There's a golf course reputed to be one of the finest in the country, yet played by so few that its course manager, Pete Smith, refers to it as a greenkeeping heaven and hell. Neville Johnson went there to see what he meant and get a taste of a back garden with a link to a piece of trans-Atlantic history
The 7000 yards long, 18-hole Birch Grove course in Sussex is part of a 1200-acre estate once owned by British Prime Minister Sir Harold Macmillan. The Conservative politician, who led the government for six years from 1957, invited then world leaders like De Gaulle and Khrushchev to his country home at Birch Grove House. Most notable of these summit visits was that of President Kennedy in June 1963, just months before his assassination. There are photos of locals cheering JFK as he was driven to and from a nearby church service in the very car in which he was gunned down in Dallas.
There was no golf course on the estate then, but the same tranquility that's abundant now must have been a delightful backdrop to even the toughest of negotiations. As I talk to Pete Smith, Course Manager at Birch Grove, it becomes quickly apparent that this is no ordinary golf course. It is the back garden of a family home.
The Donald Steel designed course was first built in 1994 for the Chinese billionaire owner who bought the Macmillan Estate after the death of Sir Harold, then Lord Stockton, in 1986. There is a tangible and lasting link to Birch Grove's historic past. All the holes are named after guests at Birch Grove, including many political leaders. As Pete unrolls the story of life as the course manager there, I remember perhaps Sir Harold's most often quoted phrase, referring to the late 1950s economy; "you've never had it so good". As a professional greenkeeper this is certainly so for Pete, although there are a few drawbacks too.
Pete has been involved with the course from the outset, working on the construction team before becoming Deputy Head Greenkeeper when it was first played. He left to further his career as Head Greenkeeper at Bradfield College course in Berkshire a couple of years before the Birch Grove course was closed by the then owner. He came back at his personal request when he wanted to renovate it, and then left again, this time to manage Selsdon Park Golf Club in Croydon, before moving to manage the Cavendish Golf Club, near Buxton.
The Birch Grove course was, at this time, just about ticking over. The owner this time had closed the back 9, using just the front 9 for play. He never really put any resources into its upkeep and Pete was used now and again as an outside advisor. He told him that, to be an effective golf course, he needed investment and full-time professional management. That was six years ago. Shortly after, he put the estate up for sale.
A phone call out of the blue from the new - and current - owner when Pete was on the M1 asked him if he was interested in doing another renovation. How much would it cost to get it back to being a prime 18-hole course? What would it take? He went to Birch Grove the following day to discuss the project. The back 9 needed to be stripped off once more, and the front 9 would require substantial remedial work.
It was a challenge Pete could not refuse. He knew the beauty of the course very well. Work got under way in the spring of 2012 with wide scale koroing, as reported at the time in a Pitchcare feature. Since then, he has been Course Manager.
There is no other full-size 18-hole course in the country that exists for the same purpose as this one. It is unique. The owner uses it simply for private entertainment. There are also occasional community days, such as an annual one for the Sussex Police, but these are rare. Pete, quite literally, never really knows when golfers are going to turn up. He might get a call at any minute to tell him that so and so is coming to play the course tomorrow - or even that afternoon. It always has to be ready and be the best ever golf experience for whoever it is. Nothing less will do.
Carved out of the Ashdown Forest, it is a very tough course with 73-par standard scratch. The top section used to be farmed and has heavy fertile soil, and the lower half stretches into the forest with heathland terrain and acidic sandy sub-soil. It's heathland and parkland rolled into one. It's a huge challenge for golfer and greenkeeper.
For each and every hole the tree line is both beautiful and problematic. It causes hardship for play and surface upkeep. In January, when I visited, only four of the 19 greens, including the practice green, would be getting direct sunlight, yet on a crisp sunny morning the whole place was alight with interest and golfing challenge. A joy to behold, and that is no exaggeration.
Just 150 rounds - give or take - are played each year. Forty of those could be on a single day. Busy it never is.
"Nobody ever walks off disappointed - however well or otherwise they might themselves have played," said Pete. "My brief is to see that whoever plays here leaves feeling that it is the best course they have ever played."
It's a near certainty that no one will play here between the end of October and April. The 1200-acre estate is very much a shooting estate and, every Thursday, there is a game-shoot, which includes the whole of the course area. You can see many a gun peg as you walk around it. There are also clay pigeon and running boar shoots for guests to enjoy.
The massive benefit to Pete about the over winter absence of golf at all is that it guarantees him a 5-month period to carry out renovation work.
All serious scarification and topdressing can be done without interruption, which is unquestionably heaven to a greenkeeper.
In summer, the course is at its most joyous - to play and to keep in trim. In winter though, cushion moss imposes itself extensively on the fairways. It is a consequence of tree line shade and airflow restriction. It's not unusual for this type of course, but regular winter months play that a normal club course experiences does, to a certain extent, alleviate this, Pete reckons.
"Players' spikes do unsettle the moss plant to some extent. On a club course with golfers constantly walking over the fairways and greens, there's a natural hardening effect on turf, improving disease and wear tolerance somewhat. That's not the case here. Some of the fairways can get to be 60 or even 70 percent moss during the winter," he said.
Because there's no winter golf, he has the luxury of being able to deal with it in a single 'hit' every spring by using a chelated iron product which stresses it out enough, ahead of scarifying and re-seeding in two directions with traditional J Fairway fescue-bent fairway mix with added rye. Within a couple of weeks, the fairways are in fine shape and ready for summer.
The greenkeeping challenges at this course are altogether different to those of a busy golf club. Pete knows exactly what life is like with the daily and commercial pressures of membership and committees from his time at the Selsdon Park and Cavendish clubs, and there's many a day, he admits, that he misses the hustle and bustle and rough edges of the golf club environment.
Dealing with the sort of challenges Birch Grove provides would be cost prohibitive at many courses, but Pete is afforded the tools he needs to bring the fairways back each spring. That may be heaven, but Pete would rather not have to deal with it. He'd rather have a decent fairway all year round!
His other fairway issue over winter is duck damage, Birch Grove golf's collateral from estate shooting.
There is no such thing as a rest day. Pete and his colleagues, Rob Wallis and Matthew Paragreen, never get caught out. The course has to be ready for play every day, and is.
"It is strangely motivating," says Pete. "Not seeing anybody for weeks on end, with a perfect course around you could demotivate you, but we are always on top of things and never fall into the trap of letting things go, even temporarily. That would be an unprofessional vicious circle to avoid at all costs. If that's your style, Birch Grove isn't for you. You need to keep your energy levels up."
The day I'm there, Pete takes me to see Rob and Matthew hard at work building a revetted wall around one of the bunkers.
Twelve months ago he brought the owner's attention to the shortcomings of the original splash-face bunkers.
They were frequently puddling and washing out and it was inefficient and time consuming for a small team to keep pushing sand back into bunkers after rain. More especially, if there was heavy rain the day before important guests played the course, the sight of thirty water-filled bunkers was far from impressive. He suggested taking a couple out altogether and the rest to have revetted walls to reduce the drainage slope. The winter breaks, last year and this, has allowed Pete to carry out these changes.
When it comes to course maintenance matters, the owner has always been supportive with the resources Pete needs to produce such an outstanding course.
"He is 100 percent supportive in terms of funding, equipment and resources. He has put his trust in me, and the freedom I get is sheer heaven."
Pete uses a lot of seaweed products and OGT Seaweed is what he calls the mainstay of his maintenance programme. He also uses 120 litres of Primo Maxx a year. He sprays tees, fairways and approaches 'wall to wall' with it because it enables them to keep on top of mowing and ease the general workload.
All the greens are sand-based USGA, and so very free-draining. They are hand cut over winter and Triplex trimmed during the summer playing period, cut to a minimum of 4mm because they are very undulating. A stimpmeter showing 8½ may not sound fast but, on Birch Grove's greens, the contours are such that they are naturally speedy.
There are Rainbird irrigation heads on all greens, tees and approaches, and the estate has its own reservoir, which is filled by extraction under licence from natural springs. The course will never go short of water.
Pete has, for some time, been involved with BIGGA and is currently its South East Region Chairman. He was about to go to Harrogate to attend this year's BTME - a rare spell away from Birch Grove. He was looking forward to the usual buzz and banter with other professionals, and offered this rye remark:
"Fellow greenkeepers often say to me I'd love to be left alone to get on with the job like you are Pete. I expect they will again this year. I always tell them; 'don't kid yourself, you'd miss all the club interaction - good and bad'."
Myth and mystique are two words that sum up the Birch Grove golf story. The myth in the golfing world is: does it really exist? The mystique is, how do you ever get to play it?
The few that have played Birch Grove testify to just how exceptional it is, as do top greenkeepers who have set eyes on it. It is legendary, and Pete admits it's what keeps drawing him back. It continues to give him a unique professional challenge.
"It's given me the opportunity to do what no other greenkeeper has done before, and that is to koro 18 holes - 27 if you remember that half the course has been done twice - and also silage such huge areas of fairway and return it to top playing condition. I've been very lucky."