Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club's two courses are managed by Head Greenkeeper Chris Mitchell. In this article, he explains how the environmentally sensitive site is carefully being managed to give Mother Nature a helping hand
Chris Mitchell has worked at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club for over forty years and got into the job working for his father who was the head greenkeeper of what is now the Old Course. "I did a couple of years with him after leaving school, then went off on my travels doing various jobs but, after two years, I returned," confirms Chris.
"The City and Guilds system was just starting for greenkeeping and, as I had left school with no formal qualifications, I decided to enrol at Plumpton College. Over the next few years, I completed City and Guilds 1, 2 and 3 with distinctions and won best City and Guilds student of the year. I also got a distinction for machinery mechanics."
I took over as Head Greenkeeper from my father as the job had progressed to running two courses, whilst he carried on working for me into his eighties, lovingly tending the flower beds around the club."
Chris cites Jim Arthur has having a big influence on his greenkeeping methodology. "I was inspired the first time I met him. What he said made sense and I still base my policies on what I learned from him."
Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club is a heathland course on the northern side of Ashdown Forest, close to the East Sussex town of East Grinstead in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and is also an SSSI. There are two courses - the Old and the West - covering an area of approximately 140 hectares. Neither are long by modern standards. The club was granted its 'Royal' status in the 1890s for its 'natural hospitality' and this is happily apparent today.
The Old Course went through a number of design changes in its earlier years led by club founder Archdeacon Scott but, being on common land, no excavations or alterations of the terrain were allowed by the conservators, which has given the blessing of no bunkers or, as Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers, put it; "it is only at the end of a round that we realise, with a pleasurable shock, that there is not a single hideous rampart or so much as a pot-bunker". At 6,537 (par 72 SSS 72), it is not overly long; "nevertheless, the challenge is inspiring," he concluded.
The Old Course is regarded as being as natural as any in inland Britain, with heather abounding, gorse, streams, grassy pits and undulations. Probably the most famous hole on the course is the 125 yard, par 3 6th - The Island.
Whilst the Old Course glories in its heathland setting, the West Course is surrounded by lovely woodland, albeit with ample heather. A championship course in its own right, the challenge lies, not in length, but in the demand for accuracy and course management.
The September 2013 edition of Golf World magazine declared the West Course the number one UK golf destination in its 'Short but Sweet' list which featured the country's top courses under 6,000 yards in length. It retains much of the character of its sister course but is laid out on flatter terrain and is considered a "beautiful walk through the heart of the forest without the precipitous climbs!".
Chris has a staff of eight, including a full-time mechanic, who is provided with a fully equipped workshop and state of the art grinding equipment. All maintenance is carried out in-house. "We even have a lathe for machining parts up," comments Chris. "Three of the green staff have been with me for over twenty-five years, three nearly ten years and the newest recruit two years. The oldest member of staff is now seventy-eight years old, going strong and does not mind what job he is given. I try and rotate most jobs, although some do excel at some tasks and tend to carry out those."
"When required, I use David Stansfield as our agronomist and have done ever since Jim Arthur retired."
Being on heathland across a series of valleys, the soil varies greatly, from sandy/silty soil on the high ground to heavy clay in the valleys themselves. "It drains pretty well though," states Chris, "and there is extensive drainage in some areas, some of which is well over a hundred years old and still working."
"Greens are push up type, as are most of the tees. Any new tees constructed in the last twenty years have been of a 50/50 rootzone mix of sand and recycled green waste."
"We have just replaced the irrigation mains and upgraded the system; a lot of which was done in-house, saving the club about £50,000.
Because of the difference in height across both courses, we have got a system running at 12 BAR to make sure water gets to where it should. We have no fairway watering; just tees and greens."
"Over the last ten years, we have removed hectares of trees and we have more to go. The difference to the greens has been incredible. Drier, healthier, more consistent and disease free. As a result, we have no temporary greens."
"Throughout the growing season, we cut the greens daily at 4mm with John Deere triples fitted with groomers running 2mm below height of cut. We also use a sports turf metals brush attached to the front of each greens mower to stand the grass up. The greens are topdressed once a fortnight, and sometimes weekly, depending on the play, with a pure sand dressing using a Cushman mounted Dakota spreader. We run sarrel rollers over the greens during the summer months and a mixture of deep slitting and solid tining with a Sisis AerAid in autumn and winter. Verti-draining is carried out in early October with a two metre verti-drain fitted with 350mm x 13mm tines."
"We never blanket spray the greens for weeds or disease. Only if leatherjackets are present in numbers do we spray all greens with an insecticide. Annually, we use less than four litres of fungicide, which is spot sprayed on one or two shaded tees," Chris confirms.
"Greens are given two light dressings of lawn sand in spring, two weeks apart, once the soil temperature gets up to 7OC plus. This is followed, in May, with 35gm2 of an 8:0:0 organic fertiliser. Then, every four weeks, 40 litres of seaweed and iron mixed with 500mm of Primo Maxx per hectare. This carries on until October."
"This year, for the first time and following the purchase of a Vredo seeder, we overseeded the greens in May with pure fescue and the results have been nothing short of amazing. We will repeat this in the autumn and for the next few years. The tees have also benefitted from the same work, with dwarf rye being used on the par 3 tees."
"Along with the tree clearance work, our big push has been regenerating areas of heather. It is a sometime slow and painful process, but patience has paid off with some lovely areas of heather now growing. We have just finished a countryside stewardship scheme and are in the process of securing a higher level scheme which, over the next ten years, will fund further woodland management and heath restoration," Chris explains.
With the never ending debate over water usage, the club took the decision to install a reservoir. "As we are on an SSSI, which is not owned by us but leased, we had to acquire additional land. An old abandoned Christmas tree plantation beside the course was purchased and over two hundred, eighty feet high Douglas firs had to be felled. This was all carried out in-house. Fortunately, one of our greenstaff was a tree surgeon in a former employment and had all the necessary certification. Contractors then came in and built the 1.7 million gallon reservoir.
An underground tank was installed behind the clubhouse and a series of pipes were laid to channel water from roofs, car parks etc into it, via an interceptor, to trap silt and oil. A pump, installed in the chamber, transfers the water up to the reservoir. This final part was also done in-house. Based on average rainfall, these areas are enough to fill the reservoir three times in one year!"
Chris confirms that machinery that gets heavy usage, such as the greens, tees and fairway mowers, are leased and updated every five years. "I don't stick with any one manufacturer though as I prefer to look at a specific type of machine that does the job I want. Budgeting is carried out between the treasurer and myself."
"The machine that made the biggest difference to me was when we bought our first verti-drain twenty years ago. Now, I have to say it is our new Vredo seeder."
"We have some areas that suffer from worms in the autumn and we try and keep on top of them with carbendazim. We did have a serious problem with badgers on a few fairways but, since we have been giving these fairways an annual treatment of Merit Turf to control chafers, there has been no further damage."
"With both courses being part of an environmentally sensitive area, the club has to comply with the overall policy laid down by acts of Parliament and the Board of Conservators of Ashdown Forest," explains Chris. "This involves felling large areas of invading birch scrub and surface stripping bracken. As heather seed can survive for more than forty years in the ground, areas stripped of their bracken and peat layer will produce heather from this seed bank."
"The R&A's sustainable golf initiative requires a departure from heavy reliance on pesticides, fertiliser and water and working with nature as opposed to fighting against her, but that's nothing more than Jim Arthur advocated," says Chris with a smile.
"The upside of all this is that, as we confront more and more EU legislation regarding pesticide use, courses adopting this type of policy will be one jump ahead of the rest. The other benefit, of course, is the reduction in costs."
So, how does Chris communicate all this ongoing work to the members? "I'm lucky enough to have a chairman of green who is very enthusiastic and regularly updates members with what is going on out on the course. This is done either by email or an open evening. I also have a dedicated page on the club's website where
I am able to answer frequently asked questions. Another of our members also runs a blog and includes a course based topic each month."
What's in the shed?
3 x John Deere 2500B greens mowers
1 x John Deere 2500B approach mower
1 x John Deere 2500B with Greentek sarrels, verticuts, rollers and brushes
2 x Jacobsen tri king tee mowers
2 x John Deere 3225C fairway mowers
1 x John Deere 3245C Semi rough mower
1 x Toro sidewinder
1 Toro batwing rough cutter
1 x Kubota F 3060 Rough cutter
1 x New Holland TN75 Tractor
1x John Deere 50hp compact tractor with loader
1 x New Holland 40hp Boomer tractor
1 x Kubota compact tractor
1 x Kubota KX91 excavator
4 x Cushmans 1 with Hardy spray rig
3 x Kawazaki Mules
1 x SISIS AerAid
1 x Coremaster
1 x 2 metre Vertidrain
1 x 2 metre Rytec flail collector
1 x Bomford Turner reach arm flail
1 x Bomford turner 1.5 metre flail
1 x Vredo seeder
1 x SISIS over seeder
1 x SISIS litamiser
1 x Krone rotovator
1 x Sisis faiway slitter
1x Greenteck greens slitter
3 x trailers
6 x Flymo
2 x Kubota rotary mowers.
8 x strimmers
3 x leaf blowers
1 x Tornado tractor mounted blower
2 x Toro pedestrian greens mowers
2 x John Deere pedestrian mowers
2 x Lloyds pedestrian tees mowers
5 x Stihl chainsaws
1 x Cushman top dresser
1 x Dakota spin top dresser
1 x Classon turf cutter
1 x Brouwer turf cutter
1 x Royer soil shredder
1 x Arbor Eater wood chipper
1 x Hunter Jupiter ATI cylinder grinder
1 x Logic Aquarius PC based irrigation controller