It may be wet, wild and windy, but the stunning Brecon Beacons backdrop to Glynneath Golf Club is enough for us to forgive the vagaries of the Welsh weather and to simply enjoy the magnificent scenery.
Some of the heaviest rainfalls descend on Wales' largest national park - conditions unlikely to inspire the budding golfer, you may think. Yet, despite virtually year round precipitation, the small, tight-knit turfcare team is working wonders to produce a superb golfing environment for the members.
Glynneath Golf Club sits twenty miles North-east of Swansea, high up on the edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. Surrounded by brooding, dramatic scenery and peaks nearly 2,000 feet high, where birds of prey are commonly seen wheeling overhead, the undulating 18-hole parkland and moorland course is often drenched - 92.5 inches of rain have fallen on the lush green turf in the last twelve months.
The long winding road (sorry, trackway) could make a terrific setting for a film fantasy like Lord of the Rings - overhanging forest, towering summits, deep undergrowth and tumultuous clouds. Just as I'm wondering if the car is going to make it in one piece, the greenkeepers shed looms into view and there stand my interviewees.
Moving quickly into the cosy warm interior, we soon start discussing the approach to creating playable surfaces under such consistently tough conditions. "A programme of organic matter reduction has created hard, fast greens that drain rapidly," says Head Greenkeeper Kevin Griffiths, who battles with the same climatic concerns and maintenance challenges as the many neighbouring golf courses that litter this region of South Wales. "Even after really heavy downpours, we can be cutting after a couple of hours."
The three-man team, which includes First Assistant, Darryl Jones, and Second Assistant, Martin Hopcutt, is out cutting as often as they can, in between the cloudbursts. "It's been one of the worst summers on record here, but were getting getting growth right up to Christmas," Kevin adds. "We don't see the autumn frost we used to, so we have to be ready to cut whenever possible. You just can't predict the weather up here and you have to act as soon as the rain lets up. That's why consistency is so important to us."
With consistency comes good planning, and key to the team's ability to manage the weather is by implementing an action plan, and it is this that helps demonstrate just how efficiently a small team can work with the right tools and the correct mindset.
"Aside from planned projects, such as new tee constructions, green extensions, and bunker restoration, our work at this time of year focuses mainly on course tidy-up, which generally includes tree felling and thinning, removal of unwanted hedges, and scrub and bracken clearance," explains Kevin, referring to works that began in January.
"Our schedule is very often dictated by the weather which, like on most courses, can make our lives difficult, but it does sometimes offer a welcome respite, which allows us to turn our focus to servicing our machinery."
First Assistant Darryl Jones handles the team's machine fleet and is passionate about keeping it in pristine condition. With the merest prompt, he's waxing lyrical about what I sense might be the love of his life. "We keep to a 5mm cut height across the greens all year, so consistency of cut is what we strive for," he tells me, adding that John Deere ranks high in the pecking order, particularly their hybrid greens mower.
"We are a club that likes to cut every day, even if there's no growth," he notes. "To me, it makes a difference to the look of the greens, but you have to take the good days when they come because you don't know what tomorrow will bring. You have to make the best of good light and fine weather in this corner of the world."
Before I have a chance to ask the question, Darryl lists the club's machinery fleet - certainly a diverse retinue - that includes a Toro 6500D, Toro 4000, Toro 3100D, John Deere 2500E, Jacobsen Greens King 6, John Deere Pro Gator, Cushman, Kubota 5340, two John Deere 220Bs, a Toro Pro-Core 660, two Sisis scarifiers, a Greentec 3 tonne lift-bed trailer, 1.5 tonne Nante 360 mini-digger, Hayter slitter, a John Deere Topdresser and, finally, a Jarmet 500l sprayer.
Darryl slips back effortlessly into singing the praises of the 2500E. Glynneath was the first club in South Wales to purchase it - seven years ago - and, thanks to Darryl's mechanically precise mindset, still runs sweetly after 2,150 miles. "The reduction in hydraulic leaks is a big step forward for turfcare machinery. For a club like ours, on a modest budget and with a small staff, leaks are something we simply cannot afford."
The machine has been a saviour for the greens team, he says, averaging four cuts from a full tank, thanks to the electric reel system, which allows the cutting units to be powered independently of traction speed, unlike hydraulic reel circuits. Darryl is able to reduce engine RPM without slowing reel rotational or mowing speed. That makes it quieter too, at just 79dBA, while maintaining cut quality, productivity, and reducing fuel consumption by a tenth.
Maintenance of what is a relatively large fleet rarely leaves Darryl a spare moment. "All our cylinder machines are reground annually, and back-lapped monthly," he continues. "The full range of machines receives two services per year, which usually include changing all oils as necessary and any filters. All safety aspects are checked monthly, with any issues rectified by our local dealer, Powercut."
As Darryl starts really warming to his subject, Kevin chips in to bring the conversation back to winter maintenance. "We schedule in monthly solid-tining of all our greens using 13mm tines on our Pro-Core, along with the Huxley slitter, trying to fit this in around the weather, though the poor conditions provide us with ample opportunity to prepare our fleet for the up-coming cutting season. These months seem to pass in the blink of an eye - with only three full-time greens staff and 120 acres to manage, there is always plenty of work to keep us occupied."
The club's lush green blanket of turf that sits at the foot of the Brecons may lead some to infer a heavy-going nutrition and spraying regime, but the reality is quite the opposite.
The only nutrition needed in these winter months is iron sulphate, which Kevin orders from local suppliers. Throughout the year, the greens are also only given liquid treatment, with Super N 35:0:0, Farmura's Porthcawl and Primo Maxx, the three preferred feeds.
Glynneath's course was extended around ten years ago and some holes are now on a higher level and deeper into the Brecons than the old course, so can often experience different weather extremities. "It's colder up there and snowfall can often lie for a week longer than the rest of the course," Kevin reveals. "The new greens are also built to USGA spec, so the combination of lower temperatures and greens specifications mean we have to take a different approach to this area of the course."
Spring is always late in arriving for Glynneath as it sits a few hundred feet above sea level. This can make things difficult for Kevin and the team, as it forces them to carry out their spring preparation work later than many courses in the area - often a month behind in terms of temperature and growth.
"We can't get hollow tining underway until at least May," says Darryl, "but, by then, we are faced with the turmoil and unrest caused to our members as their playing season is just getting into full swing," he continues. "Consequently, last year, we took the decision to schedule coring work in August and we plan to adopt this approach going forward."
Kevin confesses that shifting weather patterns means they are still finishing up some of their projects from the winter. "There's a limited cutting requirement then, but we are on standby to start full-time cutting when we finally experience temperatures normally associated with late spring," he says. "We also schedule in an application of NPK 6:5:12, and would do this at the first sign of a rise in temperature."
Once proper growth begins, the trio undertakes light scarifying with verti-cutting to get any lateral growth standing up and to eradicate dead matter that's developed over the winter. "We follow this with a light topdressing of straight sand," explains Darryl. "Due to financial constraints, over the last two years, we've used straight sand, which has been passed as suitable for use on all our topdressing."
"We source it locally, so it costs far less than our traditional sand-soil mix that had to be transported in from far and wide. This has enabled us to apply 180 tonnes a season for the same cost as 60 tonnes."
As spring turns to summer, the limited growth experienced throughout most of the season turns around in the blink of an eye and, from June to August, the three men are rushed off their feet.
"In these three months growth comes with a bang, so it's crazy with just three of us," explains Darryl. "Then you have to factor in breakdowns, holidays, fertilising, aerating, bunker work, dressing, and the small matter of the weather which, on average, has been at record rainfall levels for June, July and August for the last the last four years - some twelve inches. It's been tough, but we love it!" he declares cheerfully.
Seldom will you find grounds professionals so upbeat about wet weather, but a change of club fortunes has also helped foster an enthusiastic environment. A notable capital investment has meant vital ground works over the last two years have really paid off, following the committee decision to purchase new kit to allow Kevin and his men to start a major thatch removal programme, due for completion in 2015.
Over twenty-four months, 60% of thatch build-up was successfully removed, whilst also upping the volume of sand on the greens from 60 to 180 tonnes. The results of all this endeavour? "Amazing," according to Darryl.
The team's cutting programme reduces somewhat from September onwards, but is quickly replaced with work focused on leaf removal, as Kevin explains. "The woodland aspect of our course offers a great deal of character for the golfer, but the leaf fall presents a major stumbling block, so removal remains a priority right through to the end of November. The job has been made much easier by our investment in a Whisper Blower, meaning we can not only care for the priority areas such as greens and tees, but can also tackle fairways and semi-rough."
"A major challenge for the team remains budgetary constraints," he adds. "Golf clubs have had a rough ride over the last few years, and we are no different. We've had to work hard to strike a balance between producing a product that competes with all the local golf courses, but also achieving that within tighter budgets."
"Reducing expenditure on golf courses can often be counter-productive with regard to income generation, I believe, so sometimes cutting certain costs won't leave us any better off and needs very careful consideration."
Despite his word of caution - sound advice for any course managers who may be reading this - Kevin feels he is fortunate to have built strong relations with the club's owners.
"We have a good bond with the current officers. Our main support officer is the Greens Chairman, Steve Edwards, and he backs us on most requests. That support and trust is invaluable. Our current Captain and Lady Captain, Roger and Moira Whitefoot, have a strong background in landscaping and management of parks, which includes bowling greens. They both commit many hours of their time to helping us on the course - and we'd also have to include Club Chairman, Phil Bowen, in this matter too. What's perhaps most valuable, though, is that they have an understanding of what we need to produce a product to be proud of."
Something that cannot be remedied through committee support is the rain. Location, on the one hand, presents Glynneath with a stunning backdrop and an obvious draw for members, but that, and the impact of the notoriously drizzly National Park, needs to be carefully balanced to ensure the two can live in harmony.
"Our location within the Brecon Beacons can present complications, mainly with regard to any planning or construction work," explains Kevin. "We've developed a good working relationship over the years and try to use the National Park for advice and support wherever necessary. In particular, we've consulted with them over tree removal programmes and SSSIs [Sites of Special Scientific Interest]."
"Working with the approval of the National Park, we are trying to highlight the benefit of trees when used sparingly around tees, and the greens and fairways," he continues. "We're blessed with trees, but have had to manage them to let in more light, as the greens had a large thatch build-up that had made drainage poor. Now we've reached manageable levels, we are able to move out onto the greens soon after the rain stops."
Forestry management is what occupies most of Martin Hopcutt's time, and he's helped introduce some attractive fairway features in his time, such as a gallery of oaks and silver birches on the 15th - the 'Vole' - which takes its name from the mountain towering in the distance.
The hilly aspect has also assisted with drainage, which eased the work carried out recently to improve greens drainage. "Luckily, many of our fairways are free-draining - that's one of the advantages of being positioned on top of a hill," states Darryl. "Water runs away from us rather than towards us."
Kevin comes in again: "Over the years we have been pro-active towards drainage on greens. We laid around 400m of it on greens and surrounds three years ago, all of which were cut by hand because we didn't have a mini-digger," he adds. "Our drainage work had probably never really worked to its potential until we invested in the Kubota and Pro-Core two years ago, which has enabled us to keep our drainage open and functioning well."
With that crucial aspect of course management now in good order, and the thatch removal programme - which will run for a further three years - on track and delivering excellent results, there's good cause for Kevin, Darryl and Martin to be singing in the rain.
As the clouds close in again and the rain threatens once more, there's just time to relive some of the highs and lows of what is a constantly challenging working life.
"My best day here was probably my very first one, as a sixteen year old, says Kevin. "It was a gentle introduction to working life, but has been all downhill since then," he adds, smiling from ear to ear.
Darryl is hard pushed to find a bad experience in his time at Glynneath, but does recall a moment in a previous post. "I once drove a three day old Pro Gator through, what I thought was, a puddle in the road; it turned out to be a 3ft deep pothole, where torrential overnight rain had washed a large chunk of the road away. The result was a £2,500 repair bill and the absence of our Pro Gator for three weeks. My friends within the profession still provide frequent reminders about this 'mishap' to this day."
Darryl's finest moment draws more on his excellent playing abilities on the course, where he enjoys a handicap of five.
"I am a former Club Champion at Garnant Park (2000) where I had been a greenkeeper previously, which was a big source of pride for me," he reveals. "Most satisfying, though, was to become Club Champion here at Glynneath in 2011. Although it's not necessarily job related, it makes all my work seem that much more worthwhile. Working on the course every day and being a keen golfer just makes you want to win the club's flagship event. It would be rude not to mention I have also shot a 76 gross at Sawgrass."
"You may have played St. Mellion's, the course that Jack built. But have you played 'Royal Glynneath', the course that God built?"
Max Boyce MBE
Glynneath Golf Club is proud of its association with Max Boyce, one of Wales' best and most loved celebrity entertainers. Max is a past Captain of the Club and is a long serving 'hands on' President.
His very popular competition, The Max Boyce Classic, has attracted a host of well known celebrities and sports personalities down the years.