In the course of my job, and as a keen golfer, I have had the privilege of visiting, and playing, a number of stunning courses. Sometimes, it is possible to be blown away by the amazing views, the well manicured course and the commitment of the greenkeeping staff. Birch Grove will, eventually, fall into all those categories, big time.
It is true to say that the state of the course in late May was rather sad to see, but the new owners of the 1200 acre estate in East Sussex are committed to bringing all areas back to their former glory.
This includes managing 800 acres of mature woodland that has had no meaningful work carried out on them since the violent storms of the mid-eighties.
It also includes reinstating the once magnificent golf course; work that is being overseen, undertaken and nurtured by recently appointed Course Manager, Peter Smith.
Birch Grove House is the former home of Sir Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963. The imposing, if somewhat architecturally understated, mansion looks out from its hill top position across 1200 acres of undulating Sussex countryside. It is hard to imagine that London Gatwick airport is but a stone's throw away, so idyllic are the surroundings. Visitors to the house have included Sir Winston Churchill, General Charles De Gaulle and, just a couple of weeks before his assassination, John F Kennedy.
I am here to meet Peter Smith, the recently appointed Course Manager - and, currently, the only greenkeeper - along with reviewing the latest remedial tehniques being demonstrated by Campey Turf Care.
The arrival of lorry loads of specialist turfcare equipment to this quiet corner of East Sussex has had the locals in a bit of a tail spin - "have you heard what is going on at Birch Grove?", with the usual misinformation and Chinese whispers adding to the conjecture. The reason for this is that the Birch Grove Estate is a place of local myths, mystique and not inconsiderable history.
Following Sir Harold Macmillan's death in 1986, the family eventually sold the estate to an Asian businessman, Larry Yung, who immediately set about gaining planning permission for an 18-hole golf course in the grounds. Approval was granted in the early nineties, with the proviso that the course was to be 'purely for private use', i.e. that no profit was to be made from it. It is believed that Mr Yung sold his 16% share in the Asian airline, Cathay Pacific, for £60m to fund the project.
Work began on the Donald Steel designed course in 1994, and it was eventually opened in 1996. Donald maintains that it remains one of his finest ever designs.
Whilst, in the main, the course was used by Mr Yung and his invited guests, the course did host in the region of eight charity events a year which, whilst fairly wallet damaging to enter, did allow a few of the locals to play the course and report back on its remarkable layout, thereby adding to the mystique. Sadly, for reasons unknown, Mr Yung began to lose interest in his course.
For the next few years, the course was maintained as a 9-hole, but with little or no cultural inputs, and with the back nine being allowed to 'return to nature'.
Now, the estate has new owners who are dedicated to returning all 1200 acres of the estate to their former glory.
Peter Smith, until recently Course Manager at the Cavendish Club, is the man responsible for reinstating the golf course. To achieve this requires extensive and drastic remedial work and, from his dealings with Campey Turf Care whilst at the Cavendish, Peter knew that their range of specialist equipment would be perfect for the work required.
So, a week of intensive work was scheduled in and, with a full complement of machinery on site, and with the blessing of the owners, two machinery demonstration days were also arranged, so that greenkeepers and groundsmen could see the work being carried out at first hand.
Visitors included the course designer, Donald Steel, contractor Barry Pace, now with Speedcut, who was involved in the original course build alongside Peter Smith, and the great and the good from greenkeeping and groundsmanship in the south east, all keen to view the machinery and location.
Welcoming visitors was Campey's Ian 'Poggy' Pogson who, in his inimitable way - he has made grumpy a lifestyle choice - handed out badges, lunch tickets, caps and general 'bonheur'.
Visitor numbers for both days were registered as close to one hundred, but Mother Nature stepped in to provide torrential rain the day before, resulting in a slight drop in numbers on the first day and a quagmire in parts of the course. Wellies were the order of the day, not the summer slip-ons that yours truly was wearing! Fortunately, Peter stepped in (excuse the pun) to provide me with some size 11 waterproof golf shoes.
The second day was, sadly, a complete wash out, with Mother Nature adding strong winds to the torrential rain, Frantic emailing to the registered visitors did prevent most of them from turning up, along with an invite to attend the next day, when the forecast looked a tad better. The Campey team had worked late into the previous evening to achieve as much as possible but, even then, probably meant that some weekend work would be required.
Peter Smith is an amiable young man, and is delighting in the challenges ahead of him. Whilst the visitors took lunch, he showed me around the course explaining, as he went, what the priorities were. "The main focus is on tees, fairways and greens. They are the three most important elements to any golf course. If I've got those sorted, then visitors will still be able to play golf. I'm not worried, at this stage about reinstating bunkers, the rough or the paths. They can wait."
"There is obviously a huge amount of work to be done. I will need to be managing my time well so that I can keep the front nine up to a decent standard to allow play to continue, whilst also working on the renovations on the back nine. Koroing off these greens will give me a head start when it comes to seeding them."
"Once Campeys have left the site, I will be working on my own, apart from a couple of lads who come in twice a week to help with mowing. As things progress, I'll need more permanent staff but, for the time being, it is just me."
Whilst some may think that a weathly owner would mean that money would appear to be no object, Peter works to strict budgets just the same as any other course throughout the country. "There is certainly no wasteful spending of money, anything that we require has to be agreed on in the usual manner. To date, I have purchased a Koro modular Field Topmaker with scarifier and collector, that will keep on top of the moss problem. Parts of the course are very damp and/or in shade, so I feel that will be an ongoing issue. I've also bought a set of Striegel harrows, which I'll use to stand up the matted grass. These will also help rip out the moss."
Other new kit includes a Vredo Overseeder, a Rotablast blower and a Coremaster 1500 Extreme. "To power that lot, we have just taken delivery of a John Deere 3720 tractor."
"We experience microclimates on various parts of the course, with temperatures exceeding 100OF in some sheltered areas during the summer, whilst some greens are affected by shade from the surrounding trees, so I'll be choosing my seed varieties very carefully."
Driving round the course, the one thing that struck me was how small the greens were - and they were fiercely undulating. As we approach a green close to the lake, it is clear that there is no bailout option. "Donald Steel wanted the course to be a challenge. Take this green [4th] for example. It is not only small, but has a narrow approach, with water to the left and a slope down to the green on the right where, if the ball pitches on it, could roll right across the green and into the water; there is no option but to go for it. It's the same all over the course, with sloping fairways that take your ball away from where you ideally want to be for your approach shot. And, don't forget, you are seeing this course before the trees are in full leaf, so it gets even more restrictive in the summer."
With competition tees set back in trees, narrow avenues to navigate, rolling fairways and large bunkers protecting small, undulating greens, you have to confess that Donald has a sense of humour! I ask him what he thinks. "I wanted the course to stand the test of time," he explains. "At 7,400 yards, and covering 270 acres, it is always going to be a challenge. The first hole tends to lull golfers into a false sense of security as it has a wide, albeit right to left, sloping fairway, which is fairly easy to hit. After that, the course becomes much tighter. It is a layout I am very proud of."
Peter concurs. "It is not the intention of the new owners to change anything about the original design. At present, all I am doing is reinstating it to its former glory. No greens are being made larger, no bunkers moved and no tees altered."
The assembled visitors have split into two groups, one watching the Koro Recyling Dresser at work on the greens, whilst the others watch the tees being koroed off. The work is fast, accurate and highly effective. Peter enters into discussion with Richard about whether to seed first and then harrow, or vice versa, as the wet conditions are forming small ridges. They eventually agree on the first course of action.
The new machines from Koro by Imants, to give them their correct designation, are able to closely follow undulations, which now means that this important operation can be carried out on golf greens quickly and efficiently.
After lunch, whilst work continues on the tees and greens, Richard Campey and Simon Gumbrill showed the visitors the other machines that will be used out on the course during the reinstatement. A brace of Dakota topdressers are put through their paces, as are the Imants Shockwave and Rotoknife, Vredo seeders, Omarv Typhoon flail collector/scarifier and the speedy Coremaster aerator. Thankfully, the rain stays away.
As the highly informative day comes to a close, I ask Peter how he feels about looking after a course that very few people will ever get to play on? "Job satisfaction, for me, comes from doing the best job I can. If I can look back at the end of the day and say 'I did that', I will go home a happy man."
The opportunity to attend a Campey Turf Care demonstration event is usually one not be missed. There's a sort of informative grumpiness, mixed with 'Jack Dee' style humour, that sets them apart from others.
However, the dates chosen for the two days of demos at Birch Grove, coincided with the 'wettest drought' on record, but it takes more than a drop of rain to discourage those in our industry from attending such events; we are a hardy bunch!
Despite the atrocious forecast, it didn't actually rain on the first day, although many areas of the course were waterlogged. Mother Nature made up for it on the second day though, which, sadly, had to be cancelled.
The decision to hold demonstration days at the exclusive Birch Grove Estate, was born out a strong supplier/end user relationship between Peter Smith and Campey Turf Care. The initial plan had been to just deliver the required machinery to complement what was already in Peter's shed but, with the full range in attendance, it made perfect sense for the Campey team to assist Peter for a week and, thus, the demo days were born.
The eighty or so visitors who attended the first day were able to walk the course freely to get the most out of the day. There were a number of procedures taking place around the course; several greens and tees were undergoing intensive renovation with the Koro by Imants 2m and 1.5m Field TopMakers in action. Although not yet common practice on golf courses, this was an excellent demonstration of how to quickly remove all surface debris and thatch and return the tees and greens back to base soil in order to kick-start the regeneration process.
The Field TopMaker is a heavy-duty fraise mower, for removing unwanted surface matter such as poa annua, thatch, weeds or the entire surface to a depth of 50mm. A side arm conveyor removes debris off-loading directly into a trailer or truckster. The Koro FTM is designed for fine turf applications like sports pitches, golf greens and tees, lawn tennis courts, bowling greens. An easily fitted scarifying rotor allows the machine to be used as a heavy-duty scarifier, with optional mid-mounted roller for use on undulating ground.
This was followed by a pass with the Koro by Imants 1.9m Recycling Dresser to decompact the soil and recycle the minerals and nutrients, bringing them back to the surface. The Recycling Dresser aerates the underlying soil vertically and horizontally, removing soil from the rootzone and redistributing it across the playing surface. Layering and compaction are eliminated, biological activity increased and existing fertilisers in the soil are better utilised. The machine also reduces the amount of new topdressing required.
A Raycam Sportsfield Harrow was then applied, followed by a further pass with the Raycam Aeroseeder to apply the seed.
Fairways were simultaneously being treated with a combination of Imants Shockwaves 2.2m and 2.1m to improve aeration and re-seeded with a 1.2m Vredo Super Compact overseeder. Due to the unique double disc system, which gives precise seed delivery, seed is placed in direct contact with the soil, creating the perfect conditions for maximum seed germination. A double row of discs give 35mm seed spacing, meaning that one-pass operation will generally suffice, with no disruption to play, even on fine turf.
In addition to the renovation work, using equipment purchased by Birch Grove Estate and overseen by Course Manager Peter Smith, Campey Turf Care Systems demonstrated the operation and benefits of a number of machines including the Imants Rotoknife and Greenwave, Dakota Spreaders, and the Omarv Mower/Collector.
Donald Steel, the original course architect, was accompanied by Peter Meanley, Past Chairman of West Sussex Golf Club who expressed his surprise and admiration for the work undertaken "I was privileged to visit the Birch Grove Estate and view the renovation of the golf course with Donald Steel. I was greatly impressed both with the layout of the course and the renovation work in progress. I was impressed with the variety of equipment and the scale of operation. Course construction and management seems to be ever growing in sophistication and scale."
In the end, the elements took charge, and Wednesday's demonstrations had to be cancelled. The constant downpour made it no longer viable to take equipment onto the golf course.
After seeing what can be achieved with modern turf renovation equipment, the management at Birch Grove Estate were so impressed that they have already offered to open the course to Campey's again next year. Hopefully, in much better weather!