Bordered by fields and natural woodland on the outskirts of south Birmingham, Shirley Golf Club nestles in the Blythe Valley, enjoying a well-planned blend of parkland with mature, wooded areas. It provides one of the finest parkland courses in the area and long-serving Course Manager Andy Smith is charged with keeping it that way. Lee Williams reports.
Shirley Golf Club was founded in 1955 by a group of Jewish businessmen, lawyers and other gentlemen who decided to bid for what was Shirley Racecourse in order to transform it into a golf course. Set in 140 acres, the course measures some 6,537 yards and comprises four par 3s and four par 5s, with the remainder being par 4s, one of which would appear to be driveable if the scorecard is to be believed!
Course Manager Andy Smith has dedicated over twenty-two years of his life in helping to develop and improve every aspect of the course he loves and took time out met to discuss his career so far and his plans to further enhance the course.
After sitting down with Andy for ten minutes, I could tell he was a man who does not rest on his laurels and believes we never stop learning. He has a real passion for the club and the industry as a whole. "In forty-two years of greenkeeping, I can honestly say I have never once woken up on a morning and not wanted to come into work. I still like to get involved with as many seminars as possible at BTME, and I am always interested in seeing new technologies. In this industry, you never stop learning. I'm actively involved with BIGGA and, when I first joined, I became the education coordinator of the Midlands section committee."
Course Manager Andy Smith
I asked Andy why he got involved with BIGGA and what he hoped to achieve when he first signed up. "Basically, I'm not one who just moans for the sake of moaning. I believe it is better to ask questions, find out what is going on and try and do things to make it better and, by joining BIGGA, I could help answer those questions. I first joined the Midlands section in 1996, and I am now the Chairman."
Andy has been a member of BIGGA for twenty-five years. So, does he feel the association, and himself, has helped improve the education, working conditions, salaries and profile of greenkeepers? "I believe BIGGA is a fantastic association in that anybody from a sixteen-year-old apprentice to a course manager has a communication line through the sections and regions right up to the Board. For me, this is unique and what the association is all about, and we need to be proud of what we do."
"When I first started my career, working conditions were not the best, and the respect we got from golfers was not great either; in some places it still isn't! When BIGGA formed in 1987, they started to help raise the profile of greenkeeping. This was achieved through education which, to this day, is still second to none. In turn, this helped expand the skills and knowledge of greenkeepers, so naturally, conditions improved. For me, the next step was to get the profile of greenkeeping raised within the industry, as in having influence at their club. Jim Croxton has done an excellent job of getting greenkeeping onto the top table, which is an achievement in itself."
"For me, the Covid-19 pandemic has helped highlight the importance of having an association. We were a major influence in getting golf back open and ensuring the safe working conditions of staff and how they should perform their course maintenance. I think Jim Croxton, alongside his team and the association, did a great job of fighting our corner and providing all greenkeepers up and down the UK with the latest information and guidance."
The one-hundred-and-forty-acre parkland course is clay-based which can cause Andy a few problems, and the River Blythe that runs through the bottom section of the course is on a one-hundred-year old flood plain. "All our drainage runs down to the river so, in the winter when we get the heavy rain, we have four holes that will be closed as we cannot get down there. The River Blythe rises and subsides quickly, leaving behind silt and debris and causes damage to the paths and bridges. Whilst the clean-up operation is ongoing, we are fortunate enough to have four tees with different starting points around the clubhouse, so it is not a significant problem if the holes are closed for a short time."
"One of the biggest problems we have, like most clay courses is that the trees can suffer if we have a really wet winter or a particularly dry summer, as you get problems with the ground around trees."
Since Andy joined the club, he has built and developed a short game area from a piece of wasteland next to the clubhouse, which is put to good use. "The club uses the short game area to bring in disadvantaged and disabled children from schools around the local community; They are provided with free golf lessons, which is a brilliant initiative they have been running for many years now."
"We have an old Watermation Irrigation system that was installed in 1996, and it is starting to fail in some areas now. Fortunately, I have my own mechanic who is skilled in anything and everything, so he maintains the system. We have irrigation to tees, greens and approaches, and we can extract 20 cubic metres of water a day from the river, but we had to supplement this from the mains, which could only be used between midnight and six in the morning, so we did not affect local businesses and households."
"This meant we never had enough water, so we decided to build our own reservoir from a crater in the ground that was full of scrub and a 'nothing area'. We looked at some old maps, and it showed that, a few hundred years ago, it had been an old marl pit where they used to dig the clay out for agricultural fertilisers. Observing drains around the course, that were still constantly running even though the course was dry, we suspected that natural springs were running through the course. With the help of a chap who knew about these things, we had a survey undertaken and we managed to take advantage of these natural springs to fill up the reservoir. It holds up to eight hundred thousand gallons of water and, in 2018 when we had the drought, it really paid dividends. We were able to water the greens, tees and approaches every night, plus we would be out in the morning watering hotspots. The water level never dropped once. Another significant advantage is that we are now totally self-sufficient, and we have no charges for water. In fact, we have that much water come from the springs, we now overflow into the river! It was the biggest project we have ever carried out and the one I am the proudest of."
When Andy walked onto the course for the first time twenty-two years ago, the worst part was the push up greens that would close the course regularly. "Over the years, I have significantly managed to improve the quality of the greens rootzone and drainage. So much so, it is now other areas around the course that will close it! All the drainage work on the greens was carried out in-house, by doing a third of the course each year. The greens now drain and play exceptionally well, and it is something I am rather pleased with considering what they were like all of those years ago."
Andy believes one of the most detrimental things to happen to greenkeeping over the years has been the need to chase speed on the greens. "To achieve that, we have been cutting Poa greens down to 3mm in the summer, and this puts a lot of stress on the plant. It is too low. Last year, we invested in a turf iron, the first one we have had, and this has allowed us to raise the height of the cut up to 4mm, which has made a big difference already."
"If you look back to when I first started in greenkeeping forty-two years ago, our summer heights then are winter heights now at around 5mm. No one really spoke about green speeds, whereas now it has become the holy grail."
Following on from this conversation, we got on to how Andy maintains the greens throughout the season. "The greens in summer are generally mown every day using the old Toro Greenmasters and the new Jacobsen Eclipse. But, now we have the turf iron, we have been experimenting a little bit and, in recent weeks, we have been alternating between cutting and rolling. I do pencil tine quite a lot to keep the surface open, but I think this year we are on a learning curve, but so far, so good."
"I believe aeration is the key to maintaining healthy greens. There is not a month that goes by where we do not do something. I will run the pencil tines over the greens every three weeks using our twenty-year-old Soil Reliever, and then, every few months, swap the tines over depending on what depths I want to achieve. We are now pretty fortunate that organic matter in the greens is textbook when you look at all the test results. So, we have done away with hollow-coring and the Graden in the last few years. I suppose if you have been at a golf club for the last twenty-two years, you should be on top of that by now; if not, I have failed!"
"We carry out a light verti-cut with the GreenTek units on one of our old Toro greens mowers every two to three weeks, depending on play and the weather. A light dusting of sand follows this with a quick brush in. We aim to get one hundred and forty tonnes of sand on a year."
Overseeding has not been part of Andy's maintenance programme, but he plans to change this after carrying out some of his own trials. "It's a route I would like to go down. Two years ago, we built a green just outside the clubhouse, so it could be used as a social green while the members were having a drink on the patio. We sowed it with a straight dwarf ryegrass to see how it coped with disease, chemicals, fertilisers and heights of cut. We found that ryegrass does not like being cut below 4mm, so we keep it above that; it is a great surface. We have not put a single application of fungicide on in the two years it has been established. So, if we decide to overseed the greens, we will be looking at going with the dwarf rye; the results suggest this is the way forward."
It has been a tough winter for Andy and his team, but they have taken full advantage of the course being closed due to COVID and have managed to get on with various projects, and he is already looking forward to next year's projects. "We have reshaped and replaced the sand in all of the bunkers. We have had Pugh-Lewis in to carry out drainage work on two of the fairways and they have done an excellent job. I would thoroughly recommend them. This coming winter, with us only being a few months off now, I have put in plans to the club to build two new tees; on the eighth and the eighteenth. The work will involve raising the tees to improve the views and the line of sight. All the work will be carried out in-house as I love construction. Once finished, we will move our attention to draining the fairway on the par-three 12th hole ourselves with the trencher. We will have Pugh-Lewis back in to drain three more fairways."
There are four badger setts on the course and they can cause some real damage at times, Andy tells me. Alongside this, like a lot of golf courses up and down the country, he has started to see leatherjackets and worms really take over in recent years with the ban on chemical control. "We used to go around repairing the badger damage, only to find that, the next day, it's been dug out again. We soon learnt that they tend to dig up the same banks around the tees and greens, so now we leave it and wait until they have finished in the spring, when they are only young, and repair for the season. It's a big job, as they can cause a hell of a lot of damage."
I told Andy I had seen many Twitter posts recently of greenkeepers covering their greens in black sheeting to try and reduce the number of leatherjackets, and if this was something he would consider carrying out? "Years ago, when I started, we used to put hessian sacking down to get them to come up to the surface. Now, everyone is putting the silage sheets down but, in my opinion, you can put anything down as long as you are blocking out the light and sweating them to the surface; that is the best way to describe it. Last year, we used Acelepryn, but we have been discussing going down the sheeting route ourselves; we have to try something!"
Shirley Golf Club is home to many endangered species, so ecology is fundamental to the way Andy and the club manage the course. "We have Great Crested Newts and we have spotted Goshawks and Polecats too. To help encourage and protect the vast amount of wildlife, we have large areas around the course we do not mow. We have created five new additional water features which are great for wildlife. We have also put up bird and barn owl boxes, and we have also tried to establish some wildflower areas, but with varying degrees of success."
What's in the shed
Jacobsen Eclipse 322 hybrid greens mower
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D x 3
Toro Groundsmaster 4300-D x 4
Toro Groundsmaster 3500-D
Toro Workman 3300-D utility vehicle
Toro Reelmaster 6700-D
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D
Toro Sand Pro 3040 Bunker Rake
Smithco Tournament XL 7000
Ultra-wide greens roller
New Holland TN75SA tractor
Iseki TG6370 compact tractor
Komatsu PC 20R mini excavator
Gambetti 600L tractor mounted sprayer