If the beauty of the course where you learned to play was a pre-requisite for future greatness, then Colin Montgomerie had a head start. He learned his game at Ilkley Golf Club. Hugging the river Wharfe for the first seven holes, with spectacular, moorland topped crags constantly in view; the West Yorkshire course was, in those days under the care of Adrian Robertshaw, a Jim Arthur follower and, in the words of his successor, 'one of the old school.'
Today's Head Greenkeeper - and 'Head Greenkeeper' it is, as he prefers the old fashioned style or 'classic term', rather than Course Manager - has been at the club for twenty-eight years, arriving on leaving school. Duncan Campbell has taken much of his former boss's philosophy on board, has little use for modern technology and tends to keep his staff. Of the five of them (which includes himself), First Assistant, David Featherstone, has been with him for twenty-five years, Nick Holmes for sixteen years and Tom Day for ten. The final member of the team, Ben Burrill, arrived as a student in 2007 and went on to become runner up in last year's Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year awards.
"Looking back, the thing that's changed the most is modern machinery," he says. "The introduction of fairway mowers has made the job a lot easier and, finish wise, it's vastly improved." Ilkley has no 'rough'. Every hole is immaculately mown, including holes two and three which are situated on an island in the middle of the river. There's always been a footbridge for golfers but, up until now - a new, larger, dual purpose bridge has recently been installed - all machinery, other than hand mowers, had to be driven across a ford in the river. Visiting in November, tractor tyre marks bore testament to Ilkley's ford which, Duncan says, during the last two summers has often been unpassable. "When the river's in flood there's no way you can get across and, sometimes, we had machinery marooned on the island for days," he recalls. "When people ask me how fast the river rises I tell them it's the fastest rising river in Yorkshire. It can rise up to a foot a minute. A few years ago, a lad who used to work with us was halfway across the river towing a trailer when his tractor began to float away. He got onto the trailer and we had to use a double extension aluminium ladder to get him off."
Despite the inevitable seasonal flooding (Duncan has photographs taken in 2002 when even the greenkeepers' shed was under a foot of water), as long as he is in charge, none of Ilkley's 570 odd members will ever play on temporary greens. "The course is either open or its shut of its own accord," he declares." If it's open, they play tee to green."
Ilkley Golf Club, founded in 1890, is the third oldest in Yorkshire (being just younger than Cleveland and Beverley) and was originally 9 holes built on top of Rombald's Moor. The legendary Harry Vardon won his first prize as a professional up there before, in 1898, work began on the present 18 hole course designed by Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt.
Duncan Campbell's greens are all soil based, with, what he describes as, 'proper' drainage systems on two of them. The soil structure ranges from predominantly sand for the first 7 holes along the river, to clay further up, then silt, and stone and silt at the top end. Asked about his aeration programme, he tells me he hasn't got one - ditto a nutritional programme. "My style is not textbook greenkeeping and my maintenance is based on what I see," he explains. "We don't use a lot of water or a lot of feed, and I'll do it as and when I think the course needs it. We hollow tined and topdressed late September to early October, but we hadn't hollow tined for six years. Two years ago, we used the Graden and that worked well, but that doesn't mean to say that I'll use it every year. We try not to do the same thing year on year, and everything depends on the condition of the course and the weather. If it's been a wet winter, and the weather's right in April, we might verti-drain. You do what you have to do."
In Duncan's opinion, climate change has put paid to many an established maintenance routine. "Are there any such things as seasons now?" he asks. "We used to say that, by mid April, our greens would be set up, but now we can get well into May before they're ready and, during the 2010 season, it was June before we had any grass to cut."
One thing that this Head Greenkeeper insists upon is that, once the grass is there, the greens are hand cut. "We used a triple mower after hollow tining but that's very rare," he says. "Our greens are cut by hand all year round, and they're cut at 5mm in summer and 6mm in winter. The British climate was not designed to have grass cut down to 2 or 3mm. Here at Ilkley we're after a true running ball rather than speed. We're not into stimpmeter readings of 12. What we're after is 8.5 to 9, a nice even pace for the average golfer."
Having said that, one of the reasons why he likes his greens hand cut is to give his members the same treatment as the professionals. "When you watch any tournament on television, The Open, Ryder Cup, PGA events for example, all the greens are hand cut. Why not give our members the same experience?" he asks. "You're also rolling the greens at the same time." But, perhaps the most important argument for hand cutting, is the education of his staff. "A lot of the lads never walk these days, other than to take the flag out of the hole. They spend all their time sitting on a machine. This is one drawback of modern day machinery, you lose that personal touch. I wasn't brought up like that. My lads enjoy cutting the greens in the morning - they can see what's there," he explains.
The Wharfe valley is a popular tourist area and, in summer, the course's membership is augmented by visiting golfers. "Visitors love to come here," Duncan confirms "especially from Lancashire. The river plays an important part for the first 7 holes, it's close at hand and, if you have a hook, the river will swallow you up."
This is something that Colin Montgomerie must well be aware of, along with his Ryder Cup team mate, Mark James. Both men are honorary life members of the club, a fact that couldn't be a stronger endorsement for the greenstaff. Duncan Campbell's style might not be 'text book' and, at forty-six he's one of the youngest Luddites I know. He has a computer in his office, but he doesn't use it and it's not even plugged in. "I'm computer illiterate," he declares. "The ladies in the office (at the clubhouse) see to everything like that. I'm not a greenkeeper that likes to pen push."
Duncan Campbell is a man who knows his own mind but, more importantly, he knows his course. He watches it and 'reads' it and acts accordingly. What's more, he ensures that his team are trained in the same way - trained to look, trained to see and interpret their findings. The course dictates along with the weather rather than pre-judged theory or 'standard' greenkeeping practices. "To me, greenkeeping is very simple," he says. "You work with Mother Nature. If you do, she'll reward you but, if you don't, she'll come back and bite you."
What's in the shed?
Saxon LM56GF Greens Mowers x 3
Toro GM1000 Greens Mower
Toro GM3200-D Greens Master
Groomer units for GM3200-D x 3
Toro Reelmaster 2000D
Toro Reelmaster 3100D
Toro Reelmaster 5610 Fairway Mower
Toro Procore 660 Aerator
Ransomes Marquis 61cm Mower
Ransomes Matador 24" Mower
Flymo XL500 Petrol Hover Mower x 2
Ferris H2220BR Ride-on mower
Ferris Out-front Mower
Cushman Turf Truckster
Kubota RTV Utility Vehicle
Cooper Peglar Knapsack Sprayer
Hardi Knapsack Sprayer
Greentek Sarrel Roller
SISIS HD Spiker
SISIS Veemo MkII
SISIS Scarifier MkIV
Huxley HU84 Slitter
Iseki TK546 Tractors x 2
John Deere Hydraulic Gang Mowers
Kawasaki Backpack Blower
Kawasaki KRB 400B Hand Blower
Billy Goat Blower
Billy Goat Truck Loader
Progressive PF-120 Pro-flex Rotary Mower
Cushman TD 1500 Topdresser
Tornado TM360 Blower
Tornado Pressure Washer
Turfco 1530TM Widespin Sreader
Ryan Tuf Cutter
Ryetec 600l Sprayer
Wessex 3 tonne Trailer
Wessex Leaf Sweeper
McConnell PA41 Mounted Flail
Royer Power Screen and Shredder
Logic STT 400 Trailer
Graham Edwards FB3512T Trailer
Stihl - various chainsaws, strimmers, pruners and pole pruners
Plus various drills, compressors, angle grinders, generators etc.