0 St Annes Old Links - Doubling up!

Greg Rhodes rambles through the rough on one of England's golf coast Top 100 links treasures to meet Course Manager Greg Wellings and his team who are already preparing for another hectic Open qualifying events season.

Spreading the word about sustainability is a key mission for beautiful St Annes Old Links in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire. So too is maintaining its position as one of the nation's leading Open qualifying venues.

This 6,907-yard, Par 72 championship links ranks in Golf World's Top 100 Courses in England, and comes 9th in the North by National Club Golfer's league of North West courses.

The signature 9th hole, considered the top 9th in Great Britain and Ireland by Golf World, caused the great Bobby Jones to comment: "It's difficult to see how you could improve on this."

A course "to test the patience and resilience of budding professionals and enthusiastic beginners", Old Links holds a fine heritage of staging Open qualifying rounds down the years, and continues to do so.

The commission of the 'Old links golf club, St Annes on the sea' was undertaken by golfer and renowned clubmaker George Lowe (reportedly the first person to play 18-hole Carnoustie) and a consortium of local business people in 1901, to establish an affordable golf venue on the North West seaboard.

The Old Links name was coined as the land had been ocupied by the Lytham St Annes Golf Club, which had relocated two miles south (now Royal Lytham & St Annes) in 1897.

By 1909, the Old Links had secured tenancy of the land, prompting Lowe and Alex (Sandy) Herd to submit formal plans to the local council in 1911, formalising the course layout on the land the club had secured.

St Annes Old Links Golf Club has been a mainstay of regional, county and national competition golf for decades but the last ten years have proved particularly busy. From hosting local final qualifying for The Open in July 2012, the club has gone on to host the Ladies Golf Union Girls Home International matches in 2013, followed swiftly by the English Women's Open Amateur Strokeplay Championship. Two years later, they hosted the R&A for the Boys Home Internationals and, two years after that, it held the UK Seniors Golf Association Northwest Championship.

Building further on its golfing prowess, Old Links became the first venue to host final qualifying for both the Open Championship and Ricoh Women's British Open in the same year - 2018.

The course continues to host final qualifying for The Open from 2019 to 2022, also staging final qualifying for the Senior Open in 2019.

Greg Wellings

"Now, for the third time, we are doubling up," course manager Greg Wellings reveals, "as the R&A has asked us to be a joint venue in hosting the Amateur Championship with Royal Lytham & St Annes next year to add to The Open final qualifying."

Busy, busy, busy then, but Greg remains calm and assured in the maelstrom of key-event course maintenance he and his colleagues have grown familiar with. Greg says it's arguably climate change and changing legislation that brings the greatest challenges. The flat Old Links landscape offers little if any shelter from the winds gusting off the Irish Sea, and the course is really at the mercy of the elements.

"Last year was a weird one, weather-wise," he notes. "Prolonged dry weather from the south, no rain for long periods and not necessarily high temperatures, made for a battling year on the course. As we have no fairway irrigation, we've had all hands to the pump," [or tractor-hauled bowser to be specific] "also supplementing fine turf irrigation."

Despite the dearth of irrigation, water can prove an issue. "We have experienced some extremely wet winters in the last four or five years, which can push the water table quite high. The lowest point of the course, around the 16th green, has suffered with that."

"The club is undertaking an architectural review with renowned course architect Martin Ebert to remedy the problem. Of course, the knock-on effect of the wet periods and reduced sunlight in winter can leave surfaces moist, putting the grass under pressure from disease and turf pests such as casting worms."

"Solutions to these issues are not easy," Greg continues, "but we feel that if you can achieve the right nutritional balance, along with sound cultural practice, your turf will be resilient."

10th Green and Clubhouse

Improvements identified for this winter include reinforcing old irrigation wells, as an underground attenuation chamber, each holding some 5,500 or more gallons, will provide a valuable resource to fairways in the difficult summer months. "We're under the cosh to complete this," Greg admits.

The four ponds on the course help drain the surface naturally but climate change demands more intervention work, Greg reveals. "The coming eighteen months will see us installing swales to alleviate winter flooding, once the plans we're lodging are approved."

Just to state the obvious, swales allow water to run off greens into an area such as uncut rough, where it can drain away without interfering with course playability. "Such work is a tough challenge if resourcing is tight," admits Greg.

Course closures are never an easy choice for clubs and Old Links escapes that fate most of the time, but weather and the water table dictate. "We have to close occasionally," says Greg," but usually fewer than 5-10 days annually."

Like more courses currently, Old Links offers fewer bunkers in modern times. Totalling 130, they still present hazards for the unwary golfer. "When I came into the post, we had 142, so we have around ten percent fewer than then. It's a matter of available resources to tend them all."

"Reducing the number cuts the burden of maintenance. We have around thirty bunkers to rebuild in this year's programme, so the process is resource heavy."

Future-proofing the course is a key priority for Greg. "We apply 200 to 300 tonnes of sand a year to the whole facility but, like other clubs, we must look more keenly at alternative methods of acquiring sand, as society cannot keep plundering the quarries for ever. We have to strike the correct balance between environmental consistency and the play conditions on course.

Apprentice Greenkeeper Ben Quinn will undertake his EPA in the coming weeks

Sand is applied for topdressing greens, tees and greens surrounds as well as maintaining correct sand depths in the bunkers. "Consideration of the number of bunkers in future - reducing them in other words - would help with the sand resource burden," Greg says.

"Despite being so close to St Annes beach, it is no ready source for sand. It's an SSSI designated area and a biological heritage site so we cannot look there for sand, although we are negotiating with the council for supplies."

"Currently, we are not permitted to take any. Discarded roadside sand could be an option but we would have to be extremely careful about contaminants, which could act more or less like a herbicide. We would have to work closely with the authorities for such a scheme to be suitable for us," Greg adds.

As one way of generating material to use on the course, the team runs their own composting programme, which includes boxed off clippings, cardboard and paper, and wood chip from course tree management.

"We include bunker digouts too," Greg explains, "as well as sand/turf turnover. The programme works to an 18-month cycle, which involves a 12-month process of mechanically turning the compost several times with an excavator."

The programme creates up to 100 tonnes of material annually, which the team apply on course to develop turf rootzone, Greg adds. "It's all about 'what goes around comes around' - applying indigenous material whenever we can; and there's no need to sterilise it."

The cycle begins with the spring clippings regime, plus leftover wood chip and cardboard, "and there's a huge injection of green waste generated from summer clippings and from harvesting rough."

Old Links is blessedly free of invasive species and vigilance is the name of the game, but maintaining a green regime can only take the team so far. Weed control is still necessary and herbicides - albeit strictly limited quantities - come into play.

Knapsack sprayers are used for weed control

"Boom spraying is out of bounds for us," says Greg, "as our team of four can cover 12-12.5 hectares over a week or two, using Cooper Pegler Evolution 15 knapsacks for spot spraying tees, carries, fairways, semi rough and greens surrounds. That way we can really reduce the quantity of chemicals we apply."

The back-end of summer is time for another knapsack spray; labour intensive but worth it on balance, says Greg. "This year, we've been hit by drydowns, which tipped the balance with weed growth, while grass was on the back foot."

R & A criteria

Old Links commands an enviable record as a qualifying course, but what criteria does the R&A stipulate to bring courses into the arena?

"The course has to be in its best possible natural condition," Greg emphasises, "with consistency of play throughout the period in question."

"Members have to be considered too, so year-round standards are always critically important. Fortunately, we are well supported by both members and the club - well resourced and a positive working environment."

"Our machinery fleet is modern and training allocation is generous, striking a balance between maintenance and off-course time."

The R&A provide ecological and agronomical support, visiting the course and benchmarking what they require during the events.

"Then there's the wet weather and health and safety protocols we have to follow," adds Greg.

Those protocols came sharply into focus in 2017, he recalls, "when we needed as many staff and members out on course helping out after a deluge had swamped the greens. "We were squeegying them like it was going out of fashion, but we gained invaluable experience and later put secondary plans in place to ensure we would have the equipment and bodies ready to deal with any recurrence whilst hosting tournament play."

The Old Links team with a couple of new purchases

Healthy numbers

Greg runs an eight-strong full-time team round the year, with part-timer "labourers" swelling resources between April and October, completing 20hr/wk shifts filling bunkers and replacing divots.

"Two of my greenkeepers have come through from completing apprenticeships," Greg notes, "and I find the process is an effective way for them to gain experience and skills from day one."

Given the status of Old Links, good behaviour is a given and the whole team (part-timers included) must appreciate the importance of it in maintaining cordial relationships with members and visiting golfers, Greg says.

"I'm on my third apprentice working with Phil Lomas, the tutor and assessor at Oldham College. The first, Kit Gregory, qualified last December with a distinction in the new level 2 qualification. He always had that potential to go all the way."

"He had stepped out of football coaching and I saw that he had so much potential to go forward. His work here has been impressive and he's bringing a marked change to the course."

"Ben Quinn is sitting his Level 2 End Point Assessment (EPA), while Alfie Williams started with the club in January. He's worked with us on the seasonal work and embraced it well, thanks partly to a fantastic attitude."

The grant assistance (£3,000) available for taking on an apprentice before April helps smooth the training process, with Greg expecting the second tranche in January, after receiving the first up front.

Greg's not standing still on team numbers and plans to boost the "squad".

"Ten full-timers would be a good place to be," he says.

Better welfare facilities are in the pipeline over the next two years. "Locker rooms, canteen, those kinds of things. For the last ten years, we've been adequate but I don't want to risk falling behind the times. Personal space post-Covid is important."

"Our workshop canteen is housed in a separate building next to the clubhouse, with the tractor facility nearby. I want to create the right environment for colleagues."

View of the course during the Boys Home Internationals in 2017

"On the ground it's critical that team members are willing to learn and embrace a project." Once that culture is embedded, Greg explains. "The skills can always be taught but, if you surround yourself with like-minded people, opportunities will present themselves."

Like tie-ups with local schools - "led by us, we can offer community outreach visit for a day to discover how we do things here and the environmental measures we are putting in place."

"The onus is on us to address an important issue such as our carbon footprint and for the wider community to understand we act responsibly and pursue sustainability."

Encroachment

The golf course as a haven for wildlife diversity is a stance more clubs are taking. Greg is aware of the potential perils of encroaching development and fears Old Links may become isolated.

"The course quality is fine," he says, "but surrounding us is more and more new housing. We already share a fence line with Blackpool Airport and I'm concerned about green space being eaten up around us."

Accordingly, the mission is to engage the membership and the local community more fully with what might become a scarce green resource locally. "Our task, as custodians of the land, is to get the wider community to take ownership of the land and become invested in what we do here, to see that we try to manage the course sustainably and to be aware that the course can exist in balance with the natural surroundings."

Right moves

Greg began greenkeeping in 2005, joining Stockport Golf Club as a rank and filer. "A nice place to work," he recalls. He completed his Level 2 and 3 there before joining the crew at St Andrew's Old Course for seven months of seasonal work.

He moved south in the November to become first assistant at The Mere Golf & Country Club in Cheshire.

When a position at Old Links opened up at the start of 2012, Greg jumped at the chance. "A good move for me to an Open Championship final qualifying course." When the then course manager left his post, Greg took over the role.

Deputy course manager Christopher Jones is enjoying his second spell at Old Links, after moving from Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club in 2018.

After a stint at Wigan Rugby as head groundsman, David Davies joined the team early in 2019. "He'd had greenkeeping experience before his Wigan work," Greg explains.

An even more recent arrival is Christopher Hulme, landing in June 2020 after a seasonal stint at a Swedish golf club.

Then come the recent intake of apprentices - Kit, Ben and Alfie - all three moving across to full greenkeeping roles.

"Our links with apprentices have proved a revelation in the last three to four years," Greg enthuses. "A real step away from previous ones. If we have a legacy, I'd like it to be that of Old Links serving as a breeding ground for good greenkeepers." If the recent intake is any measure, the club is already well on its way.

Bob Bould doing some course remodelling

And so to Bob Bould. A mere fifty years at Old Links and still going strong at seventy. "Bob and I are the two originals," Greg says cheerily.

"The club held a celebration evening for him recently," Greg reports, "and bought him an e-bike so he can whizz round the town when he's not in work."

Old Links' 'Mr Mechanic', Bob worked as a deputy to some big-hitting bosses in his time - Joe Gillett, Chris and Geoff Whittle and Stuart Hogg among them.

"He joined Old Links in 1971 and has seen eight or nine final qualifying rounds here as well as working as support staff at Royal Lytham at the Open Championship.

"Bob has an unbelievable skill set and has completed a huge amount of work with diggers, including shaping greens surrounds. That will form part of his legacy."

Organising and sharpening the £700,000 fleet of diesel, electric and hybrid turf machinery is one of Bob's tasks. "The main mowing fleet is on a 5-year lease and generally we don't keep anything longer than ten years."

"With such significant expectation surrounding the golf course, Bob has an invaluable role to play in keeping the fleet fully up to scratch. I find it hard to quantify how much maintenance costs he's saved us over the years."

His organisational flair comes into its own during events, Greg adds. "Rather than checking a cutting unit when it's on a machine, we normally remove it and check that the cut's optimal. If it isn't, we can regrind or fit a new blade."

"We bench-set the greens mowers three times a week, fairways and tees mowers weekly during the season and, for hand mowers, it's three times a week too, then daily during tournaments. In any case, all the machines are seen to a week or two before events so Bob is kept a bit busy."

Robots are on Greg's mind currently amid talks about machinery emission levels. "I need to do the appropriate research into them but my question is: can they trim fairways overnight for us."

Greg's clearly an environmentally conscious manager who sees the bigger picture of where Old Links can fit more fully into community engagement, including internal communications with the clubhouse and members.

"I'm keen to start a blog as a way of letting everyone know what we are doing out on the course, together with using social media and videos, feeding back to the club's Facebook group, as well as putting up notices in the clubhouse."

No doubt that process will form part and parcel of the significant investment in the clubhouse and an overview of the entire facility, timed with the arrival of a new secretary/manager.

Meanwhile, a clutch of Open qualifying tournaments beckons for the 2022 season, to further strengthen St Annes Old Links' status as a top-flight golfing venue.

You wouldn't bet against Bob being in the thick of it.

But let's return to that signature 173-yard 9th. "Danger lurks everywhere," declares Greg. "A 40-yard punch bowl green with skinny approach is the prospect, surrounded by sand dunes and four or five bunkers."

Doubtless golf's great and good will be tackling what is such a challenging hole in 2022 and beyond.


Bob's worth his weight in gold

Notching up 50 years in one work setting is impressive enough in any sector.

That Bob Bould has recorded such a massive milestone in greenkeeping is all the more staggering.

Perpetually early starts, northern exposure to winds blowing off the Irish Sea over St Annes Old Links, and the sheer physical grind of the job may have battered and bowed a less resilient spirit.

But Bob's built of girders. In fact, he's the kind of man mountain many a club would die for as the sector struggles to attract the true calibre of greenkeeper course managers are crying out for.

"I had a couple of jobs before joining Old Links in 1971," Bob recalls, "including working for a draught excluder manufacturer and on a farm in the workshop."

"I've always been a bit mechanically minded and used to tinker with motorbikes a bit." So the ground was laid.

Joining as one of the groundstaff, Bob "worked his way up", becoming deputy for a short time in the early 2000s. "But I didn't really fancy it and when I was offered the job of maintaining the machinery, I took it."

Course manager Greg Wellings says the money Bob has saved the club in maintenance costs is incalculable. "It must be a hell of a lot though", he says.

Bob continues: "We do all the grinding in-house, although machines go back to the suppliers for the diagnostics stuff."

Any favourite machines over the years? "Well, the triple greens mowers, I suppose," he says.

Old Links recognised Bob's record of service earlier this year and clubbed together to buy him an electric bike "but I'm still waiting for it", Bob says.

"It's being made to order and the manufacturer is probably having delays getting parts."

Bob's certainly seen a few celebrities challenge the Old Links holes, while appearing in shows at nearby Blackpool. "Val Doonican, Eric Sykes and Tommy Cannon all played here I remember. I'm not an autograph hunter myself but a previous boss got singer Johnny [Moon River] Mathis's for his wife."

Has Bob a retirement plan in mind? "Not at the moment," he states. "I'll have to retire at some stage but I'm taking it one day at a time."

Happy 50th anniversary Bob and long may you continue.

1971 - a year to remember

The year Bob came to Old Links was one the nation will never forget for several key events in Britain's history. Here are some of them:

• Britain introduces decimal currency

• Education Minister Margaret Thatcher abolishes free milk for schoolchildren amid calls of 'Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher' by public protestors.

• Government publishes its terms of entry into the European Economic Community (EEC)


Kit Gregory atop the Lastec Articulator

What's in the shed?

Greens
John Deere 2550e hybrid triple mowers (diesel) x 2
John Deere 180SL petrol hand mowers x 5
John Deere HD 200 sprayer and John Deere diesel Pro Gator
Tees and surrounds
John Deere 2500e hybrid triple mowers (diesel) x 3
John Deere 220c petrol hand mower
Fairways
John Deere 7500A (diesel)
John Deere 6500e hybrid (diesel)
Toro 3100D Sidewinder (diesel)
Semi rough/rough cut
One Lastec 3300 articulator (diesel)
Rough management
Wiedenmann Super 500
Aeration and tractors/attachments
John Deere 5075e (diesel)
John Deere 4520 (diesel)
Toro Pro Core 648 (petrol)
Wiedenmann GX18 Terra Spike
Wiedenmann core recycler
Hi-Spec 1150 water bowser

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