As the last of the December snow cleared from the West Midlands, Jake Barrow headed to a cold Penn Golf Club in Wolverhampton to find out how its new (ish) Course Manager, Tim Johnson, is changing the mindset of the members as he aims for a chemical free course ... and the first double green in the club's long history.
Tim Johnson, 30, is Course Manager at Penn Golf Club in Wolverhampton. He's approaching two years at the club, having come from Wilmslow Golf Club, where he worked from 2008.
Before that, he had worked at High Leigh Golf Club for around eighteen months. Both positions were as Greenkeeper or Senior, so this is his first job in golf management.
He said: "Management has its moments. But 90% of it is straightforward. When you have your systems in place, they do the job for you."
"My staff are good. Everyone's human, but the management understand that I'm capable and they leave me alone. They have a bit of faith in me."
"Anything up to about £1500 is fine for me to sort without clubhouse involvement, and I prepare the annual budget myself. I keep them in the loop."
"If I need anything, like a new strimmer, I'll just tell them I'm going to go and get one, and they assume it's necessary. Off the back of that relationship, we've got new grinders, a new fleet of machinery, clothing for the guys … it's working."
"Generally, I'm a Toro man. I have a good relationship with Ransomes Jacobsen, because I organise these charity walks."
"Remember the guys walking with the lawnmowers from Liverpool to Hull, and Ipswich to Harrogate, in about 2012 and 2014? That was my thing."
"Mower-wise, I don't think you can beat the reliability of a Toro, but if anyone's got anything better, I say 'bring it on'."
"They're also what I'm used to. My last two clubs have used Toro, but I've got a schedule that says I'll need some new machinery in a couple of years, and the door is open to anyone."
"I also deal directly with Toro, directly with Reesink, and I have another strong relationship with Richard Campey. A lot of that is because I used to live over that way."
"For me, the best kind of salesperson is those who don't come in to push a particular product. If they come to chat about nonsense, usually I'll buy something. It's reverse psychology, and I'll usually end up saying, 'Oh, while you're here…', and remembering something I need."
"Chris Knowles from ALS is a lot like that. We spend most of our time talking about mountain biking. Off the back of that, I buy most of our uniforms, paints and chemicals from him."
"At least, he claims he does the proper downhill biking. Seeing is believing. I don't do it that much anymore myself, but I was very into it back in the day."
"I never had any major crashes, but there was one incident when some spokes went into my knee. I've had the odd scrape on my knees too, but no breakages. I'm a bit older and wiser now, though."
Tim played golf when he was around eight years old, and loved spending time at his home course, Leigh Golf Club in Warrington.
One day, when he was twelve, he spoke to one of the greenkeepers there, and had a lot explained to him. This ignited a minor interest in turf.
Then, when he took a trip to play Pebble Beach Golf Links in California (which now costs a figure quickly approaching $1,000 per round), he thought "I fancy a bit of this."
But, realising he wasn't talented enough to become a professional, he turned his attention to the maintenance of courses instead. "It grabbed me", he said.
"And it still grabs me now. It has its tricky moments and, at times, I ask myself what the hell I am doing driving 50-odd miles down the M6 to work."
He still lives in Northwich, which is close to his home town. "I'm not quite as northern as you [Jake is from Wigan], but I am northern compared to this lot," he joked.
"But a big part of my continuing love for it is that I'm lucky to be at a club where, within limits, I'm allowed to do what I want to do with the course."
A Double Green
"With that in mind, it'd be good for me to point out that we're just in the process of developing a double green as well." This is a feature of the course that Tim has been pushing for some time, and membership has been able to see its benefits due to the club's interaction.
The 11th and 17th greens, which are separated by a roughly 15-metre, ridged rough patch, are being planed off, with the resulting dual green becoming a very large surface.
"Currently, players are in a position where they have a green behind a green. When playing to the 11th, the 17th is immediately behind it."
"This means that players who are safety conscious have to wait until play has finished on the 17th to take their approach shots."
"What we are doing is moving the tee shot on the par 3 11th, which off-sets the angle of approach dramatically, making it far less likely that errant shots impede on the potential for play from the two holes to cross paths."
"It's a bit of a bottleneck, and we've worked out that, through this change, we make the area a lot safer for the golfers."
"We've done a bit of rerouting of paths and traversable areas to encourage players to follow the safest route when walking around the new layout."
This will mean that players to either flag can potentially be left with a 40ft+ putt to finish out the hole, which will be a rare challenge and opportunity for players of an inland course.
Greens of this type are significantly more common on links courses; the prototypical St. Andrew's Old Course, for example, having only four unshared putting surfaces.
Tim said: "I've managed one before, the 3rd and 6th at Wilmslow, and to be honest looked at the potential for the same here and just though it would be quite cool."
"We're not necessarily going to use the flags on the new bit [the area that had been the rough separating the greens], but the thought of overhitting on a par 3 to leave yourself with a daunting 30ft putt is quite cool, I think."
"The club have said we'll see how it goes and, if the experiment fails, we can just let the rough area grow back and there'll have been no harm done."
I asked him whether it would require a bell to alert approaching players. He said: "The reality is that it's no different to how it is now in that respect, because the two greens are staying where they are."
"All we're doing is reducing the banking at the back of the 11th and side of the 17th, and cutting it out. So, in theory, if someone's aiming for the green and they know nobody's on there, it should follow the same principle."
"Now, if you're on the 17th green, it doesn't have to stop people playing to the 11th. Nothing's different there. We're only stopping people walking between them when someone is playing to either of them. We're eliminating that risk."
"The politics at the club sneaked out of the woodwork a little on this issue, but with a few notices on tables and pin boards, it has died down."
"When proposed, it was a good 50/50 split of support versus opposition. Initially, it was released as just a rumour."
"Since we've released an official statement, accompanied by some images of how the green will look and where the paths will be, it's now more like an 80/20 in favour."
Tim's Organic Philosophy
The motivation for replicating some of the great features of links golf is reflected in his summary of his inspirations, including the Head Greenkeepers of venues for The Open, as well as golf consultant Gordon Irvine, and his previous Course Manager at Wilmslow, Steve Oultram.
He referred to Gordon at The Old Course, Craig at Hoylake, Paul at Royal St George's and Chris at Royal Birkdale, saying they are "so approachable, as human beings as well as mentors."
"They are just guys who run golf courses which happen to hold the most prestigious tournament there is."
"They're just easy-going people who are good at their job, and that's what I try to emulate when I do my work here or anywhere."
He said that links and heathland golf are his "cup of tea", and this is reflected in his approach to techniques and tools.
"Rightly or wrongly, I don't believe in chemical use, unless as a last resort, and I advocate the inclusion of bent and fescue only."
"Meanwhile, if that's what works for you, I'm not going to disapprove of it. If that's what your golfers want from you; fine."
"Like I've mentioned, I'm in a position here to do things the way I like to do them. The previous guy here put a course into action, and I've just carried that on."
He doesn't have a minimalist approach to every aspect of his maintenance, however. When it comes to aeration, he said his attitude is to re-aerate as soon as a hole heals.
"The only exception is that I don't hollow core. I don't need to, so I don't. If you need to; great. We can just topdress with fen instead of sand, and this year we've only used 65kgs of nitrogen, which is lower than in previous years. We haven't needed to use more."
"This is just the way I do things. We have a low amount of poa on the greens by doing it that way. The irrigation system is shot anyway, so we ask ourselves what resistant types of grass there are, and the only answers to that are 'bent and fescue'."
Tim doesn't know what the specifications of the irrigation system are, but knows that it was installed in the late 1980s. It is a manual, pump-based system with four heads per green.
Theoretically, these could be controlled by a Rain Bird computer, but the wires aren't connected to the heads, so it isn't active.
"It needs a new system, but we're on such heavy soil here that they went quite shallow in places when installing it. So, my colleagues can hit the pipes when verti-draining."
"These greens are quite happy sitting around 10-11% moisture. We use the system when we must, but what would take a good system four minutes to distribute takes us ten-to-twelve."
"There just isn't the flow. We've tried using different heads and they don't entertain it, so a new system is what it'll take."
Tim said he has done sampling in the past, but that he currently has no idea what the pH values of his soil are. When he sampled, it was for organic matter levels.
"I have two strong greens which have lots of organic matter in them. I'd take sixteen more of those over the ones with lower levels, which are weaker - the worst two greens are at 3% organic matter, and the best two are at 5.5%."
"What that tells me is that the business of trying to reduce organic matter is just fine, unless what you've got is good organic matter."
"There's good and bad types, and if you've got the good stuff, leave it alone. I think a lot of this is roots. As I say, we don't need to hollow tine, which tells you most of what you need to know about that layer, and we're not riddled with thatch."
The source of all this naturalism is that Tim doesn't believe in the preventative approach. He compared it to someone taking a daily antibiotic with their morning coffee.
He tries not to take paracetamol if he gets a headache, because he feels there must be a root cause which can be fought more organically, for example dehydration or lack of sleep.
"If there's something that's causing these problems, stop what's causing it instead of just the problem itself."
The same with worms? "Yes. We've not sprayed anything this year. We've had worm casts, but we've had far less, because we boxed the fairways and collected clippings."
"Reduce compaction, reduce thatch, good airflow, lots of light on your greens, good drainage under your greens, inclusion of bents and fescues, certain feeds, removal of dew - all these things are the real solutions to those problems."
The course was stricken by a touch of disease in October 2017, after the year's final overseed, and the team slit in response, and each time it returned they simply slit again.
When they laid iron, it stopped again briefly, but eventually returned. So, they sprayed a fungicide. This shows that it's a terminal solution, rather than a 'see it, spray it' method.
A Victory for Nematodes
Tim's philosophy extends to something we at Pitchcare believe in strongly: the efficacy, and indeed cruciality, of nematode use for pest control.
He is one of the first to have had such success with their use that he had mentioned it to some members of our staff.
"I spray nematodes for chafers", he said. "It was a close one between those and leatherjackets, but early in last season, there were a load of little critters running around everywhere."
"The greens were just getting battered by crows and magpies. We picked the worst four greens and kept an eye on them. I saw lots of beetle activity, so I gave Chris at ALS a call."
"We spoke about Nemasys Chafer Grub Killer [available from pitchcare.com], and we sprayed the product about a day too late."
"Even so, within five days, there was no pecking anymore, even on the worst of the greens. They work. Everyone's a sceptic when there's something new on the market."
"I took the view that: the greens are getting churned up anyway, and this product costs next-to-nothing. I told the Chairman, 'look ... it's only going to cost us £200. And it can't do any harm'."
"That's also the idea I had in my own head. If it doesn't work at that price, it doesn't work. But it did work. I don't know … maybe it's not to everyone's taste. But, hey - there's nothing else on the market, it makes sense to at least try the only product that is."
Speaking of the natural approach in general, he added: "My methods work for me. They don't necessarily work for other places, because every venue has different pressures. We're happy with our green speeds around 10-10.5."
"And I think that if it works for Open Qualifier and Open surfaces, and we have undulating greens here too, they don't need to be quicker."
"So, we only cut the greens at 4mm. We have grinders, so we get a cleaner cut, which helps the speed anyway. You wouldn't have a surgeon with a rusty knife. And, with that leaf length, we get to keep that healthy sward too."
Tim sharpens with a grinder the club purchased every three weeks. That is, every time there is contact with the ground, they immediately sharpen.
Most of his team also know how to grind. They are: Richard Thwaites, 55; Jonathan Wood; Jay Seal, 21; Brian Small; and Paula Collie, 60.
The course on which they work was founded as The South Staffordshire Golf Club, but that club moved away to its current location in Tettenhall in 1908, and the old course became the new Penn Golf Club.
It was founded by, according to the club's website, "distinguished local gentlemen and dignitaries", and, dating to the 1890s, is perhaps the oldest course in the Wolverhampton area.
It is an 18-hole heathland course with a swing simulator, and a putting green by the clubhouse. A practice area is currently in production.
It is a par-70 course, of around 6,500 yards and roughly 150 acres, spread across 1kmx600m [Tim had pulled out a handy app called GeoMeasure, which lets the user find out areas and distances of any land via a drag-and-drop finger motion on a satellite image].
The practice area will consist of three greens, each with a greenside bunker, built using a rotavator, then a base layer of sand, topped with rootzone and fen topdressing.
"I put a challenge on Twitter to the turf companies, asking who could supply the best seed. Three companies answered, giving us a free bag of fescue each. We used that to do the project. It was smart - because it saved us having to pay!"