What is your career background?
I started as an apprentice greenkeeper at Bruntsfield Links Golf Club in Edinburgh, one of the oldest clubs in the world. As part of that apprenticeship, I attended Elmwood College in Fife and gained the City & Guilds qualifications. The realisation that there was so much to learn from managing fine quality turf, spurred on my desire to learn more. I then progressed to Mortonhall Golf Club in Edinburgh before taking on my first Head Greenkepeer's role at Sandiway Golf Club in Cheshire as an enthusiastic but 'green' 22 year old.
After 5 years 'learning the trade', I then moved on to Minchinhampton Golf Club as Course Manager, where I remained for nearly eleven years. It was here that I began to look at turf management more in-depth and to study how other courses are managed.
Having won both Geenkeeper and Groundsman of the year awards in 1984 and 1988, then gaining the first Master Greenkeepers certificate in 1991, my desire to further my career was fulfilled when I joined a golf development company, Compton Holdings, in 1992. At least that was the plan, but this company was under-funded and soon went bust, leaving me with my dreams shattered. A valuable lesson in life was gained!
How did you progress from what seemed like a dead end?
Fortunately, in the early 90s, the golf business was still booming and an American Management Company, American Golf Corporation (AGC), were interested in gaining a foothold in the UK. They purchased five clubs and I was re-hired as Regional Superintendent for the small group, being based initially at a club in Wiltshire.
Over the next eleven years, AGC expanded to own or manage twenty-three properties although they, in turn, sold out to Goldman Sachs in 2003. Working for an American Company with high standards and methods of management had a positive effect on shaping my career, and it was clear right from the start that, if I was to survive, I had to measure up and deliver the results of turf quality at an affordable cost. Being responsible for twenty-three properties, and working to the same standards and procedures as my colleagues in the US, was a challenge I readily accepted.
When Goldman Sachs wished to 'off-load' their UK investment, Crown Golf, an Australian owned company, purchased AGC at the end of 2004 and then added another three properties over the next three years. During this time my position remained largely the same, but now I was responsible for the maintenance and development of thirty-three properties. Bringing two companies together also proved to be a challenge and it took time to standardise systems and procedures. This, in turn, meant that part of my remit was to train others to bring them up to the standards expected.
What next now that you have moved on from multi-site management?
I am in the process of setting up my own training and consultancy company, Turf Master One Ltd., whereby I can fulfil my wish to focus on these two areas of the industry, as well as having recently produced a Maintenance Manual and a short book on 'Managing Golf Courses More Effectively'.
What was the reasoning behind the Maintenance Manual and the short book?
The former is a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, records and data that were developed and updated over a long period of time and formed the basis of the management system used within the UK when part of American Golf. When I reduced the number of days I was working with Crown Golf, I completely 're-vamped' the entire manual and added a number of sections that would benefit others within the golf industry.
It is not a manual on growing fine turf, but it does contain virtually all main criteria that a modern day Course Manager will require. In effect it should act as a reference manual for anyone responsible for managing a golf course. The Manual also includes a disc for downloading various worksheets and records.
The shorter book was a result of making a presentation to the EGCOA at their annual European Golf Business Conference in Berlin last year. I had the idea of putting most of the data and information down in a 'byte' size book to help give golf clubs both here and in Europe the direction they require to best manage their golf courses during these tough economic times.
Are you intending to produce another book?
Yes, I'm about to start work on the second one called 'Seasonal Requirements'. This is aimed more at General Managers, Course Owners, students and so on. It gives an overview of the key tasks likely to be carried out during each of the four seasons and the reasons for doing so. I have others planned but they are 'under wraps' for the time being. My aim is to produce two per year as part of an on-going series of short books that are relevant to the golf industry. Apart from magazine articles, I feel that there is shortage of appropriate reference material available in the UK that is current and relative to meeting today's objectives.
You have made presentations at numerous conferences recently, is this something you will continue?
Probably, at least in the short term. This past year I gave presentations at six international conferences, plus a full day workshop at the start of 2008 in Kobe, Japan. I found the latter to be a tough challenge, but I was helped by two female interpreters who made the day run very smoothly. I would not choose to do as many again in a single year but, then again, you never know. I try to cover as wide an audience range as possible and that can number from around 20 to over 200.
What are your plans for the future?
Turf Master One Ltd is now a registered company and I'm in the process of having a web site developed. This is due for completion by the end of June. I aim to act in an external capacity to any of the colleges, whereby I can assist in the training of students on higher education, covering a number of subjects on their syllabus such as cultural practices, disease control, water management and so on.
Setting up workshops up and down the country, aimed at both General Managers, Course Managers and Deputies, is another avenue I'll explore. Providing short, one day courses is an area where many within the industry could benefit. At present, this tends to be limited to mainly irrigation and safety.
With regards to consultancy, this can be aimed at golf clubs, owners, architects, local authorities or potential clients. Basically, wherever there is a need to offer practical and technical advice to overcome particular problems, or just to review maintenance programmes with a view to being more cost efficient.
What do you see as some of the key challenges for the golf industry?
Providing the same standard of turf quality for less is probably the greatest challenge at present. There is a realisation that, for many clubs, there needs to be a change in direction. This is already evident on both sides of the 'pond' whereby 'sustainability' has got to be top of the priority list.
For many, this is nothing new but, for others, it should be signalling an end to the 'Augusta syndrome' of excesses and escalating costs. The game must remain affordable for the majority otherwise it will head into decline and, currently, there are too many courses for the number of regular golfers.
Another key challenge is the need for better trained Course Managers. Too often, those tasked with this responsibility often lack the technical and, at times, even practical skills to manage and maintain a golf course. However, there are many good young candidates who have tremendous passion for the job, but they, too, require the right level of support.
You mention 'sustainability' and this appears to be at the forefront of many debates, what is your view on this?
As I said above, it is nothing new. Jim Arthur and a few others were preaching this, albeit in different forms, at least twenty years ago. Now, it is largely driven by the STRI and the R&A. It is an all encompassing objective of managing golf courses on a more realistic and cost efficient manner which, in turn, has minimal impact on our environment. We should all be doing this as a matter of course, even if it is just using less water, fertiliser and pesticides.
Not everyone is blessed with being on a natural links or heathland course, but even those on urban parkland sites, on heavy clay, surrounded by trees can make some difference by getting the basics right.
It is not a case of going back to pre-war days with courses covered in weeds and worms and play almost non existent during the winter months. It is more about taking a more realistic view, and for golfers, operators and also the media to realise that we do not live in a perfect world with manicured wall to wall courses that cost vast sums to maintain. Yes, there will always be room for the few that wish to pursue that dream, but at what cost?
Recently, there has been some adverse press in the US against golf courses, therefore the challenge is for those courses to publish what they are using in order to be more transparent. If they have nothing to hide then they can prove, beyond all doubt, that golf courses are good for our environment. Fortunately, the majority in the UK work in harmony with nature and take responsible care.
Any tips for our younger readers?
Focus on the basics, stay in tune with products and techniques, and have clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. Also make sure you gain as much knowledge as possible by visiting other courses, attending seminars and reading articles. Be open minded and realise that all courses are different. Above all, have fun, work hard but be realistic. Lastly, effective communication is vital. Be at the forefront and engage the customer.
Laurence W Pithie MG