Being on a plateau, Nelson Golf Club offers the finest panoramic views of the surrounding Lancashire countryside and the former industrial towns of Nelson and Burnley.
As a young local boy, Gary McKie was a keen golfer who knew he would never be quite good enough at the sport to make it as a professional. Whilst at school, he did two weeks of work experience as a greenkeeper at Green Haworth Golf Club, where he was a member. After what he would describe as 'the best two weeks weather-wise you can ever imagine', he was lured into a career in greenkeeping. On leaving school, Gary managed to get a greenkeeping apprenticeship at Rossendale Golf Club. "The day after my last GCSE exam, I started my first day at work. I stayed for two years at Rossendale until an opportunity came along at Pleasington Golf Club for an assistant greenkeeper. After two good years at Pleasington, the deputy head greenkeeper's position at Green Haworth became available, with a view to becoming the head man in time. With it being my home club, I already had a keen interest in the course, so I applied and got the job. I gained a lot of experience working in a team of two on a nine-hole course in the four years I was there. I never got the opportunity to become the head greenkeeper though as I moved back to Pleasington as deputy course manager. When the position for head greenkeeper came up here at Nelson Golf Club, I was not actively looking to move on after twelve years at Pleasington. What led me to put my CV forward was that I had played the course many times and always loved the place. Luckily for me, I got the position, and the rest is history."
Over the years, Gary feels he has gained a lot of knowledge from those head greenkeepers and greenkeepers he has worked with. "We all do the same job, but it is surprising how we all have our own spin on different things. You can take something from everyone you work with, along with your own ideas, and amalgamate it into one. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We have a great little team with a great mix of talent and enthusiasm."
The team comprises: Forty-nine-year-old Deputy Head Greenkeeper Tim Randall who holds a National Diploma in sports turf. He has been at the club for twenty months; Josh Monk assistant greenkeeper, Level 2 and 3 Diplomas in sports turf, twenty-four years old and has been with the club for two and half years; Zak Smith, assistant greenkeeper, NVQ Level 3 sports turf, twenty years old and eighteen months service; and Richard Briscoe, assistant greenkeeper, NVQ Level 2 sports turf, aged forty-one and twenty years' service.
The club had some big ideas for projects in 2020 but, with the COVID-19 pandemic, their plans had to be scaled back. Gary has had to prioritise what work his team was able to take on. "It was hard to plan as you simply did not know when one of the team may have had to go into isolation, there was furlough to think about, and staff still had annual holidays to take."
"In the second national lockdown, it made sense to get on with the project on the first tee. This involved relevelling the tee as the levels were all over the place, making it wider and extending it at the back. We have also realigned the path, so it aims down the hole. After this work is complete, I hope to re-drain five bunkers and do a sand exchange, plus we have two more tees to relevel."
Gary has been working with STRI on an annual basis since joining the club, but they did not have their visit with the pandemic going on. "Unfortunately, the visit was unable to go ahead because, at the time, they should have come in (March), we were in lockdown. Since then, the club has had to reduce costs, so we have postponed the visit until 2021."
The course's soil profile is predominantly clay, but Gary tells me that, with it being on top of a hill, it does tend to drain quite well, especially with the wind. However, his priority when he arrived at the club was to install drains in seven of the greens. "They are clay-based push-up greens, and there was nowhere for the water to go, so to improve the organic matter, we had to do that first. We have no plans to install drains into the remaining greens as they drain quite well except for in some localised areas."
The current irrigation system was state of the art when installed in 1976, but now its age is catching up with it, and it needs some improvements. "It was originally automated, but we are only able to turn the greenside sprinklers on manually. Over the last year or so, we have been changing the original heads to new Hunter pop-ups. Looking forward, we want to replace all the wiring and go back to a fully automated system over the next few years."
"Even though the seasons seem to be changing and we are experiencing a lot heavier rainfall recently, Nelson Golf Club is 800 feet above sea level and is still guaranteed to get a dump of snow every year. When it comes, it generally only hangs around for a day or two. The amount of rain we are experiencing is more challenging than the snow. Being so high up and so close to Pendle Hill we unfortunately get a lot of rain. I have noticed that Pleasington, who are thirty minutes down the road, have an online rain gauge so, every time it rains, we check our gauge against theirs, and we always get a lot more."
"Since I started greenkeeping, I have definitely seen a change in the seasons, and the winters are a lot milder and damper."
After walking the course, I could see that the club has a temporary green policy, something that I feel is getting a lot rarer in recent years with golfers demanding to be on the greens and with the area experiencing fewer frosty mornings. "We do still use them for frost. With the modern golfer demanding twelve months of the year play, the main goal when I arrived was to turn winter greens into frost greens. So, basically, only use them for when there is a frost, making the greens good and firm enough to withstand play all year. When we have a frost, we try to get them back on the original greens as soon as it has lifted."
Gary talks me through the seasonal maintenance of the greens. "We cut the greens every day in the summer months with the John Deere 2500E, with the cutting height set at 3.7mm. As we get to autumn, we gradually start to increase the height of cut to 5.5mm by the winter months, cutting once a week, or when the weather allows, with the old Jacobsen hand mowers. Four weeks ago, in the first week of the second lockdown, we scarified with an old SISIS we have and applied over seventeen tonnes of sand. Our yearly target for topdressing is one hundred tonnes. It will go on in three large applications. At the front end of the year we will hollow tine and topdress, then solid tine in the summer with some light dustings in between following a sarel roll or verti-cut."
"I like to aerate the greens at least once a month using our Wiedenmann Terra Spike using 8mm tines in season and vary the depths from ten, seven and five inches; this ensures we do not end up with a pan. We regularly sarrel roll, plus we use our John Deere Aercore with micro tines."
"In the past, we have not had the seedbed to carry out overseeding as we had readings of thirteen percent organic matter, but this will soon change as our recent test results have been much better with readings of six percent. We are on the right side with the thatch layer on the greens now, and they are looking good. In the past three years, it would have been a waste of time, plus the financial aspect comes into it as well. It is something we would like to look at doing in the future."
In summer, Gary likes to use a liquid feed programme on the greens which includes Microflow, Primo Maxx and Consolidate Turf. At the front end of the year, and in the autumn, he will switch to a conventional granular feed.
When Gary first joined the club, a lot of the machinery needed replacing or upgrading. "We needed a new topdresser, verti-drain type aerator, sweep and fill brush and a new rough cutter, so we did a deal on finance over seven years. Our frontline machinery is a mix of Toro and John Deere equipment which is also on a finance agreement. When looking at new machinery, I would not say I am loyal to any one manufacturer. I like to invest in the machines that are best suited for a specific job on this course. Our John Deere equipment is serviced by our local dealer in Burnley, Balmers GM Ltd, for our Kubota tractors we use GGM and, for our smaller machinery, we have Stuart from 'down the road' come in."
I asked Gary is there one piece of machinery or equipment he would like to invest in that would help improve the course. "I would like a Wiedenmann Super 500 to scarify the fairways and collect at the same time. With the same machine also as we have quite a few areas of long rough which could become thin and wispy, making it more manageable. I would also love to have the money to install a new automatic irrigation system."
Ecology around the course is essential to Gary and his deputy Tim, and they do what they can to attract new wildlife with what they have available to them. "We are looking at introducing some wildflower areas, and we have built a bug hotel with the logs from trees we removed between holes three and five. The course has quite a bit of heather that we would like to regenerate. For us, it is a matter of getting the balance right; we would like to do more in the future."
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected clubs and people in so many ways and Gary and his team are no exception and have had their own difficulties in dealing with the situation since the first lockdown in March. "We ran with one member of staff always on furlough. We have managed in such a way that a staff member did not take holidays while someone was furloughed; they waited until their furlough week. This meant we have never got down to three members of the greens team; we were always at four. It has been hard managing the furlough. It made it difficult to plan a schedule of work each week. For me, it has been frustrating that we were not able to pick up on those final details. Still, we have managed to maintain the bulk of the course and the greens have been good this year. Hopefully, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it will be great when all five of us are working together again."
"Personally, the pandemic affected me in much the same way as everyone else, but I was over the moon when the schools reopened. I have two young daughters, a one-year-old and a four-year-old who has just started school in September, so it was great for her to get the first term at school; she needed that child interaction."
"Financial spending has been put on hold at the moment to see where we are because the situation has been so unpredictable. The clubhouse has, like all the other clubs around the country, not been able to generate any income. One benefit though has been the influx of seventy new members as more people have taken up golf to get them out of the house."
The final question I put to Gary is what he considers to be the state of our industry and does he believe golf can thrive once the pandemic has died down? "It could always be better. On the golf side, it looks like we could be in for a good couple of years with the renewed interest in golf and the influx of extra members since the start of the pandemic. Fingers crossed, golf is on the up and people will sustain their interest once it's all over."
What's in the shed?
John Deere 2005e
Toro Greensmaster 3150 petrol x 2
Toro Reelmaster 3100D Sidewinder
Toro Workman petrol
Toro Workman diesel
ROUGH AND FAIRWAY MOWERS
John Deere 9009A TerrainCut
Toro Reelmaster 5110 CrossTrax
Allen National 68DL x 2
Jacobsen PGM22 greens pedestrian mowers x 3
Ransomes Certes tees mower x 2
Protea 510 tees pedestrian mower
Kubota ST30 loader
Kubota BX2200 with deck
John Deere 3045 with turf tyres
HANDHELD / PEDESTRIAN
Stihl FC410c brushcutter
Stiga SBK450 brushcutter
Kawasaki KBH 43A brushcutter
Efco Stark42 brushcutter
Tanaka ECV 45010 chainsaw
Stihl D-71336 blower
Stihl BR430 blower
John Deere Aercore1500
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXI8
AFT 45 Trencher
Sisis Veemo scarifier
Gambetti 400l sprayer