Golf clubs often form an oasis of green within an urban sprawl. One such club is Parkstone Golf Club, a stunning, mature heathland course set just a few minutes' drive from the town centres of Poole and Bournemouth in Dorset.
Its setting preserves a tiny pocket of what was once an extensive heath covering much of this area of the county. Today, only pockets of the original heath remain, protected by various conservation bodies from the demands for housing and industrial sites.
Founded in 1909 by Lord Wimborne as the Parkstone and Canford Cliffs Golf Links, the original course was designed by two times Open champion, Willie Park Junior.
In 1927, it was discovered that Lord Wimborne wanted to sell the land for building development, but he agreed to give the members first refusal. Six local businessmen formed a company to run Parkstone as a proprietary club, but were unable to raise the total amount of £2,000. T. W. Simpson, whose house at Compton Acres overlooked the course, saved the day with a low interest loan and, in doing so, preserved his views over the course to Poole Harbour. Sadly, for Mr Simpson, his house fell foul to developers, but Compton Acres Garden remains as a tourist attraction!
In 1937, the course was substantially enlarged and redesigned by James Braid, the famous golf course architect and five times Open Champion. Additional acreage was obtained by buying bogland from Lord Arlington, and reclaiming it to form the current 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th holes.
The club continued in this form until 1960 when, after many years of deliberation and uncertainty, the shareholders finally agreed to sell and, equally importantly, the members agreed to buy the club. The price was a very reasonable £12,000.
And so Parkstone has continued for the last fifty-two five years. Perhaps the most noticeable and important change in this period was the decision, in 1996, that ladies should become full members, with the eminent good sense of this edict being emphasised by the appointment of one of Parkstone's outstanding lady golfers, Miss Jeanne Bisgood, as President from 2001 to 2004; her father having held the position from 1949 to 1969.
In 1996, English Nature (now Natural England) used their statutory powers to designate the course a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as part of the wider South Dorset Heathland Project. This controversial move proved a blessing in disguise, as it enabled the removal of thousands of pines that were steadily choking the fine native grasses essential to the wellbeing of the course. In 2004, the club's successful stewardship was recognised with a rare award by English Nature for Outstanding Management of an SSSI.
Managing this stunning piece of real estate is Course Manager, Steve Richardson, who was appointed in July of last year.
Steve was initially invited to Parkstone for an informal interview by the club's General Manager, Gary Peddie, who was looking to appoint a modern course manager capable of undertaking much needed renovation work within the strict confines of an SSSI.
Steve's CV is impressive, having worked at over twenty-five televised golf tournaments by the age of thirty. He studied at Elmwood College, completing NC and HNC. His first greenkeeping position was at Bothwell Castle Golf Club in Scotland. From there, he moved to Wentworth, and then to Pinehurst, where he worked for one and a half years as an irrigation technician, looking after eight courses. He was then invited to spend six months working on Course 2 at Pinehurst in preparation for the 2005 US Open. Prior to moving to Parkstone, he spent five and a half years as Head Greenkeeper on the New Course at the prestigious Sunningdale Golf Club.
"It was Steve's passion that really shone through," explained Gary. "We were looking for a course manager with an empathy for our particular location, and Steve fitted the remit perfectly. He has made a very good start, as he will no doubt explain."
Whilst walking the course, it was easy to pick up on Steve's enthusiasm, passion and attention to detail. He is certainly on a mission to make his mark, and has made one heck of a start.
"I was keen to make an impression straight away," explains Steve. "When I arrived, I had five days to prepare the course for the annual Captain's Day tournament, which was a bit of a baptism. There wasn't an awful lot I could do in such a short space of time, so I decided to tidy up the course to the best of my ability, and to concentrate on the performance of the greens."
"Agronomically, they weren't in a bad way, but were running at 8 feet on the stimpmeter - pretty slow for July. So, I rang up one of my contacts and arranged for a turf iron to be dropped off. Using this, along with PrimoMaxx, Headlands Seamac Pro-turf and altering the cutting regimes, I was able to get the speed up to 10.6 feet, by tightening up the sward, as well as giving the ball a more consistent roll and making putting much more of a challenge, without dramatically dropping the height of cut and putting the plant under any stress. The members were delighted."
"Since then, I have been using PrimoMaxx on the greens, and also changed the cutting regimes around the course, which will help improve and enhance definition."
"I should also say that I have been delighted with the response of the staff. We have been on an extensive programme of work since I joined, and they have really impressed me with their commitment."
His assistant is Paul Cooper, who has been with the club for sixteen years, with greenkeepers Martin Saunders (ten years service), Charles Ireland (seven), Kevin Sturney (six), Kevin Arnold (one) and Ian Lloyd (four months) making up the team.
So, what has this extensive programme involved?
"We are having a brand new Toro Irrigation system installed to service greens, tees, surrounds, fairways, some walk off areas and south facing bunkers," explains Steve. "The work is being carried out by Ocmis, who have been on site since last August. They began by open trenching the transfer and main lines from the reservoir to the compound, then building a new pump station and water holding tank, followed by ring mains, and then moving on specific areas to complete the system. I've been very pleased with the way the company has managed to keep surface damage to a minimum."
"I will oversee the setting up, and spend most of the first year learning the system and training the team on how to use it. With the help of our weather station we will monitor evapotranspiration (ET) rates; to help use as a guideline. It will be a case of fine tuning to get maximum performance."
"The biggest task, so far and most enjoyable, has been the transformation of heathland areas," says Steve. "To date, over four hectares of overgrown scrub have been removed. We hope to be granted a felling licence for selected trees, which will help increase heather regeneration, plus light and airflow around the course."
"We've been using a large tractor mounted flail deck on the back of our Carraro tractor, which does a fantastic job. All scrub is chipped or burned on site, and then it's a case of scraping back the fibre until finding the native heathy soil, and tapping back into the natural seed bed, which will help the heather seed banks to flourish again. This winter's mild weather has certainly helped achieve more than we might have expected."
"This work has already made a great difference to the course," says Steve, "both aesthetically and environmentally. We work very closely with Natural England and the RSPB to ensure all parties are aware of the work going on, and we constantly monitor the diversity of flora and fauna found out on the course."
"We have a number of conservation volunteers to come and help out at various times of the year. This ongoing management programme is necessary to maintain the balance of the ecology of the course."
In early autumn, due to fixtures, Steve carried out his first renovation programme. "The greens, collars and aprons were aerated with solid tines at 125mm depth and topdressed with sixty tonnes of fen dressing. In early November, we vertidrained all the greens, collars and aprons with 12mm tines to a depth of 150mm and, from the second week of November to date, we have slit-tined in fortnightly intervals. Directly behind this, they were then rolled with a turf-iron to ensure the members had little disruption to their playing surfaces."
"We employed ALS Contracts to hollow core ten hectares of fairways and semi-rough to a depth of 50mm, collecting the cores using a Sisis Litamiser, a week later this was followed up with a vertidrain to relieve compaction at a deeper depth. ALS will return in March and August to repeat the same process and, at the same time, to verti-core the greens, collars and aprons to a depth of 175mm. This is a good first step on the way to my soil exchange programme."
"Presentation and course definition will be my priority, and regular brushing of greens and tees will become part of our maintenance regime. Standing the grass up, mowing on a daily basis and rolling as and when required will help improve the playing surfaces."
"We've already made a few machinery purchases," says Steve. "Four new Toro Pedestrian G1000 mowers, complete with towing trailers, were first on my list, so that we could start hand mowing the greens. I've also bought a ride on blower for clearing up debris all around the course, which helps keep the course tidy all throughout the year. Other important buys included a Toro Multi Pro® 5800 sprayer, a Greentek greens slitter and a Tru-Turf Roller. I'm still reviewing my overall machinery needs, but these first purchases were something that I felt were an immediate requirement, and Gary was happy to back me up."
"Last summer, the greens were kept at around 3.5-4mm and raised to 5mm through autumn and winter. Surrounds and tees are kept at 8mm in the summer months, rising to 10mm at other times. Fairways are cut between 15-17mm and semi rough at 20-28mm."
"This year, we will continue with our new and ongoing renovation programme to greens, tees and fairways," explains Steve. "I'll also be upping the rate of sand going on the greens. I'm looking to apply between 200-300 tonnes per year. Tees will also receive more dressing. We'll continue to core the fairways twice a year to control thatch levels, along with an excessive over seeding programme to improve sward composition."
"Prior to my arrival in July, I had several different tests carried out on greens, collars, aprons, tees and fairways. Once we had the results back, in conjunction with Mark Hunt at Headland, we formed an aeration and fertiliser programme. Everything we are doing is aiming at improving soil and surface conditions. I am using a full Headland programme on all surfaces throughout the year to help produce a healthy, strong and disease free plant."
As we complete our course walk, Steve returns to the subject of his staff. "I want them all to feel part of the course, to have an empathy with the surrounding, and to understand why we are doing this work. To that end, I want to ensure that they are properly trained and qualified. I also want them to visit other courses and trade shows to get a wider perspective on this industry."
It is early days yet but, talking to Steve, you get the sense that he has found his true vocation at Parkstone.