Ten years at John O' Gaunt Golf Course
By Laurence Gale MSc
The John O'Gaunt is an 18 hole 6513 yard par 71, and is a magnificent example of a parkland golf course and undoubtedly one of the finest in the country.
The course was built in 1948, and is set in the grounds of the Burgoyne family stately home near Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. With over 1500 members the John O'Gaunt has to be one of the premier private golf clubs in southern England.
The course was designed and laid out by Fred Hawtree who made good use of the mature features created by the vision of Capability Brown, one of England's greatest estate landscape gardeners.
The trees on the course are worthy of special mention, stately cedars, towering limes, oaks, weeping willows and a wonderful variety of pines, all combine to provide a superb backdrop to the tees, fairways and greens. A slow moving river winds its way across the fairways of four holes providing an impressive, natural water feature.
The club became a 36 hole complex in 1972 when the Carthagena course was built. Both courses offer completely different challenges to the golfing fraternity. The Cathagena is slightly shorter offering a tight maturing 5869 yard par 69 course.
The clubhouse, the former home of the Burgoyne family, provides excellent facilities for members and visitors. The course is managed by Colin Robinson and his 13 staff who between them keep both courses in excellent condition throughout the year.
Colin moved to John O' Gaunt in 1994 and, at that time, only had nine staff to manage both courses. Since then, like many other golf courses, the pressure to deliver premier surfaces on greens tees and fairways has increased. To help Colin deliver these higher standards the club has had to invest in new machinery and additional staff.
Colin has just completed his MSc in Sports Surface Technology at Cranfield University, which he feels has cemented all the underpinning knowledge he has gained during his working career. His thesis was on the affects of wetting agents on turf. This qualification along with the NVQ level 4 has given him the confidence to manage the course and raise the standards even further. Having these qualifications makes Colin one of the highest qualified Course Managers in Europe but he feels " these qualifications don't make me the best Course Manager in the country, they just make me a much better Course Manager than I was, it's all about personal development".
Understanding the scientific principles about soil and plant water relationships has given Colin a greater awareness of how he can manage his resources to the benefit of the club.
He carried out a series of experiments to compare the use of wetting agents on the course. He found that the wetting agents do work, but only when used on hydrophobic soils. As a result he has been able to target his applications more effectively and economically. He spends about £2,500 on wetting agents each year applying to all greens, collars and parts of fairways every 4-6 weeks.
The two courses certainly provide Colin with many challenges; they are very different. The John O' Gaunt has varying loams/clay soils, with the lower parts of the course susceptible to flooding during wet weather, whereas the higher lying Carthagena course is laid predominantly on sand.
The Carthagena provides a wonderful contrast to the John O'Gaunt, with much larger greens, longer tees and a sandy soil, which drains very quickly. All eighteen holes were constructed by the club's own green staff, an achievement unheard of in today's highly mechanised, sophisticated golf industry.
Colin was pleased with the condition of the John O'Gaunt this year, especially when they hosted the English Seniors competition. The course's long par four holes provided a stiff challenge for many of the players, with few achieving a par round.
According to the staff, tons and tons of the stuff was applied, which had the affect of changing the grass species, ending up with shallow rooting mono culture of Poa annua (annual meadow grass), which was prone to disease attack and was easily burned off during periods of dry weather.
It has taken Colin nearly ten years to get the fairways back to something like natural grass, with a programme of aeration and reduced fertilising to encourage bents and fescue grasses to re establish themselves. In October he began a seed trial, sowing some tall fescues into two fairways, with the aim of establishing these deep rooting drought tolerant grasses to improve the sward quality. (See link for details).
The fairways are maintained at a cutting height of 16mm all year round. During the winter months a programme of vertidraining is completed twice beginning in October to a tine depth of about 50-100mm and then again later in the winter when the soil has become more saturated achieving a depth of 200mm.
The courses are kept well manicured with the emphasis on keeping play moving, semi rough and rough grass areas are kept to a minimum. The courses are hard enough as it is without penalising the golfers even more.
Tee maintenance on both courses is virtually identical with some minor amendments to fertiliser requirements as required. The summer height of cut is maintained at 10mm with the winter height increased to 12mm.
The quality of the sward has been improved over the years by increasing aeration and reducing the fertiliser and watering inputs on the tees to encourage deeper rooting.
Members play on the grass tees up to Christmas, after which they are moved onto the Huxley artificial sand filled grass tee mats.
The tees are then hollow cored using a Ryan GA 30 fitted with 100mm tines. The cores are left on the surface to breakdown and to allow oxygen into the tees. After a couple of weeks they are brushed or drag matted back into the surface. The remainder of the debris is mowed off using hand mowers.
In February a temperature controlled slow release fertiliser is applied (Multi-Green 30- 8-8). This begins to break down when temperatures rise above 15 degrees centigrade. It usually lasts between four and six months. Once this fertiliser kicks in the grass grows steadily initiating regular cutting three times per week.
As soon as the grass tees are brought back into play the artificial mats are power washed to remove any debris, top-dressed and brushed. The use of a leaf blower usually keeps them clean during the summer and autumn periods.
on the John O' Gaunt course, which was modified in 1998 to a USGA specification, all the greens are soil pushed up.
Colin inherited a problem of a root break on the greens at about 12mm below the playing surface. At some time in the past a 6/7mm layer of sand was incorporated into the greens that eventually formed a root break.
A programme of aeration and top dressing has overcome this problem and, ten years on, he is starting to see the rewards of this work. A deeper rooting sward on the greens and increased root mass has enabled the plant to overcome many stresses, namely drought and diseases.
Colin is trying to increase the bent grass populations in his greens by effective greens management, reducing water and fertiliser applications and the use of fungicides, and increasing good cultural practices, such as improved aeration, top dressing regimes and fertiliser requirements to target the actual needs of the plants.
Many types of Poa have established themselves over the years with different strains being seen on the greens. Some of the tighter canopy varieties are more susceptible to disease because they hold moisture within the leaf canopy.
Each year Colin spends about a £1000 on buying bent grass seeds to re-establish in his greens. Once they become established they compete very well with the Poa grasses, and when cut and groomed provide an ideal putting surface.
The bent grasses are sown (5gm/m2) using a cyclone spreader in August when the soil temperatures are high. First the greens are solid tine spiked (100mm micro tines) to provide access into the sward. It is vitally important to get the seed in contact with the soil or germination will not take place.
The greens are top dressed four times per year (on a little and often basis) usually applying 70/30-root zone materials. Top dressing works start in March when the greens are hollow cored to a depth of 100mm using 15mm hollow tines, the dressing is applied at a rate of 2.5 tonnes per green, brushed and drag matted in, followed by a spring fertiliser 9:0:6 (35gm /m2) with iron and manganese.
Winter height of cut for the greens is 6mm. Summer height of cut is 3.5mm, reducing to 3mm for short periods during competitions.
Colin begins reducing height of cut in March: -
March - April 5mm-4.5mm
April- May 4.5mm -4mm
May - October 3.5mm
Frequency of mowing: -
2-3 times a week during November to March
Every other day March to April
Daily, April to October
Additional top dressing works are undertaken in May, June/July and then August, but only applying a light dressing of about one tonne per green.
At the end of the playing season Colin uses a Graden scarifier set at 44mm depth using 3mm tine blades. This operation will remove between 15/16 % of organic matter compared to the removal of only 5% by hollow coring. The benefits seen by using the Graden have been dramatic.
36 temporary greens are maintained, however they are only small (150m2) and maintained at a cutting height of 6mm. Colin endeavours to keep all the main greens open all year round, and will only use the temporary greens during frosty conditions or when some of the John O Gaunt greens flood during very wet spells.
Approaches and Aprons
A programme of hollow tining is undertaken usually twice a year using the Ryan GA30 between November and February. The aprons and collars are maintained at a cutting height of 13mm with green surround banks and bunker banks being maintained at 30mm.
There are more than 110 bunkers on both courses. Each is raked every other day, except during competitions when all the bunkers will be raked each day.
Colin recognises the valuable work that worms achieve on the course, greatly improving the soil structure when active, however he has to keep an eye on their activities. If too many casts are being produced he may control the worm populations with carbendazim.
They club have a wild life policy. One of Colin's staff is a very active member of the RSPB. During the last few years over 60 bird boxes have been introduced to both courses, which has resulted in over 400 blue tits and great tits being reared this year alone. Boxes have also been put for owls and other birds of prey.
Nature walks are organised for club members during the summer months and there is a copy of a bird book in the members lounge to encourage interest.
green on the John O' Gaunt Course. This is the only USGA green. The members wanted it increased in size. The staff have stripped off the turf, enlarged and remodelled the green, importing nearly 90 tons of new rootzone and will be returfing on completion.
Other jobs earmarked are enlarging a bunker face, so it can be seen from the tee, ongoing tree works to plantations and woodland areas, and further re-draining of some greens to remove surface water.
During the 1970's greens were constructed to be concave to retain as much rainfall as possible; modern greens with their efficient irrigation systems don't need to retain all rainfall. Some of the older concave greens are holding water after heavy rainfall.
The club has recognised the importance of water and its resource value. Currently, water is obtained from two sources - a stream, a summer extraction licence limits use to 9090 m3, and the mains system where water costs 70 pence per m3.
Sometime in the future these resources may not be available or the costs of mains water could rise dramatically. Colin is keen to investigate the possibility of building a reservoir to be filled with water from winter abstraction from the stream.
This would give him opportunity to upgrade his automatic irrigation system, which currently only waters tees and greens. Colin would like to be able to water his fairways as well.
In House Mechanic
Any down time of machinery can lead to many problems out on the course. Machinery in regular use includes mowers (pedestrian, triple gang), aerators, scarifiers, tractors, loaders, top dressers, prime mover vehicle's (Toro workmans), leaf collectors, powered hand tools (chainsaws, blowers, hedges trimmers). The investment in machinery exceeds £500,000.
It is Stuart's job to keep this machinery serviced and running. A five-year replacement programme is in place for most of the machinery.
Since setting up the dedicated repairs and maintenance workshop nine years ago the course has reaped the benefits. Reducing down times and removing the cost of outsourcing for maintenance and repairs has more than paid for the scheme.
Stuart can virtually guarantee that 50% of all breakdowns can be fixed within 24 hours, and 99% of machinery breakdowns can be repaired within two days. It is an impressive operation and one Colin would not be without.
As with most course managers the daily challenges of keeping the course playable and to ever increasing standards is the challenge that keeps Colin and his team motivated. There is always room for improvement and very little time to rest on their laurels.
Colin considers himself lucky to have such a dedicated team; many of whom have been at the club for 15 years or more and have a lot of experience. This helps ensure that jobs run smoothly and efficiently.
Colin does not have staff dedicated to any one course, all can operate all the machinery and have experience of working on both courses. This helps especially during competition times, when the courses have to be at their best.
Colin has an education budget, which allows him to send the staff on education days and courses to keep up to date with the latest industry developments.
I am sure the future is bright for both the club and members of the John O'Gaunt, knowing that they have such a dedicated team of Greenkeeping staff working to raise the standards of their courses.
Address: John O'Gaunt Golf Club, Sutton Park, Sandy, Beds.
Secretary/manager: 01767 260360
Professional shop: 01767 260094