Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport hosts the 146th Open Championship this July, which will be the 10th time it has been held at this stunning links course north of Liverpool. Since the first Open here in 1954, the course has been, alongside Royal Lytham, the most regular venue for the Championship other than St Andrews. Royal Birkdale will also be hosting the final of the R&A Nine Hole Championship on the Saturday before The Open.
As course manager for the past 22 years, this will be Chris Whittle's third Open at Royal Birkdale, following two more when he was course manager at Muirfield and deputy at Royal Lytham. Chris has never worked on anything but links courses, and his experience of balancing the demands of the golf course with those of the land's SSSI status is unparalleled.
Although he says the course set-up for 2017 will be very much the same as it was for the last Open here in 2008, there have been a few recent changes to the course maintenance equipment fleet supplied by local John Deere dealer Turner Groundscare of Tarvin in Chester, whose area sales manager Ian Roberts has been looking after Royal Birkdale on both the sales and service side for over 22 years.
Eight new 180SL walk-behind greens mowers have now replaced the previous 220C models, and have been joined by two new A Series machines, an 8000AE hybrid electric five-gang cylinder mower for the surrounds and an 8800A rough mower. Additional tournament support machinery and staff will be provided for The Open as required.
"Since the last Open at Royal Birkdale in 2008, we have worked very closely with Chris and his team to provide the key greenkeeping staff with technical training at John Deere's Langar HQ, as well as specialist onsite training. This has been designed to help them become self-sufficient in all the main aspects of machinery servicing and maintenance, and understand how to optimise machine performance," says John Deere territory manager Marcus Morris.
"This ongoing partnership between the club, John Deere and Turner Groundscare helps us all to achieve the best possible results where they matter, out on the course."
On the newest machines in the fleet, which also includes greens/tees and fairway mowers, Chris Whittle says: "The new 180SL walk-behinds were recommended to me by John Deere and Turners when it came time to replace the older models, so we got the dealer to send us one on demonstration and it basically sold itself.
"The narrower working width means we get very accurate contour following on our undulating greens, and at John Deere's suggestion we've also had them fitted with groomers, which we've never used before. These help to maintain the quality of cut and finish we're looking for.
"We only use the 8800A rough mower on the semi-rough, as we never cut the rough at Royal Birkdale," he adds. "This is generally used to mow at two heights, one at around 35mm and the other at around 70mm - it's a Birkdale thing! We might widen this area from five to 10m if required for tournament purposes. Other than that nothing's really changed much at all."
Two new electric TE Gator utility vehicles have also been added to the fleet this year, which now includes three heavy-duty Pro Gators. One is equipped with an HD200 low-profile amenity turf sprayer, one with a cargo box and one with a Dakota top dresser. Aside from the course equipment, the main aspect of running an Open championship that has changed massively in Chris' eyes is how much bigger the tournament has become - particularly the infrastructure that envelops the event, which had already started to go up on the course in late April.
"I went to Royal Troon last year and it was a real eye opener," he says. "We always get plenty of experienced greenkeeping support for our team behind the scenes, though, and this year will be no different. All the Open venues send a representative, plus we have a mix of local course volunteers, R&A Scholars and our own Royal Birkdale Artisan Golfers on hand to help get the extra work done. In addition, BIGGA will be providing volunteers to rake bunkers with each match during the Open.
"There's always a real family atmosphere around the course during the tournament, probably even more so this year as it will probably be my last Open. There will be people that I've worked with before at other courses, and some I've employed - one lad's even coming over from Pinehurst Resort in the US, he's from Southport originally and was a trainee here. It will be hard work, as usual, but I'm really looking forward to it, and to another successful Open at Royal Birkdale."