Justin Lee is Head Greenkeeper at the Premier golf course, which forms part of the Macdonald Portal Hotel, Golf & Spa near the village of Tarporley in Cheshire. The hotel and golf resort boasts three courses; two eighteen hole and one nine hole, set out on two distinct sites. There is also an 85 bedroom hotel, swimming pool and full leisure and spa facilities. The Lee Westwood Golf School has recently been set up at the Premier course offering a unique BTEC extended national diploma in sport.
Justin has been head greenkeeper at the eighteen hole Premier course ever since it was built back in 1989. In fact, he was part of the construction crew that shaped and set out the course under the guidance off the course designer, Tim Rouse. He then remained on site to help grow in the course. This progressed to being responsible for the day to day maintenance and, twenty-two years later, still finds himself managing the course and its four staff.
He knows every nook and cranny of the site and, over the years, has seen the results of his hard work in terms of the playability of greens, tees and fairways. The other bonus has been seeing the diversity of flora and fauna that have made the course their home. Marsh orchids have, this year, provided an impressive show of flower heads and are now firmly established on the site. As we walked the course, a kestrel hovered above us and dived to capture a mouse, whilst a flock of Canada geese, perhaps annoyed by our presence, waddled off the fairway back to the pond they now call home.
Justin has also been introducing yellow rattle to help improve the permanent grass areas. Yellow rattle is an attractive, semi-parasitic, grassland annual. In the past, this plant was a serious pest for farmers as it weakens grasses which, as a result, can reduce hay yields by as much as 50%. In a greenkeeping context, however, this suppression of grass growth is welcomed, as it helps to produce a better display of wildflowers and eases the mowing required.
Yellow rattle germinates in late February to early March, flowers in June, and sets seed in July. At the end of each growing season, as the plants die back, they leave gaps into which new wildflowers can establish.
Back at the mess room, I am keen to find out how Justin got the course to where it is today - the threat of decapitation being one motivational factor! Justin takes up the story.
"Ten years have got behind you" or, in my case, double that; a classic line from a well known song. How many of us wonder where the time has gone? I know where my time has gone, although looking out on the course and seeing how it has matured, it does seem like no time at all.
It started in 1989, when I had a job interview for an assistant golf course construction manager on a new build in the heart of Cheshire. The interview went fairly well and I secured my position; the worrying thing, at the time, was something one of the directors said to me during the interview; "if the course is not finished by opening day, I will have your head put on a spike outside the main gates". At the tender age of twenty one this had a very lasting effect on me - fear! - which tends to focus your attention on the job in hand.
I had served my apprenticeship at Green Drive Golf Club (Open qualifying course) in Lytham, under the tutelage of a very passionate Scotsman called Charles Smith. He was to be the construction manager in Cheshire, building Oaklands Golf and Country Club.
Construction started in March 1989. The construction team consisted of three greenkeepers and a selection of machine drivers and labourers. These were interesting times for me as I was thrown right into the deep end.
Construction progressed well and was finished on time and within budget. There were lots of challenges along the way, not least turfing USGA greens in the height of a drought, and with no irrigation system! Watering greens in the middle of the night with a water bowser is not much fun when the turf is dying in front of your eyes.
Because of time constraints during construction, the decision was taken by management to turf rather than seed greens. It was that decision that would cause us the biggest problems for many years after construction had finished.
All the greens were turfed during the drought of 1989, without the irrigation being fully operational. Despite our best efforts, ten of the greens died off and we had to strip the turf and relay new turf. I remember that, on the 10th green before it was lifted, we had a potato plant growing as a weed through the many cracks in the dead turf! This was a stressful time for all of us.
With the decision taken to relay, we struggled to find a turf producer who was still prepared to lift turf and supply. We did, however, find a local grower who was growing turf on clay and was prepared to supply us with the turf we needed.
Although we knew that importing a turf grown on clay would give us problems, we had no choice, so we decided, in the first winter, that we would embark on a massive soil exchange programme, for as long as it would take, to remove as much clay as possible, this would hopefully reduce the risk of impeded water movement and stunted root development.
Several pieces of kit had to be bought to help with the programme, namely a Sisis Technicore with large 19mm hollow tines, a Richard Long drop spreader and a Sisis Oscar brush to move the sand into the holes.
We carried out this operation several times a year, and continued doing so for as long as it took to break the layering up. This took many years and lots of hard work. There is still some evidence, deep down in the rootzone, that there was such a problem, and we still suffer from less than perfect water infiltration rates.
Although it was costly and time consuming, and at times very disruptive to golf, it was work that could not be ignored as we would have stored problems up for the future.
One very valuable lesson came out of all this hard work - which was carried out by myself and the different members of my team over the years - you need to understand the importance of creating a healthy growing medium for your grass. I tried every method known to man, and some new ones, to speed up the process of soil exchange and, consequently, thatch management.
When you undertake such extensive work, you can gain a deeper knowledge of soil mechanics and management. Every day would throw up new challenges, and solutions had to be found, something that everybody was encouraged to think about and develop their own lines of thought on.
As the soil exchange programme continued, and showed signs of having a positive effect on the sward quality, I started to think about fertiliser inputs and looked closely at the make-up of the mineral fertilisers we were using at that time. We were suffering from black layer due to water percolation rates being slower than you would expect on a modern USGA construction. This was obviously due to the clay import layer. There was not a lot of information around at this time regarding black layer, and the associated smell of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), something that was beginning to develop.
As I looked deeper into the subject, it was clear that alongside thatch control, water movement and soil management, fertiliser or, more specifically, cheap fertiliser could have a negative effect on the well-being of the rootzone and the plants we try to grow in it. By cheap fertiliser, I mean fertiliser that is loaded with sulphur and mineral salts, these elements can contribute to the occurrence of black layer. For a while, I got quite obsessed with how much sulphur was in some fertilisers, and would swap from one brand to another trying, in vain, to control results.
I used soil analysis to test the levels of sulphate, iron, CEC and all the other parameters found when carring out soil analysis. Soil analysis, although an important tool, is no substitute for observation and experience; these two things give you confidence in what you are trying to achieve.
Instinctively, I knew things were still not right, as I would get inconsistent results with peaks and troughs in greens quality being the norm. Couple this with the soil exchange programme going on, and the fact that the greens were still very young and pretty sterile when looking at the soil microbe and fungi count, and you get a picture of how difficult the greens were to manage back in the good old days! This is a situation that many greenkeepers can find themselves in, striving to improve greens quality and getting bogged down with all the hype and trends that abound in our industry.
Thankfully, I eventually gravitated towards organic fertilisers, and everything started to come right. I felt this approach would simplify everything, and would complement what I was trying to achieve on the greens and give me consistent long lasting results.
It is easy to get confused with the vast array of information and products that are available today, I have always been a great believer in keeping it simple and finding an easier way to manager things.
For years, nature has provided everything that is necessary for healthy plant growth, provided the plant is happy to grow in the habitat it has been placed in. Specific species of plants develop and dominate certain habitats over long periods of time. We need to understand this principle if we are going to encourage plants that are suited to growing in nutrient poor, free draining soils, i.e. bent fescue. After all, these are the species that are coveted above all others and are dominant on our links and moorland courses.
It is not by coincidence that they are there, they are hardy and well accustomed to the environment they have evolved in. Other species cannot get established easily, unless the conditions change and tip the balance in their favour, something that can happen all to easily on a golf green, i.e. watering, fertilising, reducing heights of cut, spraying fungicides.
My ethos, when it comes to golf greens management, is to provide food in its most basic form (not over refined or tinkered with), i.e. organic. Let the nitrogen cycle do its work, let all the microbiology get on with what they do best. Provide a healthy growing medium with as much air as you can get into your greens, without disturbing golf to much.
This will allow the plant to make use of the products that the bugs have been busily producing, and then things start to fall into place and you begin to wonder what all the fuss was about. That is my theory but, of course, life is never that simple yet, if you get the foundations of your greens working properly, this affords you more time to concentrate on the other challenges that this glorious job throws at us.
After using mainly organic feeds for ten years, I have recently started to apply compost tea to my greens. I feel that the greens are at a stage when compost tea might prove beneficial if used over a prolonged period. I will assess its affect on the health of the rootzone against benchmark pointers that I have in place on the greens, i.e. photos and measurements taken over several years.
One interesting benchmark I have is the annual occurrence of dollar spot on three of the greens; it has steadily got worst over recent years, despite trying to manage its occurrence through preventative sprays, correct nutrient levels and aeration. If the outbreak is reduced or stopped, it could be assumed that compost tea has had some role in checking its advance through competitive exclusion. Time will tell.
The buzz words of today - 'low input', 'sustainability', 'budget control' - these terms, when I first heard them, did not have much of an impact, yet now, thinking about it, I realise why. I had worked for a canny Scotsman through my younger impressionable days. Everything that was used on the golf course was considered very carefully - would it have the desired effect; how much would it cost; would it last a long time; how much would it cost; would it assist the greenkeepers in reducing their workload and free time up for other tasks; and, oh yes, how much would it cost?
We should all consider what impact we are having as greenkeepers on the courses we look after. We are only temporary custodians of these valuable landscapes and havens for wildlife. They will pass onto somebody else. This is a large responsibility that we carry, and one that should not be taken lightly.
The success and constant improvements that the course has seen over the twenty-two years since the club has been open is, without doubt, down to the dedicated and passionate staff that I am fortunate to have worked with. These are just a few who have helped and I would like to thank everybody concerned; Chris Haspel, James Street, David Fisher, James Grundy, James Billington, and my current team. But, most of all, Charles Smith for showing me the way.
What's in the shed?
Toro 5410 fairway mower
Toro 6500 fairway mower
Toro 3250 greens mower
Toro 3250 tees mower
Toro 3100 surrounds mower
New Holland T4020D tractor
New Holland TC24D mini tractor
John Deere 670 mini tractor
Toro Procore 648 aerating machine
Toro Workman (electric)
Lloyds rough gangs
Sisis Litamina leaf collector
Hardi amk300 sprayer
Sisis Oscar brush
Brouwer turf cutter
Richard Long high lift trailer
Marston small trailer
TDS fairway slitter
Sisis greens slitter
Sisis TM1000 deep scarifier
Richard Long topdresser
Sreagle fairway rake
Stihl MS260C chainsaw
Stihl FS200 strimmer
Robin leaf blower
Tractor mounted leaf blower