Taking over the course manager's role at Noordwijkse Golf Club in Holland recently has been Richard Wing. In this question and answer session, he charts his career journey thus far and highlights some of the pitfalls and pleasures of working abroad.
Founded in 1913, Noordwijkse Golf Club in the town of the same name in Holland, lies on the coast a few miles west of Amsterdam's Schipol Airport. It suffered from German occupation during the second world war and moved to its present sixty hectare location in 1969.
In this question and answer session, new Course Manager Richard Wing talks about his varied career to date and how he came to be working at this bracing North Sea links venue.
Pitchcare: How did you get into the industry?
Richard Wing: I have to blame my mum for getting me into the industry. She was the Office Manager at Abbeydale Golf Club, Sheffield (where it all began). I started with a summer job before and after my university study to become an engineer. After the second summer, I called an end to my engineering path and followed my new passion, turf. I was extremely lucky to have stumbled across such a wonderful industry and to find my 'calling' at a young age, knowing that many people go through life never finding their true passion.
What training and education did you undertake?
I completed a 3-year full-time BSc in Sportsturf Science & Management at Myerscough College, in combination with other industry training and qualifications. During my study, I was selected to become part of the R&A Scholarship programme, something that offers great benefits to help financially, but since has offered constant education and experience opportunities. I urge all student greenkeepers to pursue the scholarship and appreciate what it stands for in the industry.
Mind you, my career has been one constant training programme that has landed me in my current role. I am grateful to the excellent mentors that I have worked under and with, Warwick Manning, Dave Edmondson, Gordon Irvine and Richard Windows to name a few of the important ones.
Was there one person who inspired you?
In the initial stages of my career, it was more the freedom of a job working outside within sport and the opportunities to travel that inspired me to pursue turf management. However, this changed when I had the pleasure of working with Gordon Irvine. His passion for traditional greenkeeping and managing surfaces to promote the finer grasses completely changed my outlook on turf management, from then on this has been a driving factor in my career. Although I have not had the opportunity to work with Gordon since, we still remain good friends and I have volunteered to work out at Askernish Golf Club, one of his major projects (worth reading about).
Where did you work prior to your current position at Noordwijkse?
I worked at Abbeydale Golf Club, Sheffield during holidays and any breaks in my study. It was a great experience for a young greenkeeper working within a highly skilled and experienced team that were all willing to share their knowledge in all elements of course maintenance. I decided to work for one club, over short-term placements at elite clubs. I felt I would learn a lot more in a smaller team where I couldn't hide. There were not only opportunities but a requirement for me to perform a wide variety of tasks and learn quickly.
After my degree, I looked into the Ohio State programme and other opportunities, eventually deciding on a student summer job in Belgium at Royal Ostend Golf Club; a great experience and my first working with a team of different languages and skill levels. Within a matter of weeks at the club, I was offered the role as Deputy Head Greenkeeper, an opportunity I'm not sure would have happened so fast if I hadn't made the move abroad.
October 21st (my birthday) I was offered two jobs inside four hours, the Head Greenkeeper role in Ostend or to become Assistant Links Superintendent at The Island Golf Club, Dublin. As a lover of the Irish people, their way of life and Guinness from previous trips, there was no decision to be made. I packed up my car and drove my life from Ostend to Dublin. It turned into a great move for my personal life and also placed me working with Dave Edmondson, who has been a great tutor to my development.
In 2016, I was offered a role as an agronomic consultant for STRI, a role that, for years, had been my dream job and the inspiration to my career and education choices. It was an unbelievable experience, working at world renowned venues with some of the leading faces of the agronomy and greenkeeping world… the dream job, it appeared.
But, as I progressed into the role, the reality soon hit, many hours sat behind a steering wheel, many nights away in hotels and many days sat at a laptop in motorway service stations furiously typing up reports. The job that I had held on a pedestal for years was not how I pictured it. It started to badly affect my mental well-being and have a large impact on my life. Eighteen months ago, I took the decision to end my time with STRI and take a break from the industry completely.
Earlier this year I returned, so to speak, with a short stint at Leicester City Football Club, helping with the initial business plans and setup for their new Sports Turf Academy, a project that will have a tremendous positive impact on the industry.
Then Noordwijkse came up, almost twelve months after the initial application process started (due to Covid-19). I thought to myself how often will the chance to manage an elite links course arise. So here we are, on my travels again on the Dutch coast about thirty-five minutes from Amsterdam.
You have obviously moved around the UK and abroad on several occasions but what is your overriding thoughts on the experiences?
I think it's important for anyone looking at moving away for work to understand that it can be extremely tough, but also extremely rewarding. I don't think I would be the same person I am now had I not made those moves. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with some great people and made the best friends in many different locations.
What were the reactions you got from friends and family when you decided to move?
I'm sure that the people around me were nervous when I first decided to move to Belgium, but I'm thankful that my friends and family have always supported me in the moves I have made. Yes, relationships change when you are no longer in the same place, but you find new ways of staying in touch with people from afar.
Having spent many years away from your home, how does it make you feel going home?
One thing everyone should know is that once you leave, the idea of home is never really the same again. You're now split across two worlds or three/four in my case. There's more than one place where you understand how things work and there's more than one place with things to miss.
It's also true that you don't know what you've got until it's gone. When you move abroad and start settling into a new area, you soon start to appreciate things at home that were part of normal life at that time.
What is the main thing working in different countries has taught you?
The biggest lesson has been to never forget the people you meet. The people that are around you in both life and work are the most important thing, no matter where you are.
We could all learn a lot more by experiencing the ways that different cultures approach work. Even across the short span of area that I have travelled, there are some huge differences. Each of these have both positives and negatives, for me it's about pulling the positives from all of them.
Ultimately, you learn that we are all human, we all go about our daily lives in much the same ways with meals, work and circles of friends. Sure, there are cultural differences but, beneath it all, we're all human.
What is the hardest thing about living abroad?
Even though you can make it into one long, grand adventure, living abroad is not a permanent vacation. You still have to do those things you did at home, like work and having a social life, except you're in another country. It's hard to truly travel solo because it's so easy to make friends on the road, but let me tell you, it's harder to move abroad solo; it can be lonely.
The major positive to all this is, you'll learn how to cope better with your emotions and let somethings go. I don't believe the idea of moving abroad to find yourself. You might just learn more about yourself, faster. You'll learn that you're not the same person to everyone you meet, and there are different sides of your personality that emerge in different situations.
You'll also learn how you personally cope with different situations and, if you don't like it, you'll be able to work on changing it. You don't grow when you're in your comfort zone and moving abroad for me is one of the hardest tests.
Do you have any specific things that you implement?
I think everyone has different triggers, but there are plenty that are common amongst us all. It has been a learning curve and I continue to learn about what triggers my emotions and how to accept them and deal with them.
The first port of call is when an emotion such as loneliness comes up, it is important to understand it and not hide away from it. Realise the cause of the feeling and what you can do to help it in the future. Generally, loneliness is from a lack of social activities; we are social animals. I always look to sport to build myself into a new area and this has been my way of dealing with the cause.
There are plenty of things you can do to help make friends when you move abroad, but it means finding the confidence to put yourself out there. The easiest way to combat loneliness is to find other expats, because outsiders like to stick together. Just don't let that be the only people you try and connect with. Having to put myself out there has had a tremendous impact on my confidence in work and general life.
Next, would be to learn to be the master of that feeling when it arises, learn what makes it worse and what helps you. When I have been through these emotions, I recognise my lifestyle has normally shifted to unhealthy habits. I restrict alcohol, eat a healthy diet and focus on exercise to keep everything else in a good shape, making the mental state easier to deal with it.
What would you say are the major positives from being an expat greenkeeper?
There's so many, I've already spoken about the people you meet and they are by far the highlight of working abroad. I now consider several places home that I can return to whenever and feel part of the community.
It's a lot of fun… when I look at things that I have experienced that would have never happened, had I not packed my bags aged eighteen. I've partied in several European cities, attended many leading sports events and eaten a whole array of different foods. Everywhere I have lived, I now have the opportunity to experience them totally as a tourist or as a local.
And, what about in the workplace; how do you find that?
Greenkeeping teams are similar the world over. People work hard, they are committed to the job but also find time to get plenty of enjoyment out of the day.
The language can be entertaining, non-more so than when I started in Ireland, working with a guy from Drogheda. Yes, he spoke English, but I'd say it took me a week to understand a word that was said. The language barrier brings about some very entertaining moments, certain words can be mis-translated quite easily with several strange looks. One tip coming to The Netherlands, "Neuken in de keuken" does not mean "How are you?".
You've spoken about both good and bad parts of moving abroad and looking after both your body and mind when you have certain emotions, earlier you told us about leaving your role in consultancy? How did that come about?
Looking back at that period in my career, brings up different thoughts now to what I had eighteen months ago. I'm grateful that I was given the opportunity to achieve a career goal much earlier than expected. I've accepted that actually not everything works out as planned and that's okay.
Working in consultancy, and I'm sure the same can be said for other technical roles within the industry, it's certainly not for everyone. Experiencing these roles from the inside has given me the upmost respect for the individuals that work within the commercial side of our industry.
Ultimately, the combination of an isolated job and living away from homes (I consider both Sheffield and Dublin to be home now) just wasn't right for me. As the dynamic of the company and the role changed, I recognised the effects on my life that the role was having. I made a decision to walk away from my dream because it wasn't working for me and I'm happy with my decision.
I learnt a lot with STRI technically from my colleagues and clients, and also a lot about myself. My dad always said to me "you only regret what you don't do because there are always positive lessons to learn from doing things, even when it doesn't work out" and it is so true. I'm happy I experienced it and found it not be the right path.
How did you come to the decision to walk away from STRI and the industry, when you were in what you thought was a dream job, with a mortgage to pay?
I have to be conscious that everybody reading this will be in totally different situations in their lives. Yes, I had a mortgage to pay, but my situation was helpful; I was single with no dependants. People have said to me "that's easy for you" but I believe, by making the decision that was right for me, it has had a positive impact on my relationships with the important people around me.
I suppose, to some degree, you can be inspired to action or you can get to such a desperate position you have to take action. So that change was from one of a desperate position. I'm thankful to the people that offered support to me through that time.
When we listen to our hearts, it tells us how we truly feel. By finding my quiet space (mine happens to be with my trainers on running), it allows us to clear the head and listen to the gut instinct in the heart. It's only when the head comes back in that it will give us a hundred reason why not to do something. Follow the heart.
What happened during the time of resigning from STRI to now with you here in The Netherlands?
My change wasn't made the moment I left the role, it was made when I realised it wasn't the right path. In my limited spare time, I did education in different avenues, one being property. That way, when I finished work, I had something to support myself, I was invested in a property renovation. A change doesn't start when you make the action, it starts when you change your mindset.
My break had begun and well, I needed it. I spent a lot of time evaluating my life, I leant on some of my learnings to guide the process. I continued to read numerous mindset/psychology books, something I've tried to do since I was younger, and pick out things that were relevant to me.
One task I found beneficial was looking back at your younger self and asking are you being true to what 10-year-old me wanted? I was a child who loved playing team sports - cricket, football, rounders - you name it, I probably tried it.
Also, my career highlight, working at the 2018 Open at Carnoustie as part of the championship agronomy team, played a vital role in my life evaluations. It really highlighted to me that I am happiest when working as part of a team, something 10-year-old me would be ecstatic about.
I focused my attention on education that would get me back to within a team, that was both operational and project management. Then things happened that were on my path, the opportunity to work for Leicester City arose and, now I'm here, Noordwijske Golf Club, excited for the next chapter in my life.
It must be a lot, moving to a new country, a new role and a new language. How do you keep a clear mind?
It can be, but I try to implement everything I have spoken about already. I find getting my trainers on and running is my place to clear my mind. I come up with some of my best ideas and make the clearest decisions when I run. I usually have to slow down for a few minutes to take notes about my thoughts mid run, because they are gone when I'm home and showered.
You seem very happy in your current role at Noordwijkse. How is it settling in again, how is the language difference and are you learning Dutch?
Yes, I am happy here in Noordwijkse. The team here have been excellent, very welcoming, helpful and hard working. Likewise, the membership and other staff have welcomed me with open arms (not literally) and I am excited to see what we can do in the future.
When moving abroad, it's not like what people say… you don't just "pick up" the language and you don't just settle-in. I learnt that from my time in Belgium. Yes, I'm trying to learn Dutch, but it takes more than just hearing it. If you really want somewhere to feel like home, you need to put in the effort to learn the language. That means going out of your way to practice what you do know (difficult at the moment), and actively try and learn more.
Same goes for settling in, you need to put effort in. Covid is having a restriction on that at the moment but it won't be forever, and it just means I need to be creative in ways of getting to know people.
Is COVID-19 having a big impact over in The Netherlands?
In the current climate, everyone in our industry is going through a tough period and my thoughts go out to everyone that is suffering due to closures, cuts and furlough etc. We are lucky that, since the end of the first lockdown, golf has been allowed throughout with slight restrictions to 2-balls at times.
It has affected how the team here operates. Firstly, everyone was split into shift patterns but thankfully this has now returned to normal. We have three different bubbles with guys in two canteens and my office. That way, if we have a positive test, the whole team is not in isolation.
Did you ever feel undervalued or that the industry is undervalued?
On a personal level, I've never felt undervalued or that the turf industry is undervalued in the slightest. I think we are valued to the output that we provide to our employers and customers. I'm grateful to work in an industry full of good people with very different characters.
How would you raise our profile as an industry?
I think that an improvement the industry should make even more proactively is the education of business and management. Turf managers now need to be able to produce business cases and reports to guide the decisions made by our employers, be that members of committees or business owners. Once you can provide a detailed rational to your proposals and suggestions, you can be happy with whichever decision is made and not take it personally. You haven't offered your opinion, you have given a business case supported by facts.
By improving this part of education, we may begin to raise our profile amongst the competition of other industries.
What's the biggest thing you miss about home?
The guys here will tell you, not Yorkshire Tea as there are 400 bags sat next to the kettle. Obviously, friends and family, but outside of that it has to be the food. A full Sunday roast with Yorkshire puddings, gravy and lashings of Henderson's Relish (If you know, you'll know what I mean). It's the first thing my nose is attracted too when I'm ever back in Sheffield.
And finally ...
I want to finish by saying I hope some of my experiences are helpful to others in the industry who may be going through tough times. We have to look out for each other. If anyone ever wants to chat about any other struggles, feel free to drop me a message. Or, if you want some tips on becoming an expat greenkeeper, my Twitter handle is: @dickie_wing. Mind you, my advice will always be "make the move; it's the best thing I ever did!"
All images (except lighthouse) Kick Verhagen