Officially founded in 1891, Chester City Golf Club is situated on the banks of the River Dee and set on two levels overlooking Chester Racecourse with views of the Welsh hills. Course Manager Andy Whyman spoke to Lee Williams about his busy and challenging first year at the club.
Since joining a year ago Andy, along with his team, have not wasted any time getting stuck into projects and have taken full advantage of lockdown restrictions to help improve drainage and the course's aesthetics. With very little fall on the lower tier to the Dee, drainage is something that requires serious attention, but Andy addressed the problems early on. "Through winter, we have dredged the ditches and cleared all the vegetation out of the pond, as the water was stagnant and it was an overgrown mess. We have refaced the edge to make it look more aesthetically pleasing, we are looking at installing a water feature to oxygenate the water and also built a log habitat into the bank to help encourage crested newts and other insects. Now that it's clear, we will be able to drain into it when we look to start our drainage programme next year on the fairways and rough."
"On the second tee, we have cleared all the overgrown vegetation which obscured views of the Welsh mountains and built a large bug hotel to the left-hand side. We will be introducing wildflowers and beehives with the aim to sell the honey to our members. We are also currently working on regenerating the bunkers; so far we have edged them up and will be adding eighty tonnes of Chelford 45 sand which matches our dressings on the greens and means sand splash is not an issue."
Interestingly this year, the club has been working with Chester Zoo (situated three miles away) to undertake their tree management; this is an excellent idea as both parties benefit from the project. "They carry out all the chainsaw work on our trees, which usually equates to four wagons full of brash and branches, and this gets transported back to the zoo to provide supplementary feed for the animals whilst the remaining logs are used to create habitats for the local wildlife. The partnership has been working really well; it has saved us thousands and helped the zoo out, at a time when they were struggling due to the pandemic."
Over the next five years, Andy has a plan to help improve the course's ecology even further, and there is a lot to do. "We will slowly build it up by introducing more bug hotels, large wildflower areas and introduce natural grassland areas, whilst being considerate to the course and not interfering with play."
Another partnership that Andy tells me is working well is with Emma Beggs, Senior Agronomist for the STRI. "She comes in around August time and I will spend the day with her walking the course and taking soil samples. Once the results are returned, she will produce a report which is circulated both internally and to all our members. It is excellent to have their support with what we are trying to achieve and it validates the way we see the club moving forward by changing grass species in greens, trying to reduce fertiliser and fungicide applications per year, plus trying to be more sustainable. Our combined reports give scope to the members to see precisely what vision we have for the club."
"On Emma's last visit, we made a strong suggestion for the requirement to verti-drain the site, as we have suffered heavily with a pan that was five inches down. With her help, we convinced the club to invest in a new Wiedenmann Terra Spike which arrived at the end of September and it has made a huge difference."
Once a week, Andy will walk the course and sit down with the Greens Chairman, Mike Knight, with whom he has developed a good relationship over the last twelve months. "We will discuss what we have done that week and he passes on any feedback he has received from members. I produce the budget for the year based on what I believe we will spend, plus a buffer to cover any unexpected problems."
The parkland course is predominantly built on a clay base and, in winter, the fairways on the bottom level can get quite wet, especially when the river Dee rises. "The course does have a drainage system, but it requires a lot of attention and replanning to cope with the winters we are currently experiencing. The outlets for many of the drains are into the Dee so once that is high, and our ground conditions are at field capacity, we rely heavily on our ditches to take the water until the Dee drops its levels - to allow the ditches to drain away."
"Last year, we recorded around 460mm higher rainfall than in 2019 and every year it is going up; this January was the wettest on record. Weather patterns are shifting and we have to implement ways to keep the course open, even with the vast amount of rain. If that means draining more holes per year, that will be the course of action we will take - alongside providing more drainage outlets by building ponds and water sources around the site, but that's a long process."
The course has a forty-year-old fully automated irrigation system, which has seen some upgrades over recent years. "It has been recabled and there is a mix of Hunter and Toro heads on the tees and greens. Two years ago, a new Bailoy controller was installed, which is very good. I want to install new valves, but there is no point in putting new valves into a forty-year-old pipe system. It is fully functional, but I feel it's just a matter of keeping it ticking over at the moment. We have a contract with Greenacres Irrigation Ltd who undertake any repairs, but there is no doubt that we will have to look at a new irrigation system in the future, however, other projects currently take priority."
Left: Recent bunker regeneration project Right: Improvements have been made to drainage during lockdown
The original greens are predominantly the old push-up style, however, over the years, six of them have been reconstructed and are now sand based, giving a nice variant to work with. "In winter, we cut at 5 ½mm and, in summer, we go down to 4mm. Reduced staffing levels this year mean we have been cutting with the Toro Greensmaster TriFlex 3420, as I cannot afford for two people to be hand-cutting when we have such a large site. We cut every day in summer, but we won't always do a clean-up cut; it depends on growth and the weather. For example, if we are rolling straight behind, we might just roll the perimeters to give the greens a break. We have one green that is long and narrow and, because the Toro machines are not offset, it ends up leaving triple rings, so we obviously try to avoid that as much as possible."
"Greens are hollow-cored twice a year and we verti-cut and scarify as and when we need to. We apply anywhere between 100-120 tonnes of topdressing per year, to help dilute the thatch areas that have built-up over the years. In the next twelve months, we are going to be more excessive with sand applications, as we found it really helped address six greens that had a lot of black layer; those greens certainly smell and look a lot healthier now."
"Last year, in the last week of maintenance, we did a seed trial using ICL ProSelect Riptide (creeping bentgrass); overseeding the greens with sixty-six kilos, which were worked into the existing hollow-core holes with the sand and, after eight to ten days, we had some excellent results with healthy germination.
Following this, we are looking to increase the amount of seed and hire a Vredo overseeder. It will be interesting to see what kind of results we get in June using the Vredo; I'm hoping we get an even better strike using a disc seeder, but we will see which method works best."
"In summer, tees are hand-cut three times a week at 10mm, using the fleet of Toro Greensmaster 1000s and, in winter, the height of cut is lifted to 14mm. To help control growth and to keep them looking their best, we apply Primo Maxx II. Last year, our emphasis was on the greens but, this year after talking to STRI, we are looking at hollow-coring, deep verti-draining and applying some sand. This should help control wormcasts and also help improve the soil exchange. Tees are used 365 days a year, except for the three par 3 holes that have mats."
"We dropped the height of cut on fairways last year to 14mm and we cut them regularly to help thicken them up. This year will be the first year where we will implement a fairway feeding programme, including a wetting agent to see what kind of reaction we get."
Worms and the casts they leave behind have become a big issue (since Carbendazim was banned in the UK in 2017) and how to manage the problem has given many a head greenkeeper nightmares. Andy commented: "You can brush and switch them, which is fine when the casts are dry but, when they are wet, they just smear over the surface. We have to get the message over to golfers that more and more products are being removed from the market that help us control them and they need to bear with us."
The lower level of the course is prone to flooding
Andy has taken advantage of soil testing services available from STRI, ICL and Agrovista Amenity to compare results. He appreciates reps are keen to offer a fertiliser programme, but he believes in being his own man; judging what products to use and applying them to the greens when he feels fit - depending on weather conditions and how things are going. "I have very good relationships with a selection of reps and I know that I can get products in quick if required, as you never know what the weather is going to throw at you from one week to the next. I never stick to a plan; I have a rough idea in my head of what I'm going to do and last year it worked well."
Five years ago, the club started a deal with Toro for their frontline machinery. This is due to expire, allowing Andy to explore new options. "We are looking at whether we get a new fleet or just to replace certain bits of kit this year. Currently, It's a matter of weighing up the options and seeing what we can do." Andy has used all makes of machinery in his career, but he is a big fan of Toro equipment and cannot see himself moving over to another supplier. "Toro has always been reliable;
I like their units and how easy it is to set them up. We do have a mixture of machinery, that includes John Deere and Jacobsen, which will need replacing in the next few years either way. So, it is a matter of working out a plan of what needs replacing when and then presenting that to the club. Ideally, I would like to replace the whole fleet with Toro machinery."
Greenkeeping is in Andy's blood and you could say he was destined to carve out a career in the sports turf industry, as his dad is Course Manager at Burnham and Berrow Golf Club in Somerset.
"Ever since I was knee-high, I would go into work with my father and help out wherever I could. Once I got to year ten at school, I needed to decide what career path I wanted to take and greenkeeping was a natural choice. When I left school, I spent two years at Cannington College in Bridgewater and did my National Diploma in Sports Turf and, in the holidays, I would go to help my dad."
When Andy finished his course at the age of eighteen, he had a big decision to make. He was given a great opportunity at Carden Park, but this meant packing his bags and moving to the Northwest; a daunting prospect for anyone. It has now been sixteen years since taking that step and he has made the Northwest of England his home. Andy describes how the opportunity came about: "I phoned Andy Campbell at Carden Park to see if there were any positions available and, luckily for me, he was looking for an assistant greenkeeper. After the interview, I got the job and was offered staff accommodation and, since that day, I haven't looked back. After three years, I left and took up a position at St Anne's Old Links course with Stuart Hogg. After two years, family commitments led me back to Carden as a senior greenkeeper."
"In 2013, I joined Pryors Hayes Golf Club in Chester as head greenkeeper until this job came up, which I certainly see as a progression in my career. Pryors was a proprietary owned golf club, whereas Chester is a member's club. The added bonus is that it's closer to home and, being honest, it's the only club in the area I would have gone to without having to move out of the area again."
Andy wanted to give a special mention to three men who have greatly influenced and supported him throughout his career so far. "First is my dad, Richard Whyman - who first introduced me to the industry as a young lad, Stuart Hogg and Andy Campbell. When you are working for them, you do not appreciate how much you have learnt until you step away and take on the responsibility yourself."
What's in the shed
Toro Greensmaster TriFlex Hybrid 3420 greens mower
Toro Groundsmaster 4500-D rotary mower
Toro Reelmaster 5610-D cylinder mower
Toro Greensmaster 1000 walk-behind cylinder mowers x 2
John Deere 8700 PrecisionCut fairway mower
John Deere 2653B PrecisionCut reel mowers x 3
Jacobsen TriKing cylinder mower
John Deere X495 lawn tractor with collection box
Massey Ferguson 1260 tractor
John Deere 3520 utility tractor
John Deere 3720 front loader
John Deere 4520 compact tractor
Kubota L5040 tractor
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXI8
John Deere Aercore 1500
Many other bits and bobs