Greenkeepers have a habit of returning to Slinfold Golf & Country Club; Head Greenkeeper Dan Saunders is one of them and, in its 25th year, Greg Rhodes discovers why.
Fronting the arrow straight A29 Roman Road amid West Sussex countryside, Slinfold Golf & Country Club runs 27 holes of quality golf for all the family.
We're driving up the approach road to the clubhouse when I spot something moving across the undulating course on the left. I stop and walk over to the edge of the turf behind a green. Whatever it was had moved out of sight.
Then, something heaves into view over the brow of a low rise - a robot mower no less, plying its merry way on a pre-programmed run.
Head Greenkeeper Dan Saunders greets me at the door of the shed. I'm here after learning that 2017 marked Slinfold's 25th anniversary. This family-run proprietary destination offers a spread of sport and leisure provision - 27 holes in addition to the recently re-equipped health club, with associated sports injury clinic and clutch of personal trainers, was voted Sussex Gym of the Year in 2016 by the West Sussex County Times, and runner-up in 2017.
Constantly upping the ante on scale and quality of facilities contributes to Slinfold's enduring popularity for a wide catchment. With plenty of golf and fitness sites competing for custom nearby, that's important.
Under its commitment to enhancing the club by improving facilities, the transformation of Slinfold's golf provision began in 2013 when contractors arrived to break the ground for the remodelled Par 3, 9-hole Academy course and the 18-bay driving range, with its thirteen indoor and five outdoor tees.
"I was deputy under Mark Raisbeck then," Dan recalls. I mention nearby Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens and the fact that resident great crested newts had thwarted their plans to develop a 600-bay car park to cater for the upsurge in wedding guests and visitors when the destination scales up for public reopening next January.
"Yes, we have newts here too," says Dan. Did their presence lead to particular habitat management practices? "An effective plan was fundamental to the project. We are big on ecology here and worked closely with Natural England, fencing off areas to protect the population, which had proliferated."
"Our environmental commitment runs right through the Par 3 and 18-hole courses. We've developed hibernacula, shelters and boxes for insects, toads, lizards, snakes, bats and rodents for example."
The team had certainly put their shoulders to the grindstone in helping create the Academy course. During construction, topsoil was imported before the greenkeeping team built the greens and applied a final layer of 70:30 rootzone mix and seed.
"My signature hole is the 136 yard third," Dan volunteers. "With a pond to one side and a bank on the other, it presents a stern challenge for beginners, as the whole course does in fact."
The Academy course fully opened in May 2017 and has already enhanced junior golf at Slinfold, notes General Manager Luke Blacker, who has just joined us - promoted by a successful family open day and other events to showcase the practice facilities here.
"MYGolf Academy comprises three coaches who deliver premier golfing tuition across all levels," he explains, "and who have operated at the driving range for nearly four years now, since it opened, followed by the introduction of the Eclipse Golf equipment custom fitting service in April 2017."
As we walk the fairways of the 18-hole parkland course, the effects of the prolonged dry spell are visible to some degree, but are not profound. "The bents and fescues are both holding up," says Dan, "and, given we are mainly clay based here, the ground has not cracked."
"It's all about stress management of the turf," he continues, "introducing more tolerant grass species, harder-wearing cultivars. Our greens aren't the biggest and we enjoy more than 30,000 rounds on the main course, so traffic is heavy." Right on cue, a ladies foursome appears through the trees on to the previous tee, as another group prepares to walk off our hole.
"The USGA greens drain well although nutrients can flush through a little," says Dan. "The slow release granular fertiliser we apply helps us hold them in the rootzone for as long as possible."
Last year, Dan introduced Sea Nymph seaweed-based liquid fertiliser into the mix. "I'm really impressed with the product," he says, "and has proved highly responsive. The difference is soon seen and, being environmentally friendly, it fits with the green policy we pursue whenever possible."
Where absolutely necessary, chemicals such as fungicides are applied, but sparingly, Dan stresses.
Two large lakes, the upper and lower, come into service for irrigation, with several ponds scattered across the golf course, fostering wildlife diversity. Though, if water grows really scarce, Dan can draw up to 7,000m3 annually from their borehole.
Dan himself began the transition to Slinfold's green maintenance culture. "There's loads of wildlife out there - kites, buzzards, herons, owls, bats and a pair of swans that visit us every season - and we need to protect as much of it as we can," he states. Accordingly, the team leaves plenty of areas to grow free for most of the year. "We rough cut twice annually, letting the grass grow through summer," Dan continues. "Presentationally, I like what we've created."
I broach the subject of robots and Luke continues: "We purchased five machines two years ago. Three of them are resident on the Academy course, cutting rough at 2in height, whilst a larger ball-picking machine and further cutting machine handle the driving range."
Dan heads a six-strong team of full-timers, who tend both courses and the driving range. "Two of the team have left and returned, including me," reveals Dan. "We just can't stay away!" Luke adds: "People like working here and those who apply for greenkeeping jobs love the outdoors."
Dan's first Slinfold stint lasted three years. Arriving straight from school as an apprentice, he qualified from Merrist Wood College - "education is a stepping stone to progress" - before taking up the assistant greenkeeper's post at Mannings Heath Golf Club.
He returned as deputy before taking up the head post four years ago. So, how does he feel the second time around? "I was very young then," says the 38-year-old. "I'm more mature now, hopefully, and do things differently. I see my role as generating an experienced, highly professional greenkeeping team."
Has the industry changed in his time as a greenkeeper? "Today, I believe too few youngsters are entering the profession. It's hard graft with early morning starts, but you do go home earlier than a traditional 9 to 5. In summer, that early start is 4.00am with lie-ins in winter when start time is 6.00am. Not an easy industry, but a very rewarding one," he confides.
In Dan's early career, he also helped construct Rookwood Golf Club, located on the outskirts of Horsham.
"I was there as part of the growing-in team," Dan explains "and I found the experience invaluable in my progression." The facility now comprises an 18-hole course, 9-hole pitch & putt/footgolf course and function venue.
Dan's deputy, Jonathan Wales, 41, arrived four years ago after departing Horton Park as head greenkeeper. "Very experienced, Jonathan loves managing our irrigation. He's qualified to spray, applying fertiliser, wetting agents and fungicides," says Dan.
He was no doubt busy last winter? "One of the toughest I've known; wet and warm, perfect fusarium weather," Dan adds. "Three or four greens are in shade and fusarium loves damp, warm conditions."
Monthly aeration duties with the pedestrianised ProCore - working down to five inches, come within his remit too.
Greenkeeping mechanic Roger Dobson is the engine of the team. Here for thirteen years now, he sevices as much in house as he can, using Slinfold's own grinders. "Any damage to machinery we can deal with at our own speed, servicing mowers, fault-finding and starting checks in the morning."
The fleet is mainly diesel. "It's reliable," says Dan. "We've used hybrids and electrics, but have returned to diesel. The buggies are electric. Every bit of kit has its merits - we're not tied to any one brand, running Toro, John Deere and Jacobsen across the golf course."
A dab hand with mowing, qualified greenkeeper Sean Jones, 24, came here from Ifield Golf Club, near Crawley. "He does general greenkeeping and brings concentration, patience and attention to detail to the job," Dan reports.
In his early 20s, assistant Harry Bouch from Horsham is another experienced greenkeeper who loves Slinfold. "Our service element is a high point here," says Dan. "Different team members hold different interests and that's what makes a successful and productive group."
Busy months require a team top-up. "In summer, I bring in casual workers, who assist the team in the hectic growing season," says Dan. "Two days a week, the gardener, Max Parker-Smith, does a great job keeping our flower beds blooming. The lavender and alums are so attractive and Max has successfully installed an automatic watering system for all clubhouse plants and flowers, to ensure we present the club to a high standard throughout the year."
The main course opens 364 days a year. "We do not typically utilise temporary greens but, in the winter, have the benefit of synthetic tees on all par 3 holes," Dan notes. " A volunteer force of seven marshals keeps the golfing traffic flowing."
Luke comes in: "We continue to focus on further upgrades to the playability of the 18-hole course, as well as its existing infrastructure, condition and presentation."
Rollout of major pathway improvements is targeting the front nine holes of the main course "where the need is greatest" - the start of an extensive programme to boost playability, particularly during the harsher months.
These include refurbishing pathways linking greens and tees and new synthetic turf paths in certain areas. Annually, Dan books in two weeks' maintenance work across the course, which will take in hollow tining of the main course to a three-inch depth, topdressing, overseeding and fertilising.
Its twenty-eight bunkers were designed to require minimal upkeep, but they can flood in winter, which they did last year - hardly surprising given the levels of precipitation across the country. With no sand traps, the Par 3 is free of such worries.
"Three times a week they receive a full rake," says Dan, "partly to smooth over the holes created by rabbits digging around. We're redesigning the bunker on the 8th and have already started to reintroduce greens approaches and added more sprinklers, and cleared trees between the 3rd and 7th holes, also cutting them back behind the 13th green and 14th tee. Each year, a winter works programme is scheduled and carried out.".
The three-year drainage and pathways plan has commenced with planned verti-draining across the course, targeting wetter areas taking place in October. This will be repeated in autumn 2020. "The importance of verti-draining cannot be overemphasised as it aerates the profile to a depth of 12 inches, counteracting compaction," explains Dan.
New drainage on the 1st hole at the fairway midpoint and beneath the front of the 12th green begins soon, extensions to existing pathways on the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 12th holes have alreafy been carried out. An additional pathway had also been introduced between the 2nd and 3rd holes," Dan continues.
"The 1st hole pathway crossing splits two fairways and forms a pinch point of the hole," says Dan, "making it one of the wettest areas of the main course."
Next year's work includes pathway renovation to the 7th tee area, resurfacing of the path from the 12th green to 13th tee and renewing the pathway from the 10th green to 11th tee.
Stretching forward to the 2020-21 season, improved drainage on the 18th hole, renewing the path to the rear of the clubhouse and adding another pathway to the rear of the 17th green are scheduled.
The team lays Criggian Green granite dust Blue Track for pathways. "The material is fine textured and comfortable underfoot for golfers and walkers," explains Dan.
Two public footpaths line the side of the course linking to the Downs Link, the 38-mile walkway and cycle track that was once the Guildford to Shoreham railway, closed in the early 1960s under Lord Beeching.
Not far away is former station Baynards, with its still-intact station house, grassed platform and stretch of track, which, just beyond, entered the tunnel used in the filming of the BBC's 1957 TV adaptation of The Railway Children.
The topic shifts to communications. Luke and Dan chat "most days" and the two enjoy a healthy and respectful relationship. "He's a very approachable general manager," Dan says cheerily, "and he's an equally approachable head greenkeeper," Luke responds.
"We liaise and communicate regularly with the club captains about any developments," Luke states.
The annual newsletter, issued every April, forms part of the communications strategy with Slinfold's members. "The last one was our most detailed yet," Luke explains, "and includes details of our course maintenance programme of improvements. Also, voice cards offer opportunities to respond on any issues."
"Dan is very good at communicating with members face to face and maintains strong links with them and the captains of all sections," he adds.
He offers a final word as we disperse: "Slinfold has evolved over its twenty-five years to become what we believe is an excellent facility for members, guests and visitors. But challenging times lie ahead. Climate change is a big one, so too is the environment and the chemicals we are allowed to apply. Cultural practices have to adapt over time. The whole game is changing, however, we believe we are well positioned to ride any uncertainties."
What's in the shed?
Toro 3250 for greens x 2
Toro 3250 or tees and approaches
Greensking for tees and approaches
Toro 1000 hand mowers x 3
Jacobsen 305 fairway mower
John Deere 3245c semi mower
John Deere 1600 turbo rough mower
John Deere 999 Z-turn
John Deere 1200A Bunker Bike
Toro Pro-Core 648
Toro Workman 3300-D
Club Car 4x4 utility
Iseki 537 tractor
Shelton Gravel Bander
Wiedenmann Terra Spike aerator
Bernhard's Express Dual 3000 grinder