. "In winter, we hand mow using the Baroness LM56GC at a cutting height of 6mm. Combined with plenty of aeration - either by slitting or with the Redexim Verti-Drain 7316 using 19mm tines down to 12 inches. The Vert-Drain was the first machine I bought. It's been fantastic and vital piece of kit."
"In summer, we cut everyday with the John Deere 2500E Hybrid greens mowers at a height of 3.5mm. I tend to keep this height all the way through summer, I don't like setting up differently for a big competition. I believe golfers should get the same standards on a Monday as they do at the weekend. Every two weeks we will open up the surface with sorrel rollers which we have on an old greens mower. Then we will try and apply around two tonnes of Chelford 28 sand which works well with our sandy loam. Once a month, we will verti-drain with varying sizes of tines at different depths, so we don't create a pan."
"I have been overseeding with bents over the last few years to try and create a better sward as the greens are predominantly Poa dominated - around seventy percent. I have tried various seed mixes so far, but I find highland bents take a lot better up here. I know the STRI ratings aren't the best, but it works for us."
David has soil samples taken once a year but believes that only gives him a snapshot of the time it was taken. "Unless I did it every month, it's not going to tell me everything. I know, through experience, what I need to add in the early season to get my NPK levels up. I believe it's more about the feel and the look of the grass to see if it's nice and healthy."
"To get away from the peaks and troughs you tend to get using granular fertilisers, I have moved towards a foliar regime which gives me more control. Using a stabilised nitrogen complex helps thicken the sward and gives a lighter growth. We have used a lot of penetrant wetting agents to help keep the surface dry, and calcium to help flocculate the soil particles in the greens, get the water moving through the profile a bit quicker and firm them up. We use a granular after we have done any heavy maintenance work as this helps aid recovery quicker than a foliar feed. This will generally be a conventional 4:0:4 with a good percentage of iron."
To cut down on the use of fungicides, David has been using a turf defence product which helps boost the immune system of the turf. This works alongside the penetrant wetting agents they have been using to help keep the top surface as dry as possible. "Fortunately, we have stayed cleared of much disease, and we haven't used a preventative fungicide for the last few months. We have historically used around six or seven applications of preventative a year, but I would like to get this down to two or three. You have to keep your eye on the weather, and there are plenty of resources now available to let you know when the high disease pressure is going to be. I also have a weather station which helps give me some indication, coupled with my own experience."
David and the club will look at what makes more financial sense when purchasing machinery. "We bought the Redexim Verti-Drain on finance due to the cost and our Toro Workman MDX-D's outright as we didn't see the need to put them on tick. We do have a leasing plan with John Deere, which has about a year left to run. With the price of machinery going up, I will have to take a look at what suits the course whilst working within the club's budget."
All servicing of machinery is carried out in-house except for cylinder regrinds. Chris Hyde is doing a lot of the work and is picking up some new skills along the way. David would like to send him on a machinery maintenance course, but there are no night or day release courses available.
With most treatments for the control of worms coming off the market in recent years, David is now starting to see a significant increase in the amount of worm casts around the course. "With the killers going off the market, and with what remaining active ingredient was in the soil wearing off over the last few years, plus the dry period, they have been rife. We are now spending days blowing and switching the greens, tees and fairways. The increase in the worm population has attracted the moles which we didn't used to suffer much with. We are also getting chafers and I have tried a few different products to try and keep them at bay, but I think we are always going to get them as most of the stuff is off the market for controlling them."
The club and David do what they can to help improve the wildlife already thriving around the course. "There is a nature walk right next to us; we get a lot of roe deer and birds of prey here. It would be nice to bring the course back more towards a moorland course as, in the past, the club planted a lot of trees which took it more towards a parkland course. Moorland is its natural setting. We have been linking up habitat throughout the course, leaving rough longer for the birds. We have put up bird boxes, bee hotels and made insect hotels where we have been cutting down and pruning trees."
Chris Hyde - First Assistant
Chris has worked at the club for fifteen years and is a fantastic asset to the course. He has a lot of experience on machinery and runs his own section on the course. In the last couple of years, he has taken the mantle of mechanic; servicing and maintaining the machinery to keep the greenkeeping team going through the season.
How did you first make the decision to start a career in the sports turf industry? The previous head greenkeeper is a family friend. So, as a student looking for some extra money, I worked here during the summer in 2004 and 2005. I then joined the team full time in 2006.
What are the biggest challenges you face? The most obvious challenge would be poor weather. Sometimes keeping firm playable greens can feel like a losing battle. The higher altitude and cooler temperatures can mean shorter growing seasons than most of the surrounding courses. Also, there are the personal challenges of juggling family life and trying to make the right decisions to progress my career.
Are you currently working towards a qualification or taking out any extra training? I am currently on the search for the next qualification to take. I'm trying to choose something that will most benefit both my growth and my usefulness to the club.
What do you enjoy most about the job? I enjoy working in the sun on a dry summer's day. Seeing the vistas on a clear day in the early morning, when the sun casts shadows on the undulations of the course. I enjoy the time and responsibility given to me in regards working my own section; the freedom of being my own boss gives me the chance to show the pride I take in my work and, in return, receive direct praise and acknowledgement for my hard work.
What do you find the most difficult part of the job? The changing of the seasons brings the dark mornings, and with it the struggles of getting out of bed when it's still dark. Also, the monotony of some of the daily tasks, especially at the end of the summer months.
How could the industry as a whole help support and help further your career? If there was some kind of graduate programme at the end, of which there was a guarantee of a deputy or head greenkeeper job.
Are you a member of any industry bodies? Yes BIGGA.
Do you read Pitchcare magazine or visit our website? There is always the latest copy in the greenkeeper shed available. Plus, the head greenkeeper will highlight important or interesting articles.
Where do you see yourself in the future? I see myself hopefully as a head greenkeeper. But, I have also thought about becoming a teacher to share my experience and knowledge with budding greenkeepers.
Is there anyone person in the industry who has inspired you so far? I can't think of anyone in particular, but I take time to read Pitchcare magazine and try to utilise other sources. This helps learn about ideas other greenkeepers are having and methods and operations they're using, as well the problems they're coming up against and solutions they have found. Also, our head greenkeeper spends time to push and support us. He attends courses and always shares the content to try and inspire us to be better than we are. He encourages us to strive for perfection - or as close as we can get to it.
Chris Nicholls - Assistant Greenkeeper
Chris Nicholls, Assistant Greenkeeper. Started with the club as an apprentice and has become a key member of the team in a short space of time which is down to his attitude to learn and work. He has also taken the responsibility of looking after his own section on the golf course amazingly. He has just started his NVQ level three only seven months after finishing his Level two.
How did you first make the decision to start a career in the sports turf industry? Looking back to sixth form education I never fancied going to university from the start. I've always been interested in horticulture and gardening, so when I saw an advert for an apprentice Greenkeeper at Saddleworth Golf Course, it looked a great opportunity. University is fantastic for some people, but I really wanted to get on the employment ladder and start a career. I'm glad I made that decision.
What are the biggest challenges you face? During the first year as being a greenkeeper, it was quite tough for me. I didn't drive so had to cycle in. The summer days seemed long and arduous, and I felt the biggest challenge was keeping positive when a lot of the time I was working by myself. Now, my mind has been changed, and I think it's a fantastic career and job opportunity where I can develop and broaden my horizons. I have even been volunteering as a groundsman at Oldham Athletic A.F.C, which has taught me other lessons about turfcare. Overall, I have found that when challenges have been overcome, there are fantastic opportunities that can be found.
Are you currently working towards a qualification or taking out any extra training? I am currently working towards my Level 3 NVQ qualification with Oldham College. The golf club has always supported me with training and education, and I thank them for that. I have also just completed my PA1/PA6 spraying courses and look forward to doing a chainsaw course in the near future.
What do you enjoy most about the job? There is an immense sense of pride and also a responsibility that I take and feel for the job. There is nothing better than looking back on a completed task however big or small that is. Cutting greens by hand for the first time or the football pitch and then looking back and thinking, wow, I did that.
What do you find the most difficult part of the job? The most challenging thing I find about the job is dealing with what the weather and resulting ground conditions throw at us. We can have four different seasons in a day, and that can put a strain on getting the job done to the correct standards in a decent time frame.
How could the industry as a whole help support and help further your career? I already believe that the greenkeeping industry helps support its members more than many other jobs, in my opinion. If there were one thing, however, it would be more opportunities to go and work at the big golf courses or sporting venues. To work at St Andrews or The Etihad stadium and just get a taste of the very top of the industry would be incredible.
Do you attend industry shows or educational days? BTME in Harrogate is always great to attend for education, new releases, and networking with old and new friends.
Are you a member of any industry bodies? Member of BIGGA.
Do you read Pitchcare magazine or visit our website? Yes, I often read the magazine and look online to see what's new and pick up tips and advice.
Where do you see yourself in the future? Hopefully at the very top of the ladder. I would not pigeon hole myself to just golf course either as a venture into cricket or football stadium work would also interest me in the future.
Is there anyone person in the industry who has inspired you so far? Dave, the Head Greenkeeper at Saddleworth because he is continually trying to push his career and the golf course forward. Whether it is education or trialling differing methods and networking, which I think a Head Greenkeeper should be doing. Also, Paul Flynn the Head groundsman at Oldham Athletic as he has worked and done great things with the pitch on such a small budget and manpower. In my opinion, he is creating one of the best pitches in league 2.
Saddleworth Golf Club was formed in May 1904 when a group of prominent local men and women met at the Mechanics Institute (now Civic Hall) in Uppermill and resolved to establish the club.
They moved incredibly quickly and, within a week, had accepted an offer to rent some rooms at Mountain Ash Farm and the adjacent parkland for 40 Guineas per year (plus a further £10 for fires and lights in the clubrooms). By the end of June, a 'committee of enquiry' consisting of three doctors, three mill owners, a bank manager and a solicitor had agreed a lease on the land and appointed George Lowe (ex-Carnoustie, St Andrews, Royal Liverpool and Royal Lytham & St Anne's) to determine a layout for a course for the sum of 1 Guinea.
After a few years, it was felt necessary to consider extending the course to 18 holes, and a report was prepared by the famous golf course architect Dr Alister Mackenzie and W J Leaver. Dr Mackenzie was responsible for the design of Royal Melbourne, Augusta National, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach amongst many others. Their scheme was adopted on 25th October 1913. Work commenced immediately and was almost complete when the First World War broke out in 1914. Delay was inevitable, and the 18-hole course was not finally completed until 1922.
The Second World War and its aftermath caused a considerable slowing in the development of the club and the course for financial reasons. Still, by the 1960s, the club had a new lease of life as male membership soared to 300 and on to 400 by the early 2000s and many new additions and improvements to the course, the clubhouse, the lounge and dining room, car park, practice and changing facilities have been incorporated during this time.
What's in the shed
Ford 2120 tractor
John Deere 3520 tractor
John Deere 1026R tractor
John Deere 2653B surrounds mower
John Deere 2500E hybrid greens mower x 2
Toro 3100-D Sidewinder surrounds mower
Toro Workman MDX-D utility vehicles x 2
John Deere Pro Gator 2030A utility vehicle
John Deere X950R
John Deere 8700 Precision-cut fairway mower
Baroness LM56GC x 2
SISIS Litamina sweeper
Pro Pass 180 top dresser
Landquip 200 litre tractor-mounted sprayer
Redexim Verti-Drain 7316
SISIS Rotorake TM1000 scarifier
Toro HoverPro 550 x 3