Established in 1909, Ringway Golf Club is generally regarded as one of the finest parkland courses in Cheshire. A stern but fair test for golfers of all abilities, it boasts commanding views across to Manchester, the Lancashire hills and Derbyshire Peaks. The club is proud of the Harry Colt designed, par 71 course which measures 6482 yards. Lee Williams visits the course to meet with their new Course Manager, Richard Stephens.
Regularly chosen for regional finals, Ringway Golf Club has most recently hosted the Cheshire Men's Match Play Championships and the Northern Qualifying Round of the prestigious Brabazon Trophy for amateur golfers.
The clubhouse sits at the top of the course on Hale Mount and affords extensive views across Cheshire and the Pennines. It is a modern facility that was rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1987 which destroyed the original buildings.
Just a stone's throw from Manchester Airport, in Hale Barns, Altrincham, I meet up with Richard (Richie) Stephens, Course Manager at Ringway Golf Club. Richie has been at the club for three years (previously at Flixton Golf Club) and he is enjoying the challenge at this prestigious course.
It's the middle of winter, and there are still a lot of projects Richie and his team are working on. Before we sit down and discuss this in detail in Richie's office, he is kind enough to switch the radiators on, so I can warm up when we get back from looking around the course; the plan being to look at the ongoing works being carried out and take a few photos. I'm very glad of this as I'm definitely feeling the cold these days; I must be getting soft!
The club has recently employed a new general manager. This led to a meeting to discuss what direction the club was going in and what could be done to improve the course. The general opinion was that the tees needed improving as a matter of priority.
Left: Richard 'Richie' Stephens Right: The AFT 45 trencher digs the channels for the new irrigation pipes
Richie explains; "We have set up a programme of improvements where we are doing six, six and six over three years, so all eighteen sets of tees - men's and ladies. They will be drained, where necessary, but mainly they will all be releveled with the help of BPG Contractors Ltd from Oldham and Aspect Turf from Leeds; all done in an impressive three years. In the fourth year, we are hoping to complete our 18-hole Orange course - a four-thousand-yard short course within the main golf course - with all new tees." They were putting the finishing touches to the first six main tees whilst I was there.
One of the most significant projects being carried out, which will also continue over the next three years, is the replacement of the 57-year-old irrigation system, which was put under a lot of strain in last summer's drought.
"This is a big outlay for the club, so we have decided to split it up. To help reduce costs, we will do the main line this year using our own AFT 45 trencher to dig the channels for the new pipe, which the irrigation company will then lay. The pipe will link into our old greens system. Alongside that, we will have quick couplers at tees, so they can be irrigated next year. The year after, all greens will be fitted with valve in head sprinklers, so we can do a lot more efficient watering, enabling us to control individual heads so we can save water by focusing it where it is needed. The final stage will see all eighteen tees irrigated, which will be a first for the club. It will all be controlled on a computer system, which will be fantastic."
It doesn't stop there for Richie as they also have a few side projects on the go. "We have done six hundred metres of drainage this year that is pretty much standard in our project's budget. We are doing three main pathways as well; these are just basic MOT (Ministry of Transport) aggregate with a limestone crush top. They are mainly to cope with increased buggy traffic and to bridge wet areas through the winter. The paths were well received last year, so we are looking to eventually path a full nine holes giving what we call a safe buggy route. This will then span the whole of the course, enabling buggy use all year."
Planning is already in place to start on a bunker renewal programme, which is due to begin after the tees have been completed, but they have already made some steps towards it by filling in at least six bunkers this year. This was done with strategic improvements in mind; the changes are all architect approved and it's all part of a long-term plan. It's fair to say Richie and his team have a lot of work cut out for them over the next four years.
After completing his A-Levels, Richie wanted to pursue a career in groundsmanship and was offered a place on a three-year HND course in golf course management. His original intention, after completing this course, was to be a football/cricket groundsman, but he found himself working in golf as he felt the wages, at the time, were better. His first job after leaving college was at Lee Park Golf Club as an assistant greenkeeper, which was on a short term contract as he had signed up to go to Ohio State University's TOP Program.
The first club he worked at in the USA was Whistling Straights. "Back then it wasn't really heard off, but now it's going to host the Ryder Cup in 2020. I then moved to South Carolina to Harbour Town Golf Club, which was an idyllic place to work and live. The course is on the PGA Tour, so I got to experience prepping for the tournament. I was twenty-two years old at the time, and it's something I won't ever forget." Richie then moved back home, where he met up with some friends at Carden Park and was also fortunate to bump into Andy Campbell, the club's course manager.
"He asked me what I was doing as they were looking for staff. At the time, I was out of work but did have a few interviews lined up. Andy told me to 'get up to HR and we will sort you out'. That was great, and I started the week after!"
After a year and a half, Richie felt he needed to push on with his career ambitions. "I was actively looking for a first assistant role so, when Paul Massey from Frodsham Golf Club gave me a call, and offered me my first assistant position, I jumped at the opportunity. I loved working at Frodsham with a great group of lads, plus it was a nice course with a good reputation at that time."
Richie then applied for the head greenkeeper job at Flixton Golf Club after the deputy head at Frodsham had persuaded him to apply. "I did the interviews but didn't get the job. To be fair, it was the first time I had been disappointed, but thought 'oh well, I mustn't be ready for it.' Then, a few months later, I got a phone call saying the guy who took the job had backed down, taking a position elsewhere, and would I be interested in taking over which, obviously, I did. I learned a lot in the ten years I worked at Flixton as we had a small staff, so we all had to share duties. Alongside this, I was managing budgets and taking on all aspects of Health and Safety for the club."
This led to him taking the position as course manager at Ringway. "If you have a dream job, Ringway is that place that you perhaps didn't know about that ticks all the boxes. I don't know if it's the endpoint, but it's certainly the type of club I was aiming for when I first got into the industry. I wanted to be at a higher-end members course where we had enough budget and staff to continue to move the club forward, but one that wasn't a propriety club, so I could work for people who wanted to put every bit of money back into their golf club. This what I have at Ringway."
He went through a stringent interview process to get the position, and knew he was up against some good greenkeepers so he felt very fortunate, at thirty-seven years old, to be at Ringway as course manager.
His qualifications include NVQ Level 2 sports turf, HND in Golf Course Management, and the Ohio TOP Program, plus short courses he has attended with Pitchcare and BIGGA and PA1, 2 and 6 spraying certificates.
Left to right: Mat Corbishley, Steve Giles, Seb Dolezyczek, Will Cummings, Gary Sykes and Jez Quirk
Richie's staff includes Gary Sykes, First Senior Greenkeeper, twenty-seven years at Ringway, NVQ Level 3 Sportsturf, PA 1, 2 and 6; Jez Quirk, Second Senior Greenkeeper, twenty-nine years at Ringway, NVQ Level 3 Sportsturf, Chainsaw CS 30/31/32 and First Aid at Work; Matt Corbishley, First Assistant Greenkeeper, eight years at Ringway, NVQ Level 3 Sportsturf, PA 1, 2 and 6, CS 30/31/32; Steve Giles, greenkeeper, twenty-six years at Ringway, NVQ Level 2 Sportsturf; Will Cummings, greenkeeper, two years at Ringway, NVQ Level 2 Sportsturf, PA 1 and 6, CS 30/31 and First Aid at Work; Seb Dolezyczek, mechanic, ten years at Ringway, Electrical & Mechanical Engineering diploma, basic Toro and John Deere mechanic's certificates, Hunter Grinder certified, TIG/MIG welding certificate and CS 30/31/32.
All staff regularly attend greenkeeping workshops and have the basic greenkeeping Health & Safety certificate and basic First Aid certificate.
Richie has an annual subscription package with the STRI who carry out tests once a year. He uses these to put improved performance measures in place. They currently have a course architect, Frank Pont from Infinity Golf Design in Holland, working on some projects around the course. "We have got a very sensitive course with it being so old, so we like to give it that (Colt) feel when we design new features."
Fifteen of the main course's eighteen greens are soil based. The remaining three have been reconstructed to USGA specification with the old sod put back. "If anyone has managed that before, they will know the problems that brings with infiltration through the top and poor rooting, so we are always fighting with them. They were put in because of their position and were severely hampered greens anyway. We have built two practice facility greens as 50/50s which are really good. We used washed turf to build them; they perform well in wet conditions."
When it comes to maintenance of the greens, the priority is plenty of aeration. Richie explains, "Anything from putting the Toro ProCore over them, slitting in the winter and verti-draining five or six times a year with the thinner tines; depths will vary depending on the hardness of the ground in the winter. When it's soft, we try and go down to the 10 inch mark. In the summer, it tends to be around 5-6 inches. Occasionally, we will go with the half inch tines and put them down at 12 inches to shake them up, because there are times when you must break up that subsoil. We are fortunate now to have a contractor (MG Turfcare) come in with the Air2G2, which now takes away the need of going down so deep. We can fracture the soil at the base level with that and we don't get the tractor marks and holes. It's a great tool that should be used in conjunction with other aeration methods, at the correct times."
Using a contractor, Richie likes to use the Imants Koro with scarifying units on the greens, going down to a depth of 20mm in one pass to take a lot of organic matter out. "This has been really effective against the top-level thatch, which is something we are trying to reduce."
I asked Richie if this doesn't tend to disturb them quite a bit and make them look a bit iffy? "Yes, we were lucky that we did a summer renovation, and we are going to change over to a winter renovation instead; we are going to go in the back end of September this year, when we would normally go in at the beginning of August. We were able to turn the greens around after three weeks back to summer greens quality, but the questions come from golfers asking if we can do it at the end of the season. With warmer summers/autumns, and taking some advice from the STRI, we think we can do it at the end of September, and this will be followed with the verti-drain, overseeding with a traditional creeping bentgrass seed mixture and topdressing with sand. We will also overseed in the summer as well as that is the best time for the seed to take."
Using the results from the soil tests, Richie tries to follow a fertiliser programme as best they can but, with the unusual weather in 2018, this has seen some changes in inputs. "We have hit over 110kg of nitrogen on our greens this year which is a lot over what we would normally do; we tend to be around the 80kg mark a season. We are looking to top up the other deficiencies (phosphorous and potassium) in the back end to harden them up for winter and then we will use lawn sand at 16g/m2 through the winter to keep them quite acidic and harsh on the moss."
"In summer, we use a 26-0-0 High N liquid feed from April to September. I don't use any one brand, it comes down to price. Alongside this, we will use seaweed, iron products and Primo Maxx. Front and back we will use a micronised granule fertiliser at low rates, so we don't get the speckling.
In March, we will use ICL Greenmaster Pro-Lite cold start 11-5-5 and, in September, a 5-5-10 with iron at 20g/m2, which has worked quite well, but this is where the extra nitrogen came from this year as we pushed it up towards 30g/m2."
This summer has also seen Richie rethink his wetting agent programme for the greens.
"We have gone back to the drawing board with our wetting agents. We now use Aquatrol Zipline soil surfactant, which will be applied once a month at low rates throughout the year, but with the summer heat stress, this was upped to a fourteen day programme, which worked well."
Richie is proactive with his disease management and follows a recommended fungicide programme from coming out of seeding at the end of August to the end of December. "We use a few different mixes, but the base products are Heritage, Dedicate, Instrata and Exteris. The final two treatments will be Banner Maxx and a Medallion mix. They are going to be a 2/1 mix, then it will flip the other way around. This will give us some security. With the milder weather over the winter, we have been hit by fusarium, so we can't afford it to get any worse."
"We must be proactive. I don't think there is any other way now; there is no chemical that gives 100% control, with iprodione going this year and propiconazole next year. That's it, we're done, we now effectively must anticipate disease the best we can. This year, again with the weather conditions, some people timed it right and some did not. We were unfortunate and got hit with a bout of Fusarium, so it's just about control now."
Richie used to cut the greens seven days a week if he could, but he now uses a cut and roll approach. "With using Primo Maxx during the summer growth periods when the growth is high, we are now able to mow around four or five times a week, and we will roll in between using a greens iron, which is a fabulous tool. Obviously, people say you are compacting the surface, but we run the sarell roller over on a pretty much weekly basis, so we are relieving as well as rolling. Some of the new irons are coming with sarell rollers included. Eventually, we will be rolling right through the winter rather than cutting and injuring the blade of grass that you're working on and gives it a lot more protection. If we go back to fungicides, it's probably a new way of protecting the plant. Even with cutting at 4mm in the summer, we still get good pace."
Most of the machinery is owned by the club either outright or over a five-year hire purchase plan. Richie doesn't use any one supplier. He will buy a machine on what he believes is the best fit for the course. "We have a wide range of machines from Turners, Cheshire Turf Machinery, GGM Groundscare and Campey Turf Care."
Servicing and repairs are mainly carried out by Seb, their in-house mechanic. Any specialist work that he is unable to do they will pass on to a dealer.
Richie tells me that a key aspect at Ringway is ecology. "The environment is a big part of what we do now, from washdown, birds, bees and the flora. We have BIGGA's James Hutchinson as our ecology advisor and we work to his programme. This includes the introduction of beehives, bird boxes, bat boxes, environmental corridors where we have previously had pieces of rough and joined them up to make a corridor. Now there is a lot more room for the small mammals. We can only really do stuff now that is within our time. We can't go out and extend ourselves ecology wise. We also have an ancient woodland we have to look after. The Forestry Commission backs all the tree work; we have a licence to fell trees which is very strategic, all with the environment in mind."
What's in the shed
John Deere 220 pedestrian mowers x 5
John Deere 2500e triples x 2
Toro 3520 triples x 2
GreenTech verticut and
Sarel roller units
Greens Iron 3900
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D Sidewinder
Toro Reelmaster fairway mowers x 2
Toro Groundsmaster rough mowers x 2
Kioti Utility Vehicles x 3
5 tonne digger
3 tonne dumper
AFT 45 trencher
Sweep n Fill brush
Kubota 40 hp tractor
Kubota 50 hp tractor
New Holland 30hp Boomer tractors x 2
Wiedenmann Terra Spike
Team 400 litre sprayer