0 The closest golf course to ‘The City’

Hampstead Golf Club, consisting of nine holes, a practice area and with no room to expand, is the closest full-sized golf facility to central London. It is just down the road from Hampstead Heath, from where the London skyline is famously very visible. But Hampstead is famous for more than its views. Jake Barrow reports from a rather exclusive slice of real estate.

The small area in which Hampstead Golf Club lies is one of the wealthiest in not only London, but the world. The Bishops Avenue, one road along, hosts detached mansions of dramatically varying styles which have been marketed for up to £100million - and rarely below the tens of millions.

It was revealed by The Guardian newspaper that, in 2014, many of the addresses were being held by offshore companies and used as official bases, so many of the multi-million-pound properties were not actually inhabited.

Christopher Sharp, 35, is the Course Manager at Hampstead, and has been with the club for just shy of three years.

Previously, the Welshman had worked at Harewood Downs Golf Club in Buckinghamshire, spending about three-and-a-half years as Deputy Course Manager.

He maintains a good relationship with the staff at that club, and still takes much of his equipment there for grinding and help with servicing.

Before Harewood, he had a very exciting spell at Celtic Manor, during which he was an Assistant Greenkeeper working on the 2010 Ryder Cup course. The competition was infamous for the rain which fell almost constantly throughout.

There was also a well-publicised incident involving the American team, in which they had failed to prepare their waterproofs properly and claimed it impeded their ability to play.

It marked the first time ever that a Ryder Cup had been taken to Monday play. Chris said: "I'm from Cardiff and I've never seen rain like that weekend."

"We had no choice but to go to the Monday. What fell in the first night was a month's worth of rain at that time of year."

"But it was a good venue for the competition; a great golf course. There are lots of water hazards, and if you're going to go after some of the carries, you've got a challenge ahead, especially when the wind blows straight through the valley."

"I'm a golfer. I play off nine, but that's after I've had a spell of back trouble which now seems to be easing off, so I might be able to bring that number down over the coming year."

"The standout role model in my career is Jim McKenzie [Celtic Manor]. The stuff he manages there is amazing. The logistics of the Ryder Cup were massive. To keep on top of everything that was going on under that much rain was incredible."

"Building up to it, everyone was saying, 'No, really. This is going to be crazy.' And I'd already done a couple of Wales Opens, but it didn't prepare me. It was next level."

When asked whether the weight of the event leads greenkeepers to watch media coverage to analyse the way they are being perceived, he said:

"Oh, yes. 100%. In 2016, I went over to TPC Sawgrass, who take six UK and Ireland-based greenkeepers for an exchange."

"I did that in 2017 as well - off my own bat. That was the first time I'd seen exposure for greenkeepers at that level. We were published on Twitter, and it went out on Sky Sports."

"People can tend to forget about the people who make this happen. And it's nice to see. I was always looking out to see when I was featured on something, and I think we all do."

At Sawgrass, Chris was part of the bunker crew. He described this as "unbelievable". The raking of the bunkers was always aimed directly at the hole, possibly to aid the alignment of players' clubs with the hole to increase fairness.

He said the response to his work on that project was well received too: "Some of the Americans kept calling me Harry Potter… because I was a wizard with the rake, or something like that. They also thought I sounded like Harry Potter."

"I was in Preston at Myerscough College for about three years, so I suppose that's fair, because my accent got broken up a little there whilst mingling with English and Scottish people. It's okay - the Cardiff accent isn't the greatest of Welsh accents."

He began at fifteen with a single week's work experience at Mountain Lakes Golf Club, and they offered him a summer job because of his performance. This continued for four years.

At university, whilst still working during the summers, he studied for a degree in Management and Golf. This led him to his greenkeeping interest, and onto Level 2 and 3 courses, though he told us he knew from the start of his studies that he wanted that type of job.

Like many, he has travelled around distant parts of the country more than most jobs of equivalent salary would merit.

"To be successful in this job, you have to be willing to move around, especially where big golf courses and opportunities are limited."

Hampstead is a private members' club, and Chris said his budgeting is relatively autonomous, that although it's not necessarily a "straight line to the end of budget", they acknowledge his experience and give him a good level of freedom.

For a while, the membership at the club has been increasing, so the budgeting is getting less strict if anything. Chris told of multiple improvements to the course recently.

The ground is London clay-based, and some of these improvements have been focused on drainage. Chris spoke about some bunker work which started in December 2016, and took all the way through until March 2017, because it had "turned to grey soup".

The bunkers had become unmanageable in their wet state, because they would settle in unwanted positions, but it was also useful because they could continue to reshape them very easily.

These were undertaken by 10-year veteran Deputy Course Manager Andy Cox, and Apprentice Greenkeeper Lee Hall who is completing his Level 2 (Chris said training is a firm priority for them, and it almost always gets funded).

The club was established in 1893, at a time when the local area was a burgeoning centre for the arts and becoming a known base for key members of the intelligentsia.

It was designed by Tom Dunn, and the club website describes the course as "classic parkland", "probably the most interesting 9-hole course in North London", and "with some elevated tees and greens, it provides a variety of golf for all levels of players."

While it is listed this way, Chris says that it is essentially a hybrid golf course, as it also presents many features of a heathland terrain:

"There's currently a bit of debate amongst the membership as to whether we're a heathland or parkland course, but in my mind, it's a hybrid."

"I'm pretty sure it was farmland before it was used for golf, and the natural drainage isn't typical of heathland. Most of its ability to regulate water is because it's been manually drained."

"It's gravel and pipe along the fairways, around 80mm, and we have outlets by the greens, which pull the moisture away."

Many of the trees are recent and Chris notes that the winter of 2017-18 has seen an unusually high number of acorns, and that the trees have held onto their leaves for longer than usual:

"It's been a bit of nightmare this year. We have a lot of oaks, and it's 10 degrees out there now, which is just ridiculous for December. We've still got at least another week of them falling, and don't have a tractor-mounted blower."

"But all that is changing and the club is suddenly putting a lot into machinery and improvements, which I think shows that they're ready to take the course quality to the next level."

"We have Tree Preservation Orders across the site too. We need to go down a couple of avenues to get clearance permission: Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust and Barnet Council."

"Anything that is safe and minor, though, we try to do in-house. This is improving our airflow. A couple of greens are shady and sit wet, but that can partly be helped just by clearing brambles or whatever."

Hampstead Golf Club is spread across just shy of 80 acres, and takes a standard 72 strokes to complete as a double 9-hole round.

Chris explains that the course presents a decent challenge, because the par fours are long and tend to be into the wind or uphill.

The entryway is narrow and tucked away between the surrounding mansions: "It's been referred to as a hidden gem, because nobody really knows it's here until they research it."

Chris and the team would like to undertake more grinding and servicing closer to home, which is why he feels leasing is a good option.

"It's a bit of strain on me to do it in-house, so we usually have to outsource it anyway. We'd love someone to come in and do it as part of a package."

"Currently, George Brown's look after our Baroness equipment, and we'll have Toro maintain their own equipment, with John Deere looking after theirs too."

"I have a good relationship with one of our suppliers, who supplies feed for the greens, so we don't need agronomic help beyond that."

"He doesn't claim to be an agronomist. However, he will come in and do soil tests once or twice a year, and we work on the bespoke programme together accordingly."

"I try to feed with foliar every seven days, just to eliminate any peaks and troughs of growth. The greens are the healthiest they've been since I got here."

"I am now in control of our nitrogen content, because the feed is mixable. If I think it needs some nitrogen, I'll incorporate that into the seaweed mix. If not, I can dilute. That has worked really well."

The greens and tees are clay push-up. Two have probably been renovated in the last thirty years, according to Chris, to USGA specification.

"These are drier greens than the others. But, in 2016, we installed additional passive capillary drainage in our 1st and 4th greens, which completely changed them. They were the worst ones, often flooded. It changed them overnight, and they are as dry as the USGA-spec."

"We need to address five more greens with that PC drainage, although that changes what we can do to them aeration-wise, because the rope is pulled through just below the surface - we still use things like verti-drains and Air2G2s, but we don't go as deep."

They own a ProCore, which Chris described as "the best bit of kit you can get for aeration". They regularly (at least thirty-five times in 2017) use 8mm solid tines, with help coming in around once every three months to fulfil a contract with an Air2G2.

"We try to vary it a bit. We go with 8mm solids, after which I don't mind rolling and tend to do so straight away, because then the players don't even notice, which is why we can get away with doing that so regularly."

"I've also done a couple of micro-cores - 8mm again, but taking stuff out of the profile. We have a lot of organic matter, so it's good to remove some of that from the top half-inch."

They also deal with this with their own verti-cutting units. These are taken down to 5mm below the surface, but Chris hopes that they can use a Graden and feels the green require it.

His wish would be to Graden the greens to replace thatch with sand. This, he said, "would be something I'd have to sell to the club, because previous applications (before my time) were carried out too deep and took a while to recover."

"It's all about positive progression and communication with the staff and membership, because, at first, they needed education on the benefits of aeration, and felt it was disruptive."

"Now, they really don't mind seeing me out there with the ProCore, where at first I think the sight horrified them a little bit."

"I also did a couple of applications of 12mm solids - it seemed sensible to try and work more sand into the greens."

"We've tried to topdress as often as we can. This year, we've put down over forty tonnes of sand, which is not bad over nine greens."

"This keeps increasing year-on-year. It's just a matter of getting the greens to the stage where they're healthy enough to take a bit of a hammering."

The club's irrigation system is only four years old. It is phone-linked and Chris enjoys not needing to be at the course when the ground requires some moisture.

Somewhat unusually, Chris gives his two colleagues access to this system too, which marries well with that trust they place in the greenkeepers when they offer unargued training packages etc.

The course's size and private membership mean they move pin positions instead of switching to winter greens, and Chris' take on this is simply: "It's their golf course. If they want to play, we'll let them play."

What they did have space for is a short game area, which is behind the 8th green. It's around 70 yards, and features a small green with a bunker, as well as a grass tee. This is utilised by an impressive three teaching professionals. There is also a small putting green by the 1st tee.

The club also plans to implement an interactive swing screen studio but, as it would be indoors, Chris said: "That is out of my hands".

Chris is building a new practice tee right near the staff's shed. This is to avoid dangerous crossover between those playing and those practising.

The team hand-cut usually, and only tend to use the ride-on during summer, and then only once or twice a week, all at 5mm in winter/3mm in summer.

Two of the team go onto the course at one time and perform greens cutting, bunker raking and move the tee markers all in one sweep by about 8.00am in the summer.

The rough is being cut at 3.25 inches (8.25cm), because the rotary tends to scalp, and taking the length any lower than this can cause damage - this is one of the main motives for the new mowers, i.e. a shorter rough length would be more forgiving and speed up play. The team cuts-and-collects every autumn.

Semi-rough is around 45mm for the same reason, while Chris would like it between 25-30mm. He said it would be nice were it "a little bit tighter around the greens, to help the average handicapper." Tees and approaches both vary from 10-12mm depending on season.

All this underperforming machinery is currently being replaced, and the club will have much of a new fleet. These will, as Chris had suggested, be taken on lease.

The new machinery is all to be Toro-produced, although the exact machines are yet to be decided at time of writing (beyond knowing they need their three main mowers replaced).

John Deere and Toro came to give demonstrations, and Chris said both were impressive, but that Toro better suits Hampstead's style: "We've got a lot of undulations, some of which are pretty severe. The Toro stuff could all handle that really well."

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