For a course that was only established as recently as 1992, Buckinghamshire Golf Club has made huge progress. It has been the headquarters of the European Ladies Tour since 2008, and the man charged with making sure that the course is in competition condition at all times is Course Manager Andy Ewence. Pitchcare talked to him just after the club had hosted this year's Ladies European Masters
Buckinghamshire Golf Course was created by the legendary John Jacobs OBE, former European Tour player, Ryder Cup Captain and, in recent years, a renowned course designer. His skillful use of the natural features and local topography has provided a layout recognised as one of the finest inland courses in the British Isles.
Buckinghamshire Golf Course played host to the highlight of The European PGA Seniors Tour, The Senior Tournament of Champions from 1996-2000 and the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf European Final in 1997. This year, it again hosted the ISPS Handa Ladies European Masters, with American Beth Allen beating a strong field that included Charley Hull, Laura Davis and Gwladys Nocera.
Closely associated with the golf club is resident professional, former European Tour and Ryder Cup player John O'Leary.
The Rivers Misbourne and Colne ensure that water comes into play on seven of the first twelve holes. One of the strengths of the course, from a course management perspective, is that the greens are large - up to forty-five yards long - so simply altering the pin position can change the character of the holes completely.
John Jacobs himself once commented: "You want a golf course to be a stern test but, at the end of the day, it must be one that even a bad golfer can enjoy." He has certainly achieved this at Buckinghamshire.
The course runs in two loops of nine, starting and finishing at the clubhouse. The fairways wander through three distinct areas incorporating woodland, lakes, rivers and undulating links style land that provide a variety of golfing terrain. "But it's a proper parkland course," comments Course and Grounds Manager Andy Ewence, who has been with the club for just over four years.
The 18-hole course measures 6892 yards and has a par of 72. The total acreage of the site is 220.
Andy counts himself lucky to be a greenkeeper. "When I left school, my dad said, 'right, I'm taking you to sign up for the Army tomorrow!' Luckily, I opened up the local paper straightaway and Pyrford Golf Club, just down the road from where I lived in Surrey, were looking for an apprentice greenkeeper - thank God!"
"I came to the Buckinghamshire via Queenwood and Burhill golf clubs and, along the way, have been grateful for some sound advice from many experienced greenkeepers. Fortunately, none of them suggested I join the Army!"
"Since taking over at the Bucks, I have prepared the course for Regional Open Qualifiers, plus Ladies US Open Qualifiers in 2014 and 2015; the first time they were held outside America. And, of course, the aforementioned Ladies European Masters on three occasions, which were all shown live on Sky Sports."
As you might expect at a course that is often in the media spotlight, presentation means everything. "We want the members to drive in and feel proud to be a member and when they bring guests," Andy states emphatically. "The competition between golf clubs is so high nowadays that you must go that extra mile to provide the best service and playing surfaces."
To help him achieve that, he has a team of eleven assisting him. Pete Tuckett is his deputy and Iain Hardaker is the first assistant. David Purdue is the workshop technician/mechanic and all work is carried out in-house. He is also responsible for first aid. Jamie Graham, Andrew Richardson, Adam Williamson, Will Dix, Adam Djalalpour and Robbie Bond complete the greenkeeping staff, and the team also has a dedicated gardener in Vince Tenny. Two summer casuals are taken on from April through to October.
All qualified staff are compliant with current legislation, confirms Andy, and he explains that he is now giving them the opportunity to work on tournaments abroad. "It is a better experience for them than sitting in a classroom."
"I send five staff to BTME Harrogate every year and, if any seminars are brought to my attention, then they are allowed to attend. Networking is the best way to find out more information and is good for future plans," he maintains.
Andy also employs one apprentice, Charlie Llanfear, who has just enrolled at college and is proving to be "very keen".
"It's a great scheme, because you can see them develop, give them good advice on their career and point them in the right direction," says Andy. "There's a tremendous sense of satisfaction."
Half the site is on a quarry, and the other half is old farming land with thick clay and, with two rivers running through the course, some areas are prone to flooding. "With a high water table, some areas can get flooded in the winter months, and we have nowhere to pump the water either, so these areas have to be overseeded most years. We have a driving range which is on a flood plain (great fun), and are in the process of applying for a landfill licence to improve the range and double the size of our grass teeing area. We also have a small short game area which we hope to improve with our course changes."
These changes are quite extensive - and expensive. "We are awaiting the go ahead to begin a £2 million project which involves a new irrigation system and reservoir, changing and reducing the bunkers from 112 to 64 - and also lining them. We have found that technology in golf equipment has changed so much in the past twenty-five years, with people hitting the ball a lot further, that many of our bunkers were out of play most of the time."
"We are also lengthening the course from 6,880 to 7,200 yards, adding concrete buggy paths and re-edging and shaping the lakes."
"In recent years, we have been reshaping a few bunkers, plus some aesthetic work to the gardens and entrance driveway in, so this project will be an extensive undertaking. We'll do as much of the work as we can in-house, but specialist work will be sourced from outside the club."
Andy explains that, with the exception of the fairways and rough, all other areas are pedestrian cut. "We walk a total of six miles cutting the greens and over nine miles cutting the tees, approaches and surrounds - I have no fat greenkeepers," he jokes. Greens are cut at 2.8mm every day. Tees, approaches and surrounds are kept at 8mm and fairways at 11mm; these are cut three times a week. Semi-rough is maintained at 25mm and rough at 50mm. All clippings are boxed off, except the rough.
All the greens are built to USGA specification that, in Andy's words, require "topdressing and more topdressing! We take soil samples at the beginning of the year, in January, and half way through the year to check OM levels and to see if and where we are lacking in nutrient."
"I operate a special work programme where every day is different, so my staff will never be doing the same morning job as the day before; except when we have tournaments and then they have their own route for the build-up. We find this helps the staff from getting bored and it is great that they can all do every job. When people are sick or on holiday, we have no trouble in getting all the jobs done."
"Renovations are the most important parts of the year," states Andy. "We try to put as much money into renovations as we can. Sand prices have gone up so much over the past couple of years that we have, though, stopped thinking about topdressing the fairways."
"The renovation work involves hollow coring and verticutting the greens, and hollow coring tees, surrounds and approaches, followed by topdressing. We machine rake the fairways and renovate our range tee with a tractor mounted Graden."
"As well as the course, we have a big woodland area across the river, which we have to keep maintained as there are public footpaths running through it."
The ecology and environment are important factors to be considered at any golf course and Buckinghamshire is no exception. Andy has started to put policies in place to bring more flora onto the course and grounds. "We have just opened up an area to the side of one hole, near the river, which we have sown with a mixture of wildflowers, which is starting to look good; the members really like it," Andy confirms.
"We have an environmental policy in place, and we also have a country park right next to us, so get advice from the park ranger when needed."
"We don't use temporary greens. If there's a frost, we are shut until it thaws out. Not many clubs still have this policy, but I'm lucky that the members understand why we do it. The condition of the course for the remainder of the year is paramount, so why allow play that will damage it?" Andy explains. "The start of the season was hard for everyone this year, as soil temperatures were so cold and, with lack of growth on the greens, this had an effect on maintenance recovery. We have had to do more maintenance during the summer as you simply can't predict the weather in the spring/autumn months anymore. We have not had the same winter weather pattern now for quite a few years."
"But, as long as the course looks and plays well, the members are happy. I see them out on the course and talk to them there. There's a weekly newsletter, which I add bits to if I need to make them aware of anything in particular. If there are any problems, believe me, I get told!"
"Typically, we suffer outbreaks of fusarium, as do most clubs, and we aim to get rid of this through our usual cultural methods. We are fortunate not to suffer too much from rogue wildlife, just Canada geese, which are controlled by a pest control company and a spot of lead!"
Andy is highly qualified - NVQ 1, 2, 3 and HNC, PA 1, 2 and 6 spraying and NPTC in Irrigation. He also holds a digger licence and is a CDM Coordinator and A1 assessor.
He is responsible for his own budgets. "I have no committees, so all budgets and projects are my responsibility. People might say that's great but, if anything goes wrong, there is only one person to blame; so just a bit of added pressure," he comments.
"I have a five-year lease deal with Toro through Lely's local dealer A.T. Olivers. Our cutting equipment is all Toro but, for all other equipment, I keep myself open to who has the best product at the time. We have most equipment to hand, but do have the Dryject machines in, with operators, to work on our greens during maintenance week."
"Many people do not understand our job and what is involved. The pressure is very high, with so much competition between clubs and budgets being cut. Normally, the first place a golf club look to save money is the maintenance team and the budget, which I think is mad when, at many clubs, the course is the only facility they offer."
Andy is now on a bit of a roll. "It would be great if golf events that are shown on TV would also show more about the work the greens staff do, and give an insight on how the course is set up for a tournament and the specific and complex work carried out during the week. So many people watch golf on TV and I think they would all be really interested in what goes into running a golf course."
He concludes by firing a bit of a broadside. "Our industry is in a good state but, with so much social media, there is far too much bitching between greenkeepers. Let your golf course do the talking, not your mouth."
What's in the shed?
Toro Flex 21 hand mowers x 6
Toro E-flex hand mowers x 6
Toro Groundsman 1600 tees mowers x 4
Toro 3250 Greensmasters x 2
Toro Sand Pro
Toro ProCore 648
Toro Workmans (electric) x 5
Toro HEX Workmans (diesel) x 2
Club Car Carryall x 2
John Deere Gator (diesel)
Toro 3100 Reelmasters x 2
Toro Groundsmaster 4000
Toro 3550 Reelmasters x 3
Toro Multi Pro sprayer
Massey Ferguson tractor
5.5 tonne excavator
Tru-Turf greens roller
Toro greens roller
Toro Pro Force blower
Ransomes bat wing rough deck mower
Wiedenmann Terra Spike