Minthis Hills was the first golf course to be built on Cyprus. Originally known as Tsada Golf Club, this year it celebrates its twentieth birthday. Its reincarnation to become one of the best courses on the island, in the face of stiff competition, has been led by English head greenkeeper, Chris Furneaux, with the redesign and build undertaken by a number of UK based companies.
In this article, Chris explains how he became involved and the issues he faces on a daily basis
On Christmas Day 1989, my grandparents bought me my first half set of cut down golf clubs. I was eleven years old. They arranged lessons for me at my local golf club in Launceston, Cornwall, and my lifelong love affair with golf had begun. By the time I had completed my A-levels, my aim was to achieve a career somewhere in the golf industry.
Aged eighteen, I took a two year ND Golf Studies course at Merrist Wood College, Surrey and, upon qualifying, took a job at Guildford Golf Club as an assistant greenkeeper. My first morning was spent chasing and trying to catch an injured deer which was staggering uncontrollably around the course. I thought to myself that this was a strange job, but I persisted with it nonetheless. Within a few weeks, I became hooked on the outdoor lifestyle whilst picking up new skills every day.
I left Guildford in 2000 to join Merrist Wood Golf Club in order to gain experience of maintaining USGA greens. After a takeover and a big change in personnel, I was promoted to Deputy Head Greenkeeper under the stewardship of Gareth Rogers. However, the daily grind on a course that was prone to severe flooding in winter, as well the financial difficulties of living in Surrey on a low salary, left me wanting to make a lifestyle change.
One of my lecturers at Merrist Wood was Peter Bradburn, who had moved on to become Course Superintendent at Aphrodite Hills Golf Club in Cyprus and was looking to employ seasonal staff for the grow-in period in 2002. Fed up with the long, wet British winters I applied and got accepted. This was the job that changed my life.
I stayed at Aphrodite Hills for a further three and a half years, gaining crucial experience in correct maintenance techniques. In August 2005, a good friend of mine, Pablo Moran from Spain, whom I'd worked with at Aphrodite Hills, asked if I would like to join him at Golfpark Puntiro in Mallorca as a Deputy Head Greenkeeper for the grow-in project of a new Nicklaus Design golf course.
I jumped at the opportunity of a managerial position on a Nicklaus grow-in project, and we each decided to devote a year of our lives to ensure that we delivered the course on time, to the required standard, ready for opening in September 2006.
We trained a completely inexperienced team of local Spaniards to a good level and, importantly, I took Spanish language classes in order to improve my communication skills, as none of the staff spoke a word of English.
Once the course opened, I then enjoyed a very happy year and a half making good friends in the local ex-pat community, whilst improving my Spanish substantially. In the meantime, I was learning even more about the various native grasses, environmental difficulties and water management techniques needed in order to maintain the course to a good standard.
By 2008, I felt I was now ready to manage my own course and so, in March of that year, I applied for the Head Greenkeeper job at Minthis Hills Golf Club, Cyprus, just a few miles north east of Paphos. As the course was owned, at that time, by the Church of Cyprus, I was taken to the local Bishopric where I was interviewed by some of the town's leading priests. I must have made a good enough impression because I was offered the job.
Minthis Hills, formerly known as Tsada Golf Club, has had a complicated life and yet it has hardly even reached adolescence. It was originally built ready for opening in 1994, using a Donald Steel design but constructed in-house by local contractors. It was the first grass golf course in Cyprus, but it was very badly built with extremely poor drainage and irrigation systems that caused flooding in winter and large, dead patches of grass in the summer. The course, then, was owned by the Church of Cyprus and built in a hilltop valley around an 11th century monastery. It is 550 metres above sea level and is very Cypriot in character, with numerous vineyards, olive, carob and walnut trees dotted around its parkland site.
After years of flooding and drought, which were severely damaging the playability of the course, as well as costing thousands of euros each year in reparations, it was decided an upgrade was necessary in order to try and increase membership and attract more tourism revenues.
This time the architect, Tom MacKenzie of MacKenzie and Ebert Ltd, was brought in to plan the redesign. John Greasley Ltd was the construction company involved and Irrigation Control Ltd was contracted for the irrigation work. In 2006, the course was completely closed for over a year whilst the reconstruction work took place.
At this time, various experiments were carried out in order to find out which soil conditions were most favourable to grow grass in this environment.
Some greens were rebuilt to USGA specification, whilst others retained their original clay push-up form. The tees and bunkers were all rebuilt and the fairways reshaped. Some fairways were built with a 10cm sand cap, others were left clay based. A new reservoir and irrigation lake were constructed, as well as the installation of a brand new pump station and irrigation system. Numerous open, concrete storm drains were added as features and to harvest as much rainfall as possible into the new reservoir. The course was also completely reseeded with cool season grasses and was re-opened for play in April 2007.
When I arrived in 2008, the church were in the process of selling the club to Pafilia, a real estate development company whose aim was produce one of the top golf resorts in Europe, beginning with renaming the complex Minthis Hills. However, it was clear to all involved that the golf course was not anywhere near this level, so Tom Mackenzie was asked back to completely redesign the complex to give Pafilia a platform on which to market their houses.
My brief was to help oversee the complete rebuilding of the golf course. Most of this work was outsourced, but a great deal of it was my responsibility.
The new plan for Minthis Hills was for the development of around 500 new top of the range villas as well as a spa, village square and other exclusive facilities, including a new, modern, geometric style clubhouse. The layout of the course was now parkland style, with a par of 71 measuring 5,843 metres from the back tees.
Maintaining a cool season golf course in a Mediterranean environment was completely unsustainable in the summer months, mainly due to the fact that we could only produce 80% of the water needed each day to keep the grass healthy. We were also lacking about 300 sprinklers for full irrigation coverage. With Tom's approval, we decided to completely reseed the fairways and roughs with Bermuda grass, which is more drought tolerant and compatible with the Cypriot climate.
In May 2009, we closed the front 9 for four months, killed off the old cool season grass, reseeded and grew-in a new Bermuda grass golf course. The following year, we did the same on the back 9 and practice areas.
We also had to undertake a number of other projects in order to improve the aesthetical appearance and playability of Minthis Hills. We removed around 800 trees, mainly unsightly, water sapping Eucalyptus, but also a great deal of Cypress trees which had originally been planted in lines adjacent to the fairways, giving an artificial appearance to the place.
Tom redesigned the planting patterns and replaced these species with native olives, carobs and pines. This was an incredibly demanding time, with special care having to be taken in order not to damage the existing irrigation system. All irrigation lines had to be identified beforehand in order to prevent any damage to pipes and sprinklers.
The previous irrigation layout was my main gripe. Together with Giles Wardle of Irriplan Ltd, I walked the course to map out an improved irrigation system that would give complete and even water coverage. We needed around 300 new sprinklers to achieve this, but we could only budget for 150. Irrigation Control, along with my irrigation technician, Petros Almazidis, were contracted to carry out this project.
The driving range was also given a makeover, with a new weather shelter, office, toilet facility and fresh landscaping. I was asked to design and construct a practice putting green in order to complement the newly landscaped area. We completely built a 300m2 green from scratch to USGA specification over a period of six weeks.
Another project was to rebuild our par 3, 13th hole. Tom was briefed to design a signature island green on which to market the resort. Southern Golf were hired to shape and construct the green, and the end result is quite spectacular.
We are still to complete the final phase of the golf course renovation project. The work outstanding is the tidying, planting and re-shaping of the golf course boundaries, as well as the landscaping and planting of the bare tee surrounds.
We are currently in talks with the local government to increase the capacity of our main reservoir in order to receive treated sewage effluent water from Paphos. Another requirement from the government is that the golf course needs to cover an area of 52 hectares in order for the licences to be approved for the main real estate project. As the golf course currently only covers an area of 40 hectares, we are planning to relocate holes ten and eleven as well as constructing a new 3-hole golf academy. This will involve another mini-grow-in project, which I am eagerly looking forward too.
I am very fortunate in that three of my staff, Argyris Maratheftis, Costas Christodoulou and Sotiris Charalambous, speak very good English. Each morning, they help me with translating to the non-English speakers what jobs we have planned for the day and how we intend to do them.
We employ one full time mechanic, Gregoris Efthimiou. I have a young greenkeeper, Fotis Kotzias, who is also a qualified mechanic and can cover sufficiently when Gregoris is away for whatever reason. All staff make the normal pre-start checks to our machinery each morning and all maintenance is carried out in-house.
I have a specialist irrigation technician, Petros Almazidis, who is very capable when it comes to installing and maintaining our system to a high standard. The youngsters - Sotiris, Fotis and Pambos Charalambous - get the majority of the physical jobs as they tend to pay more attention to detail and are young and fit. The older guys - Argyris, Costas and Stelios Constantinou - tend to have the less demanding jobs, whilst I take on most of the important chemical and fertiliser application work myself.
I aim to share the workload as much as possible as I want to create a team of equals who work hard for each other. I have always followed the philosophy that "every man should be able to do every job" and my staff are all trained to be able to use every machine. I do not have a designated second in command, but am confident that, when I am off duty, my staff can be trusted to solve most problems without needing my help.
Having a well presented golf course is extremely important to my employers as they are promoting the course in order to sell houses. As a golfer, I favour playability as being just as important as presentation, so I always try to find an even workable balance between the two.
We have a team of four landscapers who, although not under my control, are responsible for maintenance of all the clubhouse gardens as well as the new landscape planting project currently underway outside the course and throughout the resort. Apart from that, all the maintenance and construction work done inside the boundary of the course is my responsibility. Due to budgetary constraints, we do every project possible ourselves in-house.
Generally, the soil profile here is very difficult to work with. We are very high in alkaline, averaging about 8.1 on the pH scale. The heavy clay soils are made up of very fine particles which do not freely allow water movement down to the root base. In summer, with temperatures of up to 40OC, the clay bakes and can become very dry and brick-like in texture. A great deal of irrigation and aeration work is needed in order to help the soils drain freely. The soils are high in calcium, potassium and magnesium, but low in iron and phosphorous. The Cation Exchange Capacity here is generally good, so nutrient retention levels are sufficient.
We have a combination of seventeen clay push up greens, whilst our signature island green and practice greens are sand based to USGA specification using 100% Providence (SR 1119) Creeping Bentgrass.
The tees have all been constructed with a pure sand cap of 10cm. They were originally sown with a 40% Perennial Ryegrass, 20% Pro Pratensis, 40% Tall Fescue mix. I topdress using 100% pure Egyptian sand quarried from the Sahara desert.
Compared with the UK, we have to do a great deal more irrigating. In summer, we do not have any rain from June until late September. It is even quite usual here, in the winter months, to go for up to three weeks without any rainfall at any one time, so it can be necessary, even in January, to top up soil moisture levels with an irrigation cycle.
We hand water greens and tees every day in the summer months and apply Headland Tricure wetting agent once a month from April to September in order to prevent Dry Patch. During the summer, the irrigation system is checked every three weeks to ensure that all the sprinklers are operating correctly. We have our own private reservoir which has a capacity of 130,000m3. This is fed by an intricate storm drainage system which runs through the golf resort, channelling rainwater directly to the reservoir. We also supplement this by using three borehole wells drilled from an underground lake. We can produce up to 1,400m3 of water each day for use on the course.
We have a Toro irrigation system with up to 700 sprinklers, all controlled by individual decoders. They are wired to two main decoder interface units (DIUs), and these are connected to the main irrigation computer which runs the Toro Sitepro 2.3 softwear.
We have a climate here of many extremes, the temperatures can range from minus 2OC degrees in winter up to 40OC in summer.
Generally, we will experience ground frost on some mornings during the winter months and will keep the course closed until the greens have thawed out. In summer, we are completely reliant on our pump station and irrigation system. Mediterranean storms can be quite ferocious, typically we may record 15mm of rainfall in an hour and winds can gust up to 40mph.
Excessive hand syringing of greens and tees is needed in the summer to cope with localised dry patch. A decently well mapped irrigation system is essential in order to maintain balanced water coverage throughout the golf course. A blanket spray of the greens once a month during the summer period with Tricure wetting agent helps the grass to absorb and retain water. Regular liquid applications of fertiliser and bio-stimulants are needed in order for the plant to retain nutrients. We also regularly aerate greens every three weeks, either with 8mm solid tines to a depth of 15cm or with sarrel rollers to help water move through the soil profile.
On hot, dry, windy, summer days, it is quite possible for a forest fire to start, either naturally or by criminal negligence. We have had many narrow escapes in the past few years with out of control fires raging very close to the course. Fortunately, the island employs full time fire watchers, with specialist water carrying helicopters used to help fight fires. It is quite normal, though slightly depressing, for a helicopter to take water from our main reservoir in order to treat a local fire that is out of control.
Our company owns a small fire truck which we have used ourselves many times in the past to help neighbouring farmers control blazes. It is also used as insurance for us in protecting our own golf course from any damage. As a precaution, the fire truck is on stand-by at the maintenance facility all year round.
The golf course used to suffer terribly in the past from flooding. Since the construction of the reservoir, we no longer suffer, even during the worst storms. The only big problems we experience now from storms are bunker wash outs and tree damage. The green surrounds were not well designed, so heavy rainfall and irrigation water tends to collect in the bunkers rather than bypass them as it should!
The clay push-up greens we have do not drain anywhere near as well as our sand based USGA ones. In periods of heavy rainfall, we will close the golf course as the greens generally need up to two hours of dry weather before they are playable again.
We do not really have too many problems with shade and air flow issues. We cleared about 800 trees during the major renovation works five years ago and replaced them with 800 native trees. Bermuda grass hates shade but, to compensate for this, we prune all the trees within the golf course each winter to provide enough sunlight for the shaded areas to stay healthy throughout the following year.
The greens are cut using a Toro 3250-D Greensmaster every two days at a height of 4mm throughout the year. For important competitions, I drop the height to 3.5mm. I roll them at least twice a month with the Tru-Turf roller, although we do extra rolling before large competitions. I rotate the frequency of the grooming (at 0mm) depending on how much growth and grass coverage we have.
In addition to grooming, we usually verticut at least once a month with the Thatchaway Units to a depth of 1mm during the growing season to prevent them from getting puffy. During winter, when there are periods of very little growth, I tend not to do any verticutting at all and concentrate on spiking and pencil-tining instead.
The sarrel rollers are used on the greens at least once a month all year round. Our Toro ProCore 648 is also quite a busy machine. The greens will be spiked every three months using 10mm solid tines to a depth of 15mm. This procedure is usually followed by a light dusting of sand.
In addition to this aeration work, we also do two intensive greens renovations which take place each year in mid-May and early September. A week prior to this work, I apply my monthly application of Tricure mixed with Seamac Plus, at a rate of 10 litres per hectare, in order to give the plant some protection from the stress it is about to receive.
The greens renovation work involves first hollow coring, using the Toro ProCore. Once the cores have been collected, we will make a single pass with the Graden, scarifying at a depth of 10mm. We blow the clippings away with our Buffalo Twin Turbine blower, followed by a single cut at 4mm with the Toro 3250D. We then apply a heavy topdressing of pure sand and brush it in with our brush attachments which are fitted t o another Toro 3250D. Finally, I apply Headland C-Complex 4:3:4 fertiliser and irrigate for ten minutes.
In this environment, the greens need a good deal of chemical control to cover a wide range of problems. Generally, our greens do not suffer too much from disease. We apply preventative fungicides every three months, rotating between using Heritage (azyoxystrobin) and Volare (fluopicolide and propamocarb) to treat Brown Patch (rhizactonia). Once the humidity of late summer kicks in with its heavy dewy mornings, we usually have an outbreak of Dollar Spot. An application of Banner Maxx (propiconazole), along with a high nitrogen liquid feed, soon puts a stop to that.
Chafer grubs and cutworm are the main insect pest problems we have. The difficult months for us are from May to October, so we blanket spray everything with a combination of Pyrinex (chloropyrifos) and Radex (cypermethrin) to control the cutworms. The Chafer grubs are resistant to that mixture, so we also have to apply two further applications of Kohinor (imiadacloprid) during the summer period.
One of the major issues we have is invasive weed grasses such as Kikuyu, Common Bermuda and Smooth Crabgrass. Cultural methods, such as completely digging out the plant and then returfing the infected area, are the only ways we have found to successfully control the Kikuyu and Bermuda. Using chemicals, such as Primo Maxx, Glyphosphate and Quinchlorac, can cause yellowing of the weed and stunt the growth for about three months at a time, but it is not a curative measure.
The Smooth Crabgrass (Digitaria Ischaemum) invasion of the greens each summer is the biggest problem. This plant is a summer annual that begins to germinate in early spring and continues through the summer. Because of this long germination period, obtaining full season control can be difficult. Crabgrass flowers in summer and early autumn and dies with the first hard frost. The cycle repeats itself the following spring with new germination.
This annual weed grass was out-competing our desirable bent grass in the greens and was leaving small dead patches once its lifecycle was complete. Rather than spend numerous man hours hand weeding, instead I did some research on the internet and found that, amongst other herbicides, Drive (quinchlorac) can control the problem. Quinchlorac, if not used at the correct dosage, can also kill bentgrass, so I was a little concerned about using the product on my greens. After doing some trials using various rates of quinchlorac on the chipping green, I eventually found a dosage that I was comfortable with.
Last summer, I applied quinchlorac four times on the greens at three weekly intervals during the crabgrass growing season. The results were very encouraging, as we had at least 50% less crabgrass coverage in this year and the bentgrass did not suffer any chemical damage at all, even in temperatures of 40OC. I will repeat the same process again this year and I expect to see a further improvement next summer.
In addition to quinchlorac, we also apply the pre-emergent herbicide Bensumec (bensulide) three times a year at four month intervals. I have been using this product now for six years and have found that it has a reasonable record in helping to reduce the spread of Poa Annua and Smooth Crabgrass in the greens, but it does not completely prevent germination.
From early December to mid-March, all Bermuda grass areas become dormant which gives a yellowish/brown look to the course. Although it does not affect playability, this appearance is not desirable for my employers. Therefore, during the last two weeks of September, we overseed fairways and surrounds with Annual Ryegrass in order to have a green/yellow contrast between fairways and rough.
The procedure I use is as follows: week one, from Monday to Friday the front nine is closed whilst we carry out the work on holes 1 to 9.
For week two, we reopen the completed front nine and close the back nine for five days. This means that we always have nine holes that remain open.
With the aid of nature, and some chemicals, I allow the roughs to turn dormant yellow so that we have the contrast in the winter between dark green fairways and yellow roughs. Both management and our members were sceptical about this idea at first, but they are now very positive about the winter appearance of the course.
We have good practice facilities here at Minthis Hills which include a driving range as well as a chipping area with three practice bunkers and two practice putting greens. The practice greens are each 300m2, whilst the chipping area is approximately 2,000m2. The driving range is quite spectacular as it has been cut out of the side of a big, steep hill with fantastic views of the distant Troodos mountain range. There are future plans to build a new 3-hole teaching academy.
I am fortunate to I have a wide range of machinery available to me, but I also have a very good working relationship with the other Course Managers on the island, so if I need to borrow anything then I usually give one of them a call. We all share machinery with each other when needed which works very well for us.
Each October, I am responsible for proposing the golf maintenance budget for the following year. If there are budget restrictions, I will change the plan accordingly. My annual budget has been quite consistent in the time that I have been here, so I more or less know exactly where I stand at the start of each year. However, every order I make over E500 still has to be approved by the Director of Golf.
I have a very good relationship with our members here. I always make a point of attending the monthly committee meetings to address any golf course concerns, plus I update them on any upcoming projects. The committee email the minutes to the other members, so everyone is aware of what is happening. I play in the monthly medals and always try to be approachable and honest when answering any questions about the course. This open, face to face communication allows me to get across my point of view about the daily challenges we incur and educates the members in the methods we use to treat each situation. The AGM is the most important meeting of the year for me as I can use it to present our aims and objectives for the following year and put a stop to any rumour-mongering which might be doing the rounds.
State of the industry
In my opinion, the golf industry has reached a consolidation, reflective phase at this period in time, brought on by the worldwide economic crisis. We have had to accept that the boom period of new golf course growth in the 1980s and 90s is over, whilst good, well paid jobs are increasingly hard to find. Budgets are being trimmed and, in some cases, redundancies and pay cuts are being enforced.
Science and technology continues to improve to provide us with better machinery and materials to help us complete our tasks faster and better. Social media has revolutionised the industry, giving us the opportunity to share our experiences and seek swift, helpful advice amongst our peers.
Generally, I believe the growth of this industry has peaked now, both in Europe and North America, and I only hope we can sustain this peak throughout my career and beyond. However, I believe the next generation are going to have a much tougher struggle to experience the same long, successful careers that we are currently enjoying.
When you compare how Golf Course Superintendents are viewed in the USA to how we are looked after here, then I believe that we are undervalued for the work we do. Salaries of other industries, such as the financial and legal sectors, as well as managerial positions in the civil service, are terribly inflated. Obviously, compared to those working in the emergency services who do not earn anything like they deserve, then we cannot complain too much. Sports turf management is an underrated, highly skilled profession and we are frequently demanded to do all kinds of different work.
Attitudes amongst owners and customers are gradually improving towards us, but their demands to provide high quality playing surfaces continue to rise. We are constantly under pressure, as any mistake could cost us our job and there are many environmental issues working against us. Although we are now looked at as a very professional industry, the financial rewards we receive do not reflect this.
To raise the profile of our industry, I believe we need to try to improve communication with our customers. We have worked hard to educate ourselves; now we must educate our clientele. Once our customers understand the variety of our work and why each task we undertake is so important, we will receive more encouragement and less negative, ignorant criticism. We must increase our efforts in communicating with the golfing public via meetings, newsletters, emails, media etc.