When Royal Cinque Ports played host to the Open Qualifying Tournament in June, Syngenta Business Manager, Daniel Lightfoot, joined the tournament preparation team to help out. He reports on what a great course they prepared for the event and the opportunities such an experience presents for other greenkeepers
For the past two years, Royal Cinque Ports has hosted one of the Open Championship Final Qualifying events, so when I heard the Course Manager, James Bledge, was looking for volunteers for the 2016 event, I immediately phoned him to see if I could help out.
I first had the pleasure of meeting James a few years ago, when he spent a few days with me when I was the Course Manager at Bearwood Lakes in Berkshire. At the time, it was obvious that James was going to get to the very top, so it was no surprise when he was offered the job of Course Manager of the prestigious Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club.
Royal Cinque Ports (RCP) is a magnificent links golf course on the Kent Coast, situated next to the prestigious Open venues of Royal St Georges and Princes Golf Clubs.
Working for Syngenta as UK Business Manager is a fantastic job, and you get to see some many amazing things and meet so many fantastic people, but I don't think that you can ever beat getting up at 5.00am and hand mowing greens.
The banter in the yard, the wildlife, the sun emerging for the day and a golf course with no one on it before play is one of the best places in the world to be, and I do miss it sometimes.
James and his team had done an amazing job of getting the course into great shape, ably assisted by his excellent Deputy, Greig Easton. Having a great deputy is so important to producing a great golf course. James said to me he would never find a harder working deputy and it was clear Greig had everything under control.
So, to get everything prepared just the way that James and Greig wanted for the Open Qualifying event, he asked for a few guys to help out for a few days before the tournament.
One of the things I love about this industry is that everyone always wants to help each other out and to make everyone's courses the best they can be. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for James to get the people he needed. You get what you give I guess!
So, the 'dream team' consisted of an old friend of James's, Fraser Peacock, and an old friend of mine, Gareth Roberts, Course Manager of Hankley Common, which is one of the world's best heathland golf courses. Gareth also brought along young Jake Austin.
Jake's not been in greenkeeping long, so it's inspiring that he's been given such a great opportunity to learn, meet new people and see what this amazing industry has to offer. It does need great support from the Course Manager to give guys the time to do this, but I think you get it back in spades and Jake is lucky to have Gareth as his mentor.
The Roberts family was well supported for the week with Graeme Roberts, (Gareth's son) and Deputy Course Manager at Camberley Heath. Graeme is a veteran of many tournament support teams around the world - at numerous US Opens and USPGAs to name a few.
Also in the crew were Wes Lenihan, Head Greenkeeper at Ealing Golf Club; Lars Knutson, Course Manager at Ljunghusen Sweden; John Mcloughlin, Course Manager from Warrington Golf Club; the formidable Lee Sayers, Course Manager from Mid Kent Golf Club, and the hilarious Ryan Hyder from Tacit.
To complete the team, we were joined by Darren Burton, Head Greenkeeper from Lydd Golf Club to film all the action with his drone and GoPro. These items have made a great impact in the golf industry over recent years. The drone did provide some of the great moments of the week, with Jake being followed a little too closely whilst mowing greens and Darren offering his services for weddings and birthdays! Greenkeeping pay has never been great!
So, after the amazing work of the RCP greenkeeping team over weeks of preparation, the support team arrived, in the main, on Saturday night, for a course walk and a drink and dinner at the pub in Sandwich, which provided many laughs and was a great way for everyone to meet.
James, always one step ahead, had sent out a plan for the week well in advance, so everyone knew what they were doing. It shows how important the planning is. James also set up a Whatsapp group, which was great to share pictures and also give some last minute information, but it also provided much hilarity for the week. I think it is really useful these days to harness the power of technology to help you do a better job.
So Sunday was a five o'clock start and I was hand mowing greens. It was always my favourite part of course maintenance, but I hadn't done it in a while. There is nothing better than being out on a golf course mowing greens first thing in the morning. The wildlife is out and about; the weather is beautiful; the course is empty! I think, for many greenkeepers, it is the best part of the day and it's like you have the whole place to yourself. Not for long though!
Anyway, I hadn't forgotten how to cut some lasers - and put a few pics of my lines up on Whatsapp just to let the crew know the old greenkeeper hadn't lost his skills. However, when I had to nip off to the toilet on comp day, there were a few pics of an abandoned mower! Never gloat as a greenkeeper, as you will soon be brought back down to earth!
Once we had done the morning routine, we had breakfast at the yard, provided by the club which was great, and then we had a bit of time to ourselves.
First off was to see how the greens were performing. The recent ICL addition to their programme is the greens tester. I love this tool, and I used it a lot in my previous role. You set up the tester, which is like a stimp meter, about nine foot from the hole and roll the balls down, which finish about a foot past the cup, until you get two in.
You then roll ten balls down and see how many go in. Ten out of ten and the green is perfectly smooth, but eight or nine is pretty good. I love it as members can see visibly how smooth the greens are. And it also can give some great, quick, cheap and effective comparable data to feedback to the club over the year as to how smooth the greens are.
More importantly, it gives you an instant snapshot about where you are with your specific greens, what influence different actions have on their smoothness and what you need to do to maintain or improve their performance. It's perfect to show members that topdressing makes greens better, not worse - even in the short term!
James then used the greens tester to make a few videos with the Club Pro, Andrew Reynolds, to promote the golf course. Andrew is a great guy and the relationship James has with him is one I'm sure many Course Managers around the country would envy. He backs and supports James and they seems to be a great team.
In the afternoon, James had arranged for four of us: Fraser, Gareth, Graeme and myself to play neighbouring Royal St Georges, courtesy of Course Manager, Paul Larsen. It was a great opportunity to play one of the world's great golf courses, in great condition. After walking another eight kilometres, it was no rest for the wicked and back to the greens department at RCP for a great BBQ, served up by Lee Campany, before going back out on to the course.
Out in the evening for the late shift, and this time is was cutting fairways. James's mechanic, Keith Pooley, had done a great job of making sure every machine was ready to go, fuelled, greased and on cut. Having a great mechanic is a real benefit and essential to meet the demanding standards we keep today. The fairways at RCP are brilliant, with some amazing contours and some pretty scary slopes. There were four of us, so we got the job done pretty quickly.
There were two small fairway mowers and two slightly larger ones, so James ran the two large ones in tandem and the two smaller ones together on others, as the prism height might be slightly different as the units were lighter. The fairways were cut half and half, with me partnering up with Gareth - I let him cut the centre line and followed in behind.
However, mowing fairways also reminded me of what bad hayfever I suffer from. Being down draught of some grass clippings, it reminded me pretty quickly what I used to experience - by the end of a lovely evening, I could hardly see anything. Since joining Syngenta, I had forgotten how much I needed to take the tablets at the start of the day.
A quick drive down to the shops for tablets was in order, although I did make the point to the guys I was going to buy genuine branded products and not the cheap generics - it's necessary to ensure the development of new products into the industry!
After a quick nip down to the pub after work, it was back to the flat for an early start the next day. The club kindly let the volunteers use the flat at the top of the clubhouse; it was great and made the whole week very easy and relaxing, which we all really appreciated.
Next day was just about fine tuning some of the morning's work, another fry up - which, by this time, was doing nothing for my figure! And then a few of the guys played a few holes at the wonderful Princes Golf Club, courtesy of their course manager, Sean McLean.
I used the time to catch up on some sleep, before a barbecue, this time cooked by Lee Sayers, before the evening duties began. We started a little earlier so we could all watch the England game, which proved a total waste of time! I think I'd have rather have been back on the golf course after watching that - England were out of Europe twice in a week!
The final morning came and it was a 3.15am alarm call ready for a four o'clock start. This was part of the job I've never forgotten. It always going to be difficult to get eight hours sleep, since at 7.00pm, when we should have been going to bed, we were still out greenkeeping!
But there is nothing better than Tournament Day and you forget that you are tired. It's what you have worked for; the pressure is on, you are working at your full capacity and the results are brilliant and very rewarding.
The course looked great, everyone knew what they were doing and it all went like clockwork. James had it so well organised and having the extra staff there meant that he could have more of an overview role. It is great as a Course Manager to be able to just observe and be in a position to make any small changes, or help anyone when they need it, and communicating effectively with the club or the R&A - rather than trying to do all that while changing holes or cutting approaches.
Within a flash, the morning was done and the kit was washed off. We had our final fry-up, James said some thank-yous to all the guys and we took some photos. Most of the boys went out to watch the golf, although the incredibly hard working Greig hooked up a borrowed roller and took it back to Princes!
To sum it all up, it was a great few days and there was great camaraderie between all the guys. James and his team did an amazing job of the course and, as Lars put it, "we just helped with the finishing touches". It was a great experience and I fully recommend all greenkeepers to give it a go.
You get to see some great golf courses, meet some great greenkeepers, network and also learn new skills. Greenkeepers are very resourceful and I don't think anyone has ever been to a greenkeeper's yard and not learned a new way to do something. Seeing a set of bar optics being used to provide an accurate measure to dispense two-stroke mix was my particular learning of the week.
I would like to thank James for inviting me down to support him and his team. The greens staff at RCP were great hosts, presented a great golf course and put on a great event. So, next time you have the chance to volunteer at an event, take it - you learn so much and make some friends for life, and maybe they will help you when you need it!