The Scottish Highlands are regarded as some of the most rugged and, at times, inhospitable areas of the UK. Plying his trade in all weathers is Stuart Griffiths, Course Manager for two of the region's most delightful golf clubs
At the southern reaches of the Cairngorms National Park lie two golf clubs with distinctive personalities, yet under joint management. In this part of Scotland the views, everywhere you look, are simply stunning and place names have a Celtic charm that leaves the visitor in no doubt as to what country they are in.
Heading north up the A9 from Perth brings you to the first of the two clubs, Pitlochry, an 18-hole facility built on land purchased from two farms - Balnacraig and Drumchorry - back in 1908, with the original design being laid out by Willie Fernie of Troon.
In the early 1920s, Major Cecil Hutchison tinkered and tweaked with the layout and further minor changes have been made by a succession of head greenkeepers. The length of the course now stands at just under 5,700 yards with a par of 69 for men and just over 5,100 yards, par 72 for ladies.
Seven and a half miles further north, passing Killikrankie on your way, will bring you to Blair Atholl, a classic 'James Braid like' design over nine holes that uses the natural contours of the land to best effect, and has been augmented with the addition of several ponds crafted in local stonework.
It is generally an easy walking parkland layout, but with short climbs to and from a plateau, which is a prominent feature of the course and provides fine views of the imposing Cairngorms to the north.
Stuart Griffiths is the Course Manager responsible for both courses, and a delightful 6-hole short course at Pitlochry - The Lettoch Links - with sweeping views of the Tummel Valley.
"I was head greenkeeper at Blair Atholl for five years, until last January, when the directors of Pitlochry Golf took over the running of Blair Atholl and I was then asked to be the course manager for both courses."
"I started in the industry in 1992, as a summer worker at Tain Golf Club under Iain Macleod, who encouraged me to go to Elmwood College to do a full time National Certificate course. After my year at college, I was offered my first full time position at Letham Grange near Arbroath under Jim Grainger; then, after six informative years, I headed down south for a new challenge at Hankley Common Golf Club in Surrey, working under Gareth Roberts. As well as being involved in many course changes, I was fortunate enough to learn so much from Gareth about heathland management - I also got a great tan, which I don't get up here in the Highlands! This (the heather, not the tan) became helpful when, after five great years at Hankley, I moved back to Scotland for a position at Carnoustie working for the great John Philp. Having worked with heather, I was involved in heather regeneration programmes covering all three courses."
"During my five years at Carnoustie, I was lucky enough to work through five Dunhill Championships but, most importantly, the 2007 Open.
The whole Open experience, including being involved in the course changes many months before and the actual preparations, is by far the highlight of my career. To be part of a talented team of guys, who produced one of the best regarded Open courses in recent years, was very special. I would love to go back and work that week again."
"During those sixteen years working at those four courses, I have furthered my education by getting spraying, chainsaw, digger, forklift and irrigation certificates. I look back now and think that, if It was not for Iain Macleod pointing me in the direction of college, I'm not sure what I would be doing now!"
"I am responsible for budgeting for both courses, but do consult weekly with one of my directors, who does have the final say."
"My team members include Chris Hodgson, who is my Head Greenkeeper; he has worked at Pitlochry for nearly thirty years. My assistant greenkeepers are Graeme Millar, Laura Campbell and Douglas Black, and I have a full time labourer, Mirek Lemanski."
"We also employ a health and safety officer and all staff are updated regularly on any health and safety changes. We have one defibrillator at Pitlochry; all clubhouse, pro shop and greenkeepers are trained to use this in an emergency. We will be getting one for Blair Atholl during 2016. I openly encourage the staff to attend as many educational seminars and training courses as possible."
All this is a far cry from when Stuart started at Blair Atholl in 2010. "When I took over, there had been no greenkeeper working at the course for over a year and the course was being kept by the members. Even though they did a great job of keeping the grass cut, the basics were sadly not being done," he explains.
"In that time, the greens were overfed and overwatered and, coupled with at least three or four years of no aeration or thatch removal from the greens, I had a big problem on my hands. Finding this out after I had started the job was quite scary, especially with it being my first head greenkeeper's role. Coming from Carnoustie, where machinery, staff and materials were all on site, it was an eye opener, to say the least. I had none of this and really had no budget to speak of either."
I was very fortunate to have a volunteer, Frank Brennan, who gave up his daily golf to work with me. He was a retired mechanical engineer who looked after our old machinery at the time just to keep going. He also helped me day after day cutting the rough, which allowed me to scarify, topdress and feed when needed."
"So, over the next few years, I worked really hard on reducing the thatch in the greens and topdressing with sand - as much as the club could afford. It was very tough at times knowing what I could do, but simply not having the machinery or manpower to do it."
"But, I have to say, the members at Blair Atholl soon saw the course improving and a few more of them began to volunteer their time to help out more. We had one member, Willy Hutton, who had all of his chainsaw certificates. He would help with cutting trees down which was a great help with the air and shade problems."
"Also, every year around our open competition time, members would help out with strimming, tidying around the clubhouse and divoting. All of this help enabled me to present the course the way I wanted."
"I think a lot of small clubs have to do this now to keep things going. I was very fortunate to have such helpful members."
Stuart says that, whilst both courses have different underlying soil, they are treated similarly. "Blair Atholl is built on an old river bed, so it has a very sandy profile, whereas Pitlochry is built on peat."
"The greens on both courses are the old push up variety, but all tees have been reconstructed over the years."
"Due to the hilly terrain at Pitlochry, and the vagaries of the Scottish weather, getting around the course can sometimes be challenging with ride-on machines, so we tend to cut tees and greens most of the year by hand with John Deere 260B mowers. When conditions suit, we do cut greens with our John Deere 2500E triple."
"At Blair Atholl, the greens are cut with a Toro 3250D and tees and aprons are cut with a John Deere 2500. We also have a Tru-Turf roller which is transported between both sites, when required."
"Irrigation wise, Blair Atholl has a full system, whilst Pitlochry has valve points at every green, but watering will still be done by hand, when required."
The previously alluded to 'Scottish' weather causes Stuart and the team the most problems. "Blair Atholl flooded last winter when the River Garry, which flows alongside the course, burst its banks. This was due to large amounts of snow melt and heavy rain combining so, unfortunately, our course took the full brunt of it. We lost tee markers, rakes, signs and two heavy wooden benches. We even had two bunkers with trout in them! The clean up afterwards was hard due to the large amounts of silt and debris scattered around the course."
"In complete contrast, and being on high ground, the greens at Pitlochry can dry out quite quickly but, since taking over, I have introduced a wetting agent programme so, over time, I'm hoping they will improve."
"In addition, three of the holes at Blair Atholl are in almost constant shadow from November through to March due to the low winter sun being blocked by a large hill to the side of the course."
Clearly, these are frustrations that Stuart and the team are used to; "we do, after all, live in the Highlands, so the weather can be seriously bad during winter and, consequently, end up playing a fair bit of golf on winter greens."
"Obviously, 2015 was extremely wet but, where we are, the weather can be very bad in spring, summer and autumn as well as winter, so we just work with it; there isn't anything we can do about it."
Greens are cut at 4mm during the summer months on both courses and rolled with the Tru-Turf when required. They also get verti-cut every four weeks, with a light topdressing of Hugh King sand. They are sarrel rolled every two weeks and pencil tined when required.
Stuart continues: "At the start of the season, we scarify and solid tine then topdress after. After our last big completion, we scarify then core and overseed and then try to get a couple of dressings down to fill up all the holes. This is done whilst the grass is still growing as, if done into October, we struggle to get recovery due to colder conditions."
"Weeds are sprayed on both courses around June time, so I can hopefully get away with spraying just the once to save on cost. All staff are capable of doing all tasks so I try to change things about as much as possible to keep it interesting."
"Presentation is very important as our courses are judged by how good they look and how they play, and I believe that it's also a great reflection on how well your staff work as a team."
Stuart goes on to discuss some of the projects the team have been or will be working on. "This winter, we will be doing a lot of bunker maintenance, including reshaping, softening lips and putting new bases in. We will also be levelling a few uneven tees on both courses."
"All projects will be undertaken by using on-site materials. We have a small quarry where we can dig sand and soil from, and we cut pathways from most fairways, so these areas are used for returfing projects."
"We have recently built a small putting green (60m2 in size) at Blair Atholl. We decided to save on cost so, instead of turfing it, we have re-used cores taken from our greens. Firstly, we stripped back the turf and used our digger to dig up and loosen the earth that was there. I then rotovated the ground and added a rootzone on top. After lots of raking and levelling, we applied the cores and mixed in bent seed. We have been rolling it every ten days, but will leave it now for the winter. We have germination sheets on at present to encourage growth. Hopefully, this will be a success and I am looking forward to managing this green over the coming year."
"Last year, we renovated, raised and lengthened our feature hole at Pitlochry, the 16th, adding a white tee so we could see the whole green and also the greenside bunkers. This has made a huge difference to the hole."
"We have a woodland management programme in place where all trees are limbed when needed, and we have also been planting trees on both courses, especially at Blair Atholl as we had one area between two of the holes that needed some definition. We planted Scots pine and birch trees, which are indigenous to the area. For some of this work we hired in a contractor with a digger to plant some of the bigger trees. Whilst the digger was in, we also upgraded most of the paths as we have started using buggies."
"Whenever we cut branches or cut up fallen trees and branches, we often stack up the old limbs to encourage insects and we have created wildflower areas on both courses to encourage bees."
"And we have a fantastic new golf range," continues Stuart, "which opened in 2013. It has possibly the most spectacular back-drop of any range in the country. Stretching to over 300 yards, it can accommodate even the longest hitters!"
And, if that wasn't enough to be getting along with, Stuart and his team also maintain the Lettoch Links, a 6-hole, 402 yards par 3 academy course at Pitlochry which, he says, is "great fun and is also used for juniors of all ages to get used to playing on golf course conditions."
With so much work being undertaken, how does he communicate with the members? "At both courses, they are updated via a monthly newsletter containing all the relevant club news. This also includes our monthly greenkeepers' course updates which explains what we have been up to and details any possible work ahead." Mind you, as previously noted, many of the Blair Atholl members have first hand experience!
"We've got some momentum in this industry," says Stuart, "and it's important to keep that going, on all levels. Greenkeepers now are educated to a very high level and are producing high quality conditioned golf courses, even though budgets are often small. I feel this is purely down to greenkeepers understanding how to manage the soil as well as the plant."
"I'm sure that, at some clubs, there will be staff that feel undervalued but, during my career, the majority of members and committees have been very positive to everything that the greenkeepers have been involved in."
"Our association is doing a great job in raising our profile, especially with trying to get greenkeepers to 'continue to learn' throughout our careers. If we go about our work professionally, we will be seen as such by those outside the industry," Stuart concludes.
What's in the shed?
Toro 3250 greensmower (BA)
John Deere 2500 tees and surrounds (BA)
John Deere 2500e greens (P)
Huxley Greenstar surrounds (P)
John Deere pedestrian mowers x 3 for greens and tees (P)
Set of gangs x 2; 1 for fairways and 1 for semi rough (P)
John Deere X740 (BA)
John Deere 3225c (BA)
John Deere 2320 tractor with front loader (BA)
Kubota tractors x 3 (P)
"Machinery is bought when needed; sometimes new, but we also purchase secondhand if it's the right deal.
We try to purchase what is best for the courses, so buy from whoever gives us the best deal.
The Wiedenmann TerraSpike has been a good addition, allowing us to aerate at different levels to create more air movement, which has improved the conditions of the greens. Also, having the Tru-Turf roller has allowed us to lower the amount of times we cut the greens, which has also helped.
We try to do as much ongoing maintenance and servicing as we can in-house to save on costs, leaving only sharpening and machine breakdowns to be outsourced."