Several weeks of prolonged snow cover through December and early January, followed by a very dry March and April, has meant that many golf clubs are desperate for some favourable weather to help get their course set up and performing well for their members and customers. As I write, the first three weeks of May have also been devoid of rain, especially on the eastern side of England.
One club that is desperate for a change in the weather is St Ives (Hunts) Golf Club, near Cambridge, a brand new inland links style course that opened last May, at the start of another summer of drought like conditions in East Anglia! Built on heavy fen land clay soils, and exposed to prevailing winds, it desperately needs some rain to stimulate growth out on the course.
As I walk the course with Course Manager, Phil Gates MG, it is immediately evident how the weather patterns of the past fourteen months have played havoc with the growing in period. "The recent dry spring has affected the course considerably," says Phil. "It's more like the end of July rather than the beginning of May. We desperately need some rain." If we have another summer like last year, we'll be flat out just trying to keep the course alive."
"The greens, tees and fairways are holding up pretty well, thanks to irrigation and hand watering. But, there are large tracts of the course that are drying out so much that the clay soil is shrinking, leaving large cracks in the surface big enough to get your fist down! Most of the wetland areas are also drying out and the level of the reservoir has dropped several feet."
It certainly has been a testing couple of years for the greenkeeping staff, who have been working hard to maintain a brand new course that is still growing in.
Phil came to the course in April 2008 to help oversee the building of the greens, tees and fairways - most of the shaping and large soil moving had been completed before he arrived.
He has worked at several clubs and has gained a lot of experience in overseeing construction projects, notably at the K Club in Ireland and Trentham Golf Club in Staffordshire. He also worked with Laurence Pithie MG, learning, in the process, a great deal about management and how to develop staff.
"I have always been drawn towards managing a links course so, when the offer came to work at St Ives, I packed my bags and headed to Cambridgeshire to take up my dream job. But the weather has made it more of a challenge than I would have hoped for."
The course architect was Cameron Sinclair, who worked with Charles Mador to deliver a very challenging golf course. The project is the culmination of many years of effort by the members of the St Ives Golf Club (founded in 1923), who were successful in selling a portion of their old nine hole golf course to a major house builder and used the proceeds to purchase a new site outside of the town to construct this ambitious new facility.
Working within a budget of £3 million they managed to transform a flat and windswept East Anglian landscape into a challenging new eighteen hole, par seventy-two golf course, with a beautiful new luxury clubhouse - built to resemble a cluster of farm buildings around a courtyard - and separate practice facilities. Well over 250,000 cubic metres of earth was moved in order to create the course. The remarkable thing is that it looks as if it has been there forever.
"The challenge of the site was to create a unique club with a strong individual character and a welcoming atmosphere," explains Phil.
The involvement of Titleist Acushnet in the practice facilities has provided the opportunity to lift the quality of these far above those normally found at a members club. The ambition and involvement of the club officers has been the key factor in the new club reaching such high standards.
Titleist Acushnet now have their European Headquarters at St. Ives, and have worked with the club and the architects to create a new purpose-made, custom-fit centre, with the focus on practicing professionals and serious golfers.
Phil's early appointment meant that he was able to oversee the construction of the greens, tees and fairways. "The greens are full USGA specification, sown with a mono culture of velvet bent grasses, 50% Avalon and 50% Vespa. Greens and tees surrounds are pure fescue mixes. Tee tops and approaches are sown with 15% dwarf rye and 85% fescue grasses to help cope with the wear. The fairways are a 30% dwarf rye, 70% fescue blend, the roughs are 95% fescue and 5% bent."
"We've been doing lots of overseeding to help maintain a high grass density on all key playing surfaces," says Phil. "However, due to the high clay content of the underlying soil, access to greens, tees and fairways has often been difficult in the winter months when the ground conditions deteriorate. Getting heavy machinery around the course has been challenging and not always possible. The wet ground conditions also made it difficult for the golf buggies to get around the course."
To help alleviate the problem, the club has invested in thirteen kilometres (8.08 miles) of free draining, artificial grass pathway that meanders its way around the course, and which also has its own pop up watering system with over 900 sprinkler heads.
The course has a fully automated irrigation system that can water greens, approaches, tees and fairways. "We have unrestricted access to draw water from a 4,000,000 cubic metre man-made reservoir. The course has been designed to recycle as much water as it can cope with - strategically constructed wetland areas have been made to collect run-off water, and a pumping system can then pump water back into the main reservoir, thereby allowing the water to be re-used again."
"It takes between nine and twelve hours to complete a full irrigation cycle for greens, tees and fairways. During the recent dry spell, we have had the system on most nights to try and keep up with evaporation rates. However, all areas of the course are exposed to strong winds which affect how the pop ups perform, therefore leaving some dry areas that need to be hand watered."
The club has invested over £300,000 on Toro machinery to help keep the course in prime condition, including a large selection of mowers, from their popular pedestrian GM1000 cylinder mowers through to triple mowers for greens, tees and fairways. Other Toro equipment included in the package are Workman utility vehicles and ProCore aerators.
Further investments were made on two John Deere tractors, a Dakota spreader, a Sisis Aer-aid, along with a Bernhard's Express Dual and Anglemaster grinding system. A five year rolling plan for the replacement, renewal and addition of machinery has been put into place, which will be reviewed annually.
All the machinery is kept in a purpose-built garage/workshop with mess room facilities. There are plans to increase the size of the workshop over the next couple of years.
One of their latest acquisitions has been a Hydroscape wash down recycle plant, which filters all contaminants and recycles the water for re-use.
Phil has a total of seven staff to help him maintain the course; three of these are from the old course, including Head Greenkeeper, Mark Campbell, who retained his position working under Phil. The other members of staff include mechanic Paul Joslin, Gareth Morgan, Craig Marshall, Stuart Robinson and Rob Duff.
They all start work at 7.00am and finish at 3.30pm, and bring to the table a wealth of experience. The aim is to develop the course to meet the potential it was designed for, hoping to making it one of the best courses in the county.
After showing me around the garage and clubhouse, Phil and I walked the course so I could get a closer look. There are only a few mature trees within the course, but plenty on the perimeter. So, 80,000 whips (young trees) have been planted to segregate fairways and provide a break in texture whilst, at the same time, provide a test of golf.
The course has over seventy bunkers of different shapes and sizes - pot, grass faced and revetted - which give the course a proper links feel. "More work is required to improve the bunkers," says Phil, "but, at the moment, our talents are required elsewhere to keep the course alive! We do rake them on a regular basis, maintaining an even 75mm depth of sand."
"The greens are recovering from an outbreak of thatch fungus and are not yet at their best. They do not really get going until June, when soil and air temperatures are consistent but, once they are up and running, they become very smooth and tight," explains Phil.
"There is very little poa in the greens due to the high density of the sward, which can often make it difficult to get topdressing materials into the profile."
"The greens are cut daily - 3mm in the summer and 6mm in the winter. During the week, we hand cut using the pedestrian Toro GM1000s. At weekends, and on other occasions when time is tight, we will use the triples to speed up the operation."
"Topdressing is carried out monthly between April and September. We apply in the region of 200 tonnes each year. Aeration consists of a programme of vertidraining, using various size tines; deep 12mm diameter tines are used in spring and the autumn, along with micro tines during the summer months. Fertiliser applications are tailored to meet the needs of the greens, but I'm gradually reducing the amount of nitrogen being applied."
Aeration and overseeding is carried out in April and September. They are cut at 10mm on a twice a week frequency.
Tees were constructed with 150mm deep sand profiles and are maintained at 10mm, cutting twice a week and fed on a little and often regime. They are divoted weekly throughout the playing season. Tee markers are moved regularly to reduce wear.
They are topdressed monthly and aerated with the vertidrain in February and November.
All the fairways were built with a 40mm sand layer over the underlying clay soils, Due to the high clay content of the course, the fairways were primary drained at ten metre centres, and sand mastered to provide secondary drainage to keep them playable all year round. The fairways are cut twice a week, maintained at a height of 10mm, and fed on a little and often basis. Divoting is done once a month, enlisting the help of the members, who have been extremely enthused by their new facilities.
"We are now looking to invest a further £75,000 in sand dressings for the fairways over the next couple of years, which will help restore levels and continue to maintain a good free draining top profile over the drainage system."
"We mow the semi rough once a week, maintaining a height of 50mm. A selective herbicide is applied to control invasive weeds which are usually spot treated only. The amount of semi rough we cut is agreed between myself and the Greens Committee each year; we can set the course up in many different ways to suit the requirements of tournaments etc."
"The full rough is allowed to grow naturally, with no applications of herbicides or pesticides. We are trying to increase the biodiversity of the course. These long grass areas are managed on a cut and collect policy, usually getting one cut in the spring and one cut in late August - early September."
"As for the presentation of the course, very little striping is done. We mow up and down fairways giving the course a set up to keep it looking as natural and 'linksy' as it can be."
Phil's objectives are to ensure the course comes to fruition and continues to mature on all fronts. No mean task given the weather he and his team have had to contend with. "Greens, tees and fairways will only get better as more work is carried out on them, and more work is required to nurture the rough grass areas and get them to mature into swathes of fine grasses. We also plan to plant more heather and gorse around the course."
To that end, Phil has planned, with the club, to invest more money in building poly tunnels to facilitate a nursery area for propagating their own gorse and heather varieties (calluna vulgaris). The aim of the project is to grow over 200,000 plants in a four year period and plant them around the course.
The club are also working hard to encourage wildlife to establish out on the course. "The wetland areas offer a great sanctuary for many birds. The greenstaff have even built a bird hotel - a concrete structure filled with sand and wood shavings - to create a home for sand martins. We've just got to decide where to put it now! We've also been erecting bird boxes in trees, particularly barn owl boxes, as there are quite a few seen locally that we'd like to encourage to nest on the site."
"Myself and the Greens Committee have built up a great working relationship since I came here, and the members are also on board as we try to realise the dream."
As one commentator in Pitchmark magazine said, 'St Ives members must scarcely believe their luck. Whilst their previous nine hole course and clubhouse was pleasant enough, their new course and HQ is magnificent. It's akin to marrying Sporty Spice and waking up on your honeymoon with Beyonce'.
The future looks bright for the club, especially if they can secure the sale of the other chunk of land at their old nine hole course.
It will certainly be a course to look out for. Phil is keen to see it through and produce something special for the members in the coming years.
What's in the shed?
Toro GM1000 x 4 plus transporting trailers
Toro GM3250 x 3 greens triple mowers
Toro RM3100 x 3 greens surrounds / approaches
Toro RM3500 x 1 rotary deck mower
Toro RM5510 x 2 fairway mowers
Toro GM228 x 1 rough mower
Toro Workman 4 wheel drive utility vehicle
Toro 200 Sprayer x 1
Toro E Workman x 2
John Deere Pro Gator 2030K x 1
John Deere 5400 tractor x 1
John Deere 4410 tractor x1
Dakota 414 spreader x 1
Tycrop Propass 180 x 1
Ransomes 9510 x 1
Bernhards Express Dual 4000 x 1
Bernhards Anglemaster x 1
Sisis AerAide System 1500 x 1
Hydroscape Bio-clean water treatment plant
Team photo l-r: Paul Joslin, Phil Gates, Gareth Morgan, Craig Marshall, Mark Campbell, Stuart Robinson and Robert Duff