Paul Johnson is a man with a plan. And his plan is developing very nicely, thanks to the support and encouragement of the management, committee and chairman of greens at Pyle and Kenfig Golf Club, known affectionately by members and locals as 'P & K'.
Put together by Head Greenkeeper, Paul, at the request of the club, the plan currently lists a programme of more than ten different projects to be carried out across the course over the next five to ten years. Some are inter-related, but all have been identified as being either pressing, urgent or essential.
"Each item on the list has or will be carefully costed, ensuring that future tasks are planned, agreed on and budgeted for in advance of any work commencing," explained Paul. "Having a planned and budgeted course development programme in place will be of great future benefit to the golf club and its members, enabling incoming chairmen of greens and new committee members to consider future improvements and upgrades knowing that the present is well in hand."
Projects close to the top of Paul's "to do" list are an ecological survey of the entire golf course, the installation of a drainage system beneath the 18th fairway, improvements to the greens and tees on five academy holes, upgrading of the irrigation system and the relevelling of all tees on the course.
"We've completed two tees over the past year and are aiming to rebuild a minimum of two every year for the foreseeable future, as stated on my project list," explained Paul. "Built primarily on sand, the tees are suffering from varying degrees of subsidence which can be halted only by a complete rebuild on a sound, stable base. There are more than fifty tees to do on the course, so this job is a priority."
With its furthermost hole lying less than 500m from the Bristol Channel, Pyle and Kenfig Golf Club is regarded as one of the top links courses in Wales, separated by just three grass fields from its well-known neighbour, Royal Porthcawl Golf Club.
This proximity led to the two courses co-hosting the British Amateur Championship twice, most recently in June 2002.
In 2006, P & K hosted the Men's Home Internationals followed, in 2009, by the Senior Ladies British Open Amateur Championship and, a year later, the Welsh Boys Championships. In July of this year, the Faldo Series returns to P & K for the third consecutive year.
A full schedule of club, inter-club and regional golfing events, society visits and corporate days means that Paul Johnson and his six-strong greenkeeping team remain very busy from March to late October, with golf able to continue right through the year, weather permitting.
During the extremely wet conditions experienced in 2012, play was successfully diverted from the low-lying holes within the dunes on the back nine onto the club's freer-draining academy holes.
"What the exercise did reveal was a need to raise the standard of the academy holes to the level of the rest of the golf course to provide a seamless transition between the two courses," commented Paul. "This year and next, we plan to renovate all of the academy greens, re-level and landscape their tees and install synthetic turf to the rear of the tees to minimise natural turf wear and tear."
He pointed out that, during the summer of 2012, greenkeeping staff laid 750m of main drainage pipe beneath the 10th fairway. A contractor had cut the drain lines, leaving course staff to install pipework and aggregates and reinstate the turf.
However, because the work had taken fourteen days to complete, Paul is considering engaging a specialist contractor to drain subsequent fairways to speed-up the operation and minimise disruption.
"That said, there were no complaints from anyone who was asked to play an academy hole instead of the normal hole," he commented.
The improvements planned for the academy holes come in the wake of ongoing improvements to the main golf course, which began in earnest three years after Paul joined the club in May 2006.
"Before moving to south Wales, I had been at Hankley Common in Surrey, where I had worked for six years following four years at Pyrford Golf Club," he explained. "I was a late-comer to the greenkeeping profession, starting off as a summer casual worker at Pyrford, aged twenty-eight, when I became disenchanted with estate agency."
Progressing from Pyrford to a course which he describes as one of the finest inland golf courses in Britain, Paul rose to the position of first assistant at Hankley Common.
In 2006, he secured the post of deputy links superintendent at Pyle and Kenfig Golf Club, a true links course recognised as one of the top ten courses in Wales.
"I felt that I had achieved and learnt as much as I could at Hankley Common and wanted a more responsible and demanding role at a high profile heathland or links-type course. The job at P&K fitted the bill perfectly, and I started in May 2006."
Changes at the club over the next year saw Paul become P & K's Head Greenkeeper in October 2007, responsible for directing the greens staff on a 6,860 yard, par 71 18-hole golf course plus five academy holes, a practice putting green and driving range.
"When I took up the position, the club dropped the links superintendent title in favour of head greenkeeper, a description that better suits my hands-on approach," he commented. "Although the greens were in generally good condition, I knew that they contained a lot of Poa annua and variable levels of the native finer grasses associated with links-type courses."
Paul says that the introduction of automatic irrigation in the 1980s, coupled with increased fertiliser usage and demand for lower cutting heights, had combined to encourage the ingress of Poa annua at the expense of P & K's original pure fescues and bents.
"Measurements taken across the greens revealed organic matter levels averaging around nine percent, which is far too high for a links course," said Paul. "My first goal when becoming head greenkeeper was to restore the natural finer grasses that are a wonderful feature of many of Britain's finest seaside golf courses."
The first steps taken were to raise the mowers' cutting height from 2.5mm to 3.75mm and to reduce the quantities of nitrogen and water being applied to the putting surfaces. These actions brought no adverse comments from golfers and an immediate improvement in the firmness of the greens, an improvement that Paul was determined to maintain.
Traditionally, the greens had been hollow-tined twice a year, but no overseeding had been carried out. Paul's first step was to bring in a Reist overseeder to begin the reintroduction of bent grasses to the greens. The overseeding was accompanied by a compaction relief programme within and below the rootzone using a Verti-Drain deep-tine aerator.
"What soon became apparent was that we did not have the optimum growing medium for the establishment of finer grasses," commented Paul. "The levels of thatch and organic matter were simply too high."
In early 2009, Paul attended a Farmura seminar at Royal Liverpool Golf Club which, he says, provided a big wake-up call.
"Having walked the greens at Hoylake, I realised how links greens should be in terms of firmness, fineness and appearance. The experience provided the catalyst for the start of a Graden-based greens renovation programme that began at P & K just six weeks before the start of the Senior Ladies British Open Amateur Championship."
Although club members had expressed concern that the greens might not recover in time, Paul was able to allay their fears following a visit to Celtic Manor where Jim McKenzie was using a Graden successfully for deep scarification and aeration on the Twenty Ten Course, reporting excellent recovery.
Seizing the opportunity to give other greenkeepers a chance to see the Graden Contour sand injection machine in action, Paul phoned colleagues and announced online that "Gradening" would be taking place at Pyle and Kenfig Golf Club the following week. Scarified material would be removed from the greens by a ride-on CAT 800 debris sweeper-collector.
This latter machine was being manufactured and marketed at the time by Turfmech, who were happy to attend and support Paul's quickly-arranged demonstration.
"Three days before bringing in the Graden for the first time, we applied Primo Maxx growth regulator to all greens," explained Paul. "The aim was to suppress growth of those grasses that might compete with the new bents seed which we planned to mix with sand and inject into the greens using the Graden."
The day of the demonstration saw the walk-behind Graden Contour deep scarify the greens to a depth of 20mm using 2mm wide blades, whilst simultaneously injecting Banks' kiln-dried 2EW sand mixed with bents seed into the putting surface.
Close to fifty tonnes of sand and 80kg of grass seed were used across the eighteen greens, each of which produced a trailer-load of scarifyings resulting from the Graden treatment.
"The appearance of the greens as the scarification arisings were deposited on the surface left some members horrified but, as the sweeper cleaned up, they began looking considerably better," recalled Paul. "It took two twelve hour shifts to complete all eighteen greens. As we now have our own machine, we can schedule the work more comfortably over three days."
Two days after the work had been completed, Paul applied a tank mix of Aquatrol Revolution wetting agent and Farmura Porthcawl liquid organic feed to promote strong rooting and healthy growth.
Within ten to fourteen days, excellent germination of the newly-sown seed was being seen and members were reporting a marked difference in greens performance, with ball roll returning to normal.
By the time of the Senior Ladies Open in mid September, the greens had recovered and were playing and looking extremely well.
Since the first Graden deep scarifying, sand injection and seeding operation in July 2009, a further six treatments have been completed across the entire course.
Paul commented that he would have preferred to have carried out the work at times of the year when greens recovery would be fastest, ideally between April and September. Having been asked by the committee to minimise impact on the club's competition calendar, Paul ended up doing the job both earlier and later in the year than originally intended.
"Although we did not achieve the best possible germination, the treatment has added to the seed bank of bents grasses that are now starting to win back the greens and out-compete Poa," Paul pointed out. "Commercial pressures mean that there will rarely be a good time to do the work and I still remain unsure as to when it should be done. However, the results achieved to date are all positive."
Having enrolled the club in a benchmarking and performance review programme in 2011, Paul says that measurement of organic matter levels within the greens has shown a drop from around nine percent in mid 2007 to around five percent in late 2012.
So, the recommendation is that deep scarification, sand injection and seeding by Graden Contour in the spring be dropped in favour of hollow tining and sand topdressing. Graden treatments in the autumn will remain.
"Having started off with a soil profile that would not support the establishment and proliferation of bents, I am pleased to say that the work carried out over the past five years has helped restore optimum growing conditions within the top 25mm of all greens," said Paul. "Our primary aim is to achieve bents dominance and then look to reintroduce fescues."
The improvements seen in the fineness and evenness of the putting has been furthered by a change of topdressing composition from an 80% sand, 20% soil mix to the pure sand dressings being applied on a little, but often basis in 2013.
To help enhance the smoothness of the surface resulting from an increased density of finer grasses, Paul has introduced a fortnightly turf ironing programme, accompanied by weekly stimpmeter tests, with results posted in the clubhouse.
He also uses brushes on one of the triplex mowers at the start of the main growing season to help lift and remove straggly growth.
"Cutting at around 3.75mm through the summer of 2012 enabled us to comfortably achieve our desired green speed of 10.5 or higher," he said. "Golfers appreciate the measures being taken to achieve truer, more even putting surfaces."
Fertiliser applications are being tailored also to suit the club's meaner, leaner approach aimed at starving out Poa annua.
Paul pointed out that he would normally use a 4:0:4 granular fertiliser with added iron in early spring, but the cold, dry conditions of 2013 had forced a change to a 7:0:7 formulation.
"We usually make two granular applications in the spring and then switch to a liquid tank mix, tailored to suit the needs of the turf. The main difference now to, say, six or seven years ago, is that we are not applying fertiliser as a matter of course. Every application must have a purpose."
Having benefitted from the benchmarking of the quality and performance of P & K's greens, Paul is now looking to extend the benchmarking approach across wider areas of the golf course.
"Not only do we sit next door to a nature reserve, but part of the course is an SSSI," he said. "The aim, over the next few years, is to continue thinning and removing the trees, scrub and vegetation that are not a natural part of a dunes system neighbouring the sea."
"To help us restore and manage the land properly, we will be commissioning shortly an ecological survey of the entire golf course. But that's a story for another day."
What's in the shed?
Tractors and attachments
Kubota 4200 tractor
Kubota 5040 tractor
John Deere 5410 tractor c/w Quicke front loader and 4 in 1 bucket
Mowers and attachments
John Deere 2500A greens mower
Toro 3250D greens mower
GreenTek thatch-away heads
GreenTek verticutter heads
John Deere 2635A tees mower
Toro 2300 tees mower
Toro 3250 trim mower
Toro 5610 fairway mower
John Deere 1545 front rotary mower
Major 8400 roller mower
Sidewinder trim mower
Aeration and scarification equipment
John Deere Aercore 1500
Toro pedestrian greens aerator
Sisis fairway slitter
Huxley greens slitter
General course equipment
John Deere HD200 truck-mounted sprayer
Ryan Mataway seeder
Tru-Turf RS48-11D golf greens roller
Scotts pedestrian spreaders x 3
Tractor-mounted fertiliser spreader
SQRL 600 pedestrian sweeper
Ryan sod cutter
Greentek chassis + sarrel roller, rotary brushes, brushes
Dakota top dresser
Marshall 4 tonne trailer
Wessex 3 tonne trailer
John Deere E Gator
John Deere HPX Gator x 2
John Deere Pro Gator x 2
Sealey Mig welder
Redmount two-post hydraulic lift
+ a range of hand tools, chainsaws, hover mowers and knapsack blowers