David Byron comes as close as it gets to being born and bred at Thorndon Park Golf Club, and gives the course as much attention as if he had been, Greg Rhodes discovers.
Thorndon Park Golf Club rests within a 240-acre woodland conservation site, partly landscaped by Capability Brown and lying just ten minutes' drive from the M25.
The only Essex entry in England's Top 100 league, the 18-hole parkland course is crowned by the magnificent Palladian Thorndon Hall - the former clubhouse before its replacement opened in the 1970s, after the mansion was redeveloped as private apartments.
Head greenkeeper David Byron and his nine-strong team have to pit their wits against heavy London clay soil. Their league ranking bears testimony to their success in overcoming such an adversary.
David's worked his way up Thorndon Park's career ladder since landing fourteen years ago. "Between jobs, I used to run a pub in Rayleigh but tired of that and fancied a change," he explains.
A pub landlord has to juggle plenty of managerial balls to run the hostelry effectively - skills no doubt David has applied here.
Certainly, his attention to detail and reliance on science and data to shape his turfcare choices ring out loud and clear.
"I've always loved the outdoors (so much so that I once lived in a tent in a field amid the splendour of rural Wales) and enjoy caving, sailing and canoeing so keep myself active."
Head Greenkeeper, David Byron
"Mum lived on site here with the club steward and one summer the greenkeeping team needed a course casual for six months." He jumped at the chance and temporary work became permanent as Thorndon Park saw his potential.
After four years as deputy, David was ready for the step up to head greenkeeper, coming into post in March 2021.
He's eminently hands on, and you'll likely as not find him tinkering in the shed, grinding and sharpening turf machinery. "I'm mechanically minded and like looking after classic cars but I've acquired a good knowledge of mower cutting units and have developed welding skills too."
This kind of know-how clubs across the country are crying out for to reduce outsourcing fleet upkeep costs. He's saving money in other ways too, being ticketed to drive tractors and operate excavators.
And there's more. "When we upgraded our irrigation system, I was able to do the plumbing and setting up the sprinklers," he reveals. "The Toro Lynx system was installed in 2007, just before I started, and was upgraded with new software in 2014 to enable us to micro manage the holes a bit differently."
Weed management is all handled in house too for what is a year-round operation to keep unwanted growth under control, he explains. All that is except meetings periodically with an STRI consultant agronomist.
"We spray everything, from bracken, bramble and understorey scrub to path, drives and the clubhouse patio."
Knapsacks come in for some heavy work rotas, with the team totalling three to four weeks cumulatively on the various spraying tasks vital for premier presentation and playability. "Pathways and the main drive alone can take a week to treat," David reports.
Weed treatment is a key element of the spraying programme, helping the team rid the 74 bunkers of moss build-up and Poa growth," he explains, adding: "We've future-proofed our greenside bunkers with rubber crumb Profusion Environmental and Blinder Bunker Liners to prevent flood washouts. Fairway bunkers are our next job."
In one way, the team is just scratching the surface with its turfcare, literally using a cutlery fork to tease out moss on greens, then topdress and seed.
The 15l and 20l Cooper Pegler knapsacks have been a constant at Thorndon Park for at least 15 years and have rarely needed replacing, thanks to David's insistence on pre- and post-season maintenance checks and regular upkeep to replace parts. Our CP 1l hand sprayers have been here even longer than I can remember," he reveals.
"The late-February maintenance doesn't usually need much. We apply silicon grease to lubricate parts and replace seals and O-rings if they have perished or dried out. I know the aftersales care and dealer support are good, so we can always get hold of replacement parts and accessories."
Most of the team are PA1/PA6 certified - including David, who also has his PA2 and PA4 - so spray duties can be shared out.
The man-made three-acre lake and two ponds - fed from the ditch system lining the course - are kept free of unwanted aquatic growth. Aerators keep the water healthily oxygenated, encouraging an array of wildlife in and around the features, including newts, lizards, slow worms and adders. A local man scuba dives to dredge the lake of reeds and to keep banks free.
"We wait until high summer when the ditches dry out before applying Roundup along the bases to remove tree growth," David says.
Ecology and environment are high priorities. "We don't spray many chemicals - mainly organic-based feeds and wetting agents and some selective herbicide in the long rough."
"Boom spraying comes into play for the larger stretches of the course - we apply natural fungi and microbes on to the soil, using our Toro 5800."
Knapsacks come into their own again for spot spraying weedkiller such as Depitox and HolsterXL on tees, tee banks, and in the rough "to encourage the grasses to flourish, rather than weeds, and to control ragwort."
"August is the perfect time to spray the bracken, just as stalks start to bend and droop. It takes us a couple of weeks to complete, ideally when we've had fine, dry weather beforehand."
Newly acquired Berthoud Vermorel Pro Comfort knapsacks, with telescopic lances, will prove "a gamechanger", allowing the team to penetrate deeper into the undergrowth, David adds.
Leatherjackets have proved troublesome. "Two years ago, we lost all our fairways but managed to gain emergency clearance to apply Acelepryn. You only have a narrow window to buy and apply it, and sales are strictly recorded and controlled."
Fungicide is applied sparingly and David prefers preventive organic options such as Chitosan spray to resist disease, pest damage and drought. "It's a probiotic for greens," he smiles, "helping seed germination and toughening up the plant."
Much of the estate is left wild to foster butterflies, insects and birds - "Three pairs of buzzards nest nearby," David notes with pride.
He believes that with sprayers, as with most other things, you get what you pay for. "You can buy cheaper ones of course, but then you'll discover there are no replacement parts, so you have to bin the sprayer and buy another one."
Managerially, David captains a tightly streamlined ship. "The team sits down every morning to discuss the workplan for the day and what we want to achieve - our in-depth monthly meet-up also taking in weekly goals," he explains.
Unlike most of us, David can be in two places at once, thanks to communication planning. "The team links up throughout the day from various parts of the course," he says, "using our WhatsApp group to send me videos of what they are doing, which really cuts down on walking to them in person."
"Yesterday, for example, I was Vertidraining the fairways (one inch diameter tines, going down 13 inches "with a bit of heave on it to let the turf breathe") while viewing team activity on my mobile while in the tractor cab."
David is particularly proud of his team's commitment to take up opportunities to further strengthen their greenkeeping prowess, and talks encouragingly about a few of them before outlining individual skills.
"I must mention their eagerness to volunteer at tournaments," he says. "Jake and Aaron recently worked at the Farm Foods Open at Forest of Arden. Aaron also returned to work at the Valero Texas Open, held in San Antonio at the end of March.
"Tony has helped out at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, Joseph at various European tour events," and not forgetting himself, David adds: "I have volunteered at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, Florida and two Open Championships at Port Rush and Royal St George's."
So who's who at Thorndon Park?
Deputy Tony Dineen, 30, arrived four years ago from Tottenham Hotspur's training ground. "He'd been in golf originally, as assistant professional at local site Top Meadow Pay & Play," says David.
"He wanted to give football a go to add variety to his career experience, then decided to return to golf, as first assistant here."
Echoing the trend among UK greens teams, Tony and his colleagues increasingly handle a range of duties. "Everybody multitasks here," confirms David, "but Tony's key task is arranging and handing out the day to day jobs. In peak summer months, he'll be fairway spraying and mowing as well."
While his deputy divvys out on-course work, David is heavy on the admin. "Paperwork can take over if you let it, so I need office days to control that, and these change with the seasons. Winter sees me out on course mornings, returning indoors in the afternoons, with the reverse of that in summer as warmer weather and longer days gives us all the chance to push forward outdoors in the afternoons and evenings."
And while mentioning warmer periods, David is quick to stress that all protective measures are put in place, with factor 50 sunscreen, hats and sunglasses provided, plus flasks of water to keep the team hydrated.
Left: Aaron Cross receiving his Level 2 certificate
Golf's also in the blood of first assistant Sam Barker, 27, who came to the club six years ago from North Wield Golf Club near Harlow.
"He qualified under his dad, who was head greenkeeper there. Then the club closed, giving Sam the chance to move here, rising to his present position when Tony was promoted to deputy."
Career progression is a key driver in David's roadmap. "You want to grow and train them up as far as they can, and that may mean they leave you. Jake Messenger came to us from Spurs training ground and stayed a year."
"Jake's move from groundsmanship into greenkeeping allowed him to see what he really wanted to be - a head groundsman. He moved to Tottenham Stadium at the end of February to help him achieve his goal. I didn't want to hold him back - I know that Jake'll get where he wants to be."
His departure left a gap though, that David was seeking to fill when we spoke by advertising the position through BIGGA - he's a member of local branch - the Indeed website and social media channels. "We've interviewed only men so far," he states a little disconsolately.
Meanwhile, former lift and escalator technician Matt Dunn, 52, has carved a niche for himself in the four years since he joined the team. "He worked at a golf club nearby before coming here," notes David, "and given Matt's earlier background, he's our mechanical greenkeeper."
Driving his point home, David adds: "You are tied down more and more because of the diagnostics on modern turf machinery, forcing you to send it back to the dealers for replacement parts, rather than being able to buy your own components elsewhere far cheaper. Golf clubs really pay the price - it's so frustrating."
David usually acquires his, largely Toro, machinery on hire purchase, which gives them a high residual value when selling on. "The dealer gets first refusal on buyback mostly." Toro supplies service kits for the service life of the lease and extended warranties are available.
"Generally, there's no real problem with machinery and parts supply, although we're still waiting for replacement bits for backpack blowers after two broke in December. Stihl have a shortage of replacement parts apparently.
"Matt's the one servicing machinery and sourcing parts and he's always looking for a good deal, while forward planning to help avoid sudden problems."
"We have 200l of 5w 30 mower oil sitting on the shelf ready for use, as well as a stock of bottom blades. The larger the order, the more discount you're given. Seed has been pre-ordered for purchase later this year. The supplier honours the price, even if it rises. Then it's just a question of making sure you have the room to store it and keep it dry."
Although wanting to be a keen adopter of battery-powered kit, David has had his ups and downs with the technology. "We tried an electric buggy but found the battery needed replacing early on. The diesel equivalent was far cheaper to run."
The hybrid mower, diesel fuelled with electric reels, he trialled had issues too. "If we went out to cut, halfway round, the reels would stop as there wouldn't be enough volage to run them."
"The new Toro mowers can cut fifty greens on a full charge but I don't know what this is in terms of area - one or two hectares maybe. A like for like comparison is the only way to really size up which is more cost effective to run."
In a personal capacity, David has already gone electric. "We bought our pod point charger for £200 by accessing a 75% EV grant, ready for when electric is embedded in our thinking."
Back to the human dimension and speaking of BIGGA, David has some thoughts on greenkeeper pay. "The club pays salaries commensurate with skills but, as far as I can see, so few follow the BIGGA salary structure and pay does not reflect the demands and qualifications of greenkeepers."
"The industry's in trouble. Youngsters are not coming through - plenty of jobs out there but salaries don't reflect skill levels. It's also about passion for the job. We're proud of what we do and achieve - it means a lot: a badge of honour."
Arriving as assistant greenkeeper four years ago from The London Club, keen golfer Jo Horlock, 35, had also worked on a driving range at O2 Arena. "He's a real `steady Eddy` with excellent attention to detail," - so will chime with David's philosophy.
Eighteen months into his assistant's post, Aaron Cross, 30, recently gained his Level 2 greenkeeping NVQ and has already started his 14-month Level 3 correspondence course at BCA College, Berkshire.
As David noted earlier, the team is keen to volunteer for sports events at different venues - Aaron likes matchdays at the London Stadium among others David listed earlier.
"I encourage volunteering as a way to broaden skills. Aaron is ambitious and wants to progress his career quickly."
Just completing his Level 2 greenkeeping is Alec Wilcox, 23. Like David, Alec began life at Thorndon Park as a summer casual before moving into a full-time role three years ago. "As someone who enjoys working outside, Alec thrives in the busy summer months and likes driving the machinery."
"Although more autonomous spraying and mowing kit is coming along, we'll still need the skills to assess what work they should be put to."
It should come as no surprise that David takes on apprentices whenever he can. Currently, 19-year-old Ben Murchie is filling that role. On site for about nine months and taking his Level 2 in greenkeeping, he can thank his mum for working at Thorndon Park.
"She came to us to ask us to take Ben on as she was worried about him and wanted him to learn a trade. He's a very able lad, who is flying through his college course and has taken to the job like a duck to water - already out on the big bits of machinery and attachments."
The club's `been here forever` person is gardener Ivor Kettle. "At 78 years young, he has been involved with Thorndon Park since he was a boy. A general handyman, Ivor tends the car park and the area outside our pro shop, as well as the smaller lawn in the mansion grounds."
He manages the member volunteer divoting parties too, showing them how to look after the tees and rake the bunkers.
"During lockdown members were allowed to meet in small work bubbles - ditch clearing and the like. That was brilliant as it kept them involved."
Seeing the wood for the trees
Lancelot `Capability` Brown's landscaping has left a lasting arborial legacy at the Park, on top of the extensive woodland acreage the club owns.
The team deploys a drone to help it see the wood for the trees - aiding David with drought management and spotting disease. "During dry spells, we can see, then map, the drain lines across the course - useful for when we need maintenance work doing."
A woodland consultant advises David on day to day management of the estate's varied and ancient stock. "The three members of the team certified for chainsaw operation handle the reachable work," he says. Among all the oaks, pollarded horse chestnuts and beeches lining the course and beyond, many with Tree Preservation Orders on them, lies a true gem, arguably unique to Thorndon Park.
"Look to the right from the first green and you'll spot our horseshoe oak. One of the oldest trees on any course in Europe, it's estimated to be 1,000 years old," David enthuses.
"Buried deep among other trees, the oak was choked with brambles. We must preserve veteran trees so priority work was to clear that away and allow it to breathe in its own space."
Invasive species such as the Turkey oak have to be controlled, as has the long rough, for one very good reason, David states. "In most years, oaks produce thousands of acorns - 2020 was one in question. We have to cut and collect rough to prevent saplings springing up."
Whatever the eventual lifespan of Thorndon Park's horseshoe oak may prove to be, if you believe in luck, this magnificent specimen has bestowed a millennium's worth to all those who live and work nearby - David and his team included.
What's in the shed
New Holland T4 front loader tractor
John Deere 4066R tractor
John Deere 4575 tractor
John Deere 1570 out front flail mower
Toro 5800 sprayer
Toro 4700D rough mower
Toro 3100D semi rough mower
Toro 3575 fairway mowers x 3
Toro 3400 Triplex mowers x 4
Toro Greens master 1000 x 7
Toro ProCore 648
Toro Pro Pass Top dresser
Tru Turf Roller
John Deere Aercore
Bernard 5000 express dual spin grinder
Bernhard 4000 DXI bed knife grinder
Various tractor attachments, brushes and trailers.