Celtic Manor Resort is steeped in history and Director of Golf Courses and Estates, Jim McKenzie has seen huge developments throughout his thirty year reign.
Celtic Manor Resort is a golf, spa, and leisure hotel in the city of Newport, Southeast Wales. Located on the side of Christchurch Hill running down into the beautiful Vale of Usk. The estate was the site of several converging Roman roads and settlements.
A manor house, built in 1860, later becoming the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital in 1940. In 1980, Sir Terry Matthews (born in the hospital) bought and financed its refurbishment and expansion, opening as the Celtic Manor Hotel in 1982. Fast forward and the resort now consists of four hotels, a country inn, luxury lodges, two spas, six restaurants, three golf courses, two golf clubhouses, high ropes, adventure golf, laser tag and archery. The International Convention Centre of Wales was added in 2019 and The Resort hosted the NATO summit in 2014.
The Twenty Ten was designed by Ross McMurray of European Golf Design and was the first purpose-built course for the Ryder Cup tournament hosted in 2010. Opening in 2007, the resultant course comprises nine pre-existing holes from the old Wentwood Hills course and a new nine to make the now famous eighteen-hole track. I must mention, Europe won memorably by 14½ - 13½ points! The Wales Open has been hosted at the resort an impressive nineteen times.
Director of Golf Courses and Estates, Jim McKenzie Right: A recent fairway drainage project
The Roman Road opened in 1995. The par-70 championship course hosted the Wales Open in 2005, 2006 and 2007, after which it handed the baton to the new Twenty Ten where it took over for a further twelve events to the present day.
The Montgomerie is a par-69 course designed by Colin Montgomerie, opening in July 2007. The new layout incorporated elements of both the then existing Coldra Woods course and the left over nine holes from the Wentwood Hills. It hosted the Wales Open between 2000 and 2004.
Born in 1962 in Clydebank, Jim left school aged seventeen joining Haggs Castle G.C. as apprentice whilst attending College in Burnside, Glasgow. Jim moved to Cawder G.C. as head man on The Keir Course in 1985, where he was involved in multiple Ladies European Tours, before moving to Renfew G.C. as course manager hosting many more European events. Jim then joined The Wentworth Club, Surrey in 1990 as head man on The West Course and was involved in a clutch of PGA Championships and World Match play events.
The calling from Celtic Manor Resort came in 1993 to oversee construction of the new Robert Trent Jones Roman Road Course. Upon completion, Jim became course manager where he subsequently developed a further four courses on site. Jim held the position of Director of Golf and Courses Management for five years before becoming Director of Golf Courses and Estates, the role he holds today. Married to Debbie with a 27-year-old son (Elliot), he was awarded the MBE in 2011 in recognition of services to sport.
Close to Jim's heart is his love of the industry, his fellow greenkeepers, and the future of our profession. No surprise then that he has formulated an in-house training programme. To assist, he has Jake Waite leading the programme. Jake is quite rightly proud of the nine already through the programme, all gaining their NVQ level two. Jake explained, "Out of our team we only had a small number with qualifications, so it made sense to introduce this scheme. We now have greenkeepers from local clubs on the programme, which is great."
Jim explained, "We don't have a vast team, training is good for staff who want to gain new skills." Jim continued, "Work based learning is far more conducive as the classroom can be off putting." Jim explained he feels the word science (turf science) can be an obstacle too. "What we do isn't necessarily science. I believe it's better classed as an art," Jim mused. "Professors and technicians do the science. We require the art of observation and attention to detail. For me, art sums that up better. We look for passion in our people, as it's possible to teach skills but difficult (if not impossible) to teach good attitude."
The three-legged stool
Jim and his team follow a simple, yet insightful ethos based on three R's. Review, revenue and re-invest. Jim was quick to explain that this triangle varies widely between organisations, the biggest being members clubs versus corporate venues. However, it's an excellent business model to appreciate, and its positive effect on successful golf course management. Jim explained, "Golf is quite unique as a sport, it's played outdoors all year round on a living surface. Snooker and darts are played all year round indoors and winter sports such as football, rugby or cricket are all seasonal so don't have the same pressures we have in the world of golf." Jim concluded, "Members clubs might put more emphasis on review as they have members they must keep satisfied. We too must be mindful of this, but revenue followed by re-investment is vitally important to our business. We believe that if we strike the right balance between the latter two, the review from our customers will be positive."
Efficiency tips and tricks
The big picture for Jim is who are the customers and what do they want. Jim explained, "We don't have 'maintenance days' here as we don't want to disrupt our customers' experience. We conduct little and often programmes when we know we can." With around 720 members and 95,000 rounds of golf per annum (over the three courses), this is a challenge, but Jim and the team make it work. "We also prepare our golf courses differently, reflecting the standard of our customer. For example," Jim continued, "we set up the Montgomery and Roman Road courses far more 'forgiving' than The Twenty-Ten. Players who play that course expect faster, firmer, more punishing conditions, and so that's what we give them."
Jim was quick to point out the importance of customer choice, from which golf course to play to what weather conditions they play in. Jim explained, "When you take away options, that is when problems arise; we are continually morphing and changing as the business demands. We rarely close our courses and are happy to repair the damage caused with play in wet conditions. If conditions are safe, play continues."
Jim explained, "A good example of efficiency is striping fairways. It's extremely time consuming, requires extra diesel and labour as well as causing compaction in the semi rough (which requires remedial costs to correct). So, we block cut light and dark. Most members preferred the fresh style, helping their game as they could 'see' the middle of the fairway!"
Jim has recently made some interesting efficiencies in his nutrition programmes, moving away from the more expensive 'cocktails' in favour of more traditional products. Jim added, "We now favour simple sulphate of ammonia mixed with sulphate of iron at a low 5kg/Ha rate mixed with a little 'attraxor' PGR. This now does all our playing surfaces which has cut our nutrition programme costs by around 60% to 70% per annum." Jim added, "We don't make these efficiencies simply to save money. We make these reviews to re-invest elsewhere, where our customers will gain most benefit."
- Overseeding. "We've overseeded problematic greens with Crystal BlueLinks and Pure Select creeping bent." Jim explained, "This trial is proving extremely beneficial. The creeping bent is quick to establish, tolerates heat and starts to grow at lower temperatures than the meadow grass."
- Reducing the number of bunkers (there are a whopping 175 altogether), reducing the size of greensides, and converting faces from sand to turf. Jim discussed, "We all know bunkers are a hugely labour-intensive and our bunkers are ready for a make-over. We will install Whitemoss BunkerMat to the bases as it reduces contamination and the need for 'topping up.' Although turf faces require cutting, it's better than fixing washouts daily in the wet."
- Hole cup sleeves. "We install hole cup sleeves for detail," Jim explained, "but as a result, the hole retains its shape for longer so reduces the frequency of changing, thus saving time."
- Widening of collars. "Collars have been widened on two courses to allow for cutting with a triple instead of by hand." Jim explained, "We've seen a reduction in time, without losing quality."
- Re-investment has gone into fairway drainage with a phased programme. "We've completed fourteen fairways so far," explained Jim, "with more being taken on in-house every autumn. Main drains are spaced at 3 metre intervals and backfilled with 6mm pea gravel, blinded off with sand and seed. Secondary sand banding then goes in at right angles, again at 3 metre centres to increase percolation."
I'd like to thank Jim for his time and congratulate him and his team for their hard work, passion and commitment to their art. When in Jim's company, I always come away learning something new and my latest catch up was no different!