0 The Jurgen Klopp of golf at Walton Heath Golf Club

Nurturing a unique heathland golf setting requires thinking out of the box, as Greg Rhodes discovered when he met Walton Heath Golf Club course manager Michael Mann.

Lying high above the line of the M25 near Reigate, Surrey, Walton Heath is an area of national importance.

Rich in heather and wildlife diversity, this historic site was earmarked in the late Victorian era as a haven of golf by those who saw the opportunity to open up once remote areas around London for the sport, made accessible by the expansion of the railways to, in this case, Kingswood.

A familiar story for more than a few courses across Britain, but blending the natural beauty and fragile environment of Walton Heath with the demands of golf was a challenge only the finest of course architects would dare confront.

Numbering political luminaries like Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George among former members - not forgetting HRH Prince of Wales, who was crowned King Edward VIII in his year of captaincy - Walton Heath Golf Club commands a heritage and status unmatched by many of its contemporaries.

The club was founded in 1903 and its 18 holes, designed by Herbert Fowler, formed the Old Course. Four years later, the first 9 holes of the New Course came into play - the second nine following in 1913, when the Mayor of London officially opened the full course.

Course Manager Michael Mann

Although the club owns the land it rests on, commoners rights prevail and the heath is criss-crossed with footpaths and bridalways. What was once a track arrowing through the heath is now the busy Dorking road, allowed to rise in prominence over the decades as a business thoroughfare.

It disects the estate to leave the clubhouse and a solitary hole on one side and the other 35 holes, along with the greens teams sprawling complex, on the other.

So, after the prolonged dry spell had made a wheat field brown expanse of golfing hectares, I arrived to chat with course manager Michael Mann.

The hum and bustle of activity hit me the moment I entered. Turf machines coming and going, tractors and transport vehicles parked beyond, standing before mountains of sand and topsoil - course care on an almost industrial scale and everyone talking turfcare.

In the midst of all this, Michael is chatting to various team members about the day's activities on what are two outstanding quality championship courses, updating them as deadlines and schedules dictated. Nearby is ecologist and fellow Pitchcare contributor Bob Taylor, here to chart the club's wildlife.

"We have a team of 23 here," says Michael, reading my thoughts as we move into the office, crammed with desktops and other tech. "Each course has its own head greenkeeper and its own greens team, except when there's extra demand on one or the other."

Pretty much always ranked in the top 100 courses in England or the UK and Ireland, Walton Heath's courses have staged major championships over their lifetime and continue to attract a strong overseas golfer contingent. It's a US Open qualifying venue, when contenders play both the Old and the New.

Arguably, the pinnacle of the club's achievements though, will be hosting the 2023 Women's Open Championships next August - a global major that looks set to further elevate the status and prestige of this already renowned golfing destination.

Before expanding on that, Michael gives me the lie of the land. "Many who come here don't realise how high up we are - perched on a hill 190m above sea level. The heath is on an overlying layer of sand, silt and loam, then 6m of heavy clay and flint before hitting chalk."

Like many a course manager across Britain, Michael soon shifts the conversation to water supplies. "The club has a borehole down to 200m from which it can abstract up to 20m3/d supply from the chalk aquifer 200m down and we store it in a 27,000m3 reservoir.

The problem is that there is high demand for water from this layer. Currently the club uses between 14,000 and 25,000m3 a year."

Accordingly, the club plans to ensure continuity of supply. "We want to drill a new borehole in the hope of hitting water in the lower greensand, which is untapped, and intend to start that in the next few weeks," he reveals.

A state-of-the-art Toro irrigation system is being installed and commissioned to cover all areas of managed turf in preset watering periods, with capacity to expand it if needed. "It's a fit for purpose £2.3m system," Michael says, "which most of the members (around 900) voted for at an EGM (Extraordinary General Meeting) for which we levied them to help fund the project. Some loaned money, others donated."

Within such an environmentally sensitive site, you'd expect sustainability to rank high, and it does with Walton Heath's water management programme, Michael explains.

"Club land runs right up to the M25. In fact, one of three proposals for the line of the motorway saw it slicing through the courses. That plan didn't go forward thankfully, but what we have done is to install a rainfall capture system along the M25 bank: a French drain with 1,000m perforated pipe to draw rainwater and boost supply."

Unfinished business

Michael came here as course manager six years ago when he was 35 and is a professional who admits he is ever in a state of flux. "I never want to turn stale in a job and look on any position I take as unfinished business," he says.

"I'm passionate about heathland management at golf clubs and know there's plenty more to achieve here."

He's stayed local in his rise up the career ladder, moving to Walton Heath from Fairleigh Golf Club, near Selsdon, where he was also course manager. Before that, he was deputy course manager at West Hill, Woking - "one of the three 'W's", moving from Wentworth in 2008 after a spell as an assistant greenkeeper.

His first love in golf was Lagganmore in southwest Scotland, "a low-budget course, formerly a farmer's field, but opportunities were limited in that part of the country so I followed a friend down to Wentworth."

"They were polar opposites, with Wentworth hosting three televised tournaments a year. But I've enjoyed every minute of my time in golf and have made friends for life along the way."

Michael's joy over heathland management bubbles up once more as he talks about regeneration. "Lowland heath only exists because of man's intervention and, for me, ranks alongside links golf. It's so satisfying to replant and replace the Walton Heath heather, which is one of the most well-known examples of its kind."

The club and its championship courses do not exist in splendid isolation of the environment they lie within. There's space to "take the air and exercise" and thrive alongside the likes of adders, lizards and slow worms, Michael states.

This is surely an ecologist's dream destination, so I caught up with Bob Taylor after his escorted buggy journey around the site and asked him where Walton Heath fitted into the ecological landscape.

"The UK has some 3,000 golf clubs, occupying 150,000 hectares of land, and each one is a nature reserve, providing a nucleus for breeding, dispersal and offering important opportunities for wildlife to move freely," he explains.

"Golf courses are good as wildlife habitats because, not despite the fact, they provide golf, and are not intrusive. They are committed to delivering a level and quality of land management often missing in nature reserves," adds Bob, who is the official ecologist to The R&A championships.

"Heather is a key component of managing the heathland mosaic, which includes grasses, plants and wildlife and, it is through the commitment of course managers such as Michael, that areas like Walton Heath can have every chance of a sustainable future."

Many heathland courses rest within Surrey, so Michael has an abundance of like-minded greens professionals to discuss vital management of these cherished spaces.

"It's a question of living in harmony with wildlife," says Michael, picking up on one of Bob's points. "Our out of play areas, where the heather grows a bit taller, alongside stands of gorse, ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, stone chats and meadow pipits can thrive. As a natural site, we want to keep the courses a little more rugged and less manicured."

Another example of Michael's distinctive turns of phrase that make me think, as sports doyen Mark Chapman said of Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp last season, that he doesn't think in clichés. "Are you calling me the Klopp of golf," Michael asks. Well, if the cap fits as they say, yes.

"These are running courses, where the ball can bounce and roll on. If you land in the heather, you find the ball, not lose a stroke." He can speak from experience. A golfer with an 18 handicap, Michael's been teeing off since he was ten. "Everybody played, but as everyone else got better I just got crosser, until I gained a deeper understanding of the strategy of golf."

So, how are Michael and his team of 23 preparing for the Women's Open 2023? "There are tees to be stripped, levelled and returfed - that's a benefit for members too - and the irrigation project to sign off."

"Generally, we'll be receiving recommendations from a leading architect, who is overviewing the courses. It's a light touch really, restoring bunkers and the tees." The tally of 112 sand traps, which includes practice bunkers, are split 60%:40% between the Old and New courses, so plenty to tackle before the great event.

Team restructuring

Despite the size of the greens team, both Old and New groups have been recently restructured, Michael explains. "It's about creating professional opportunities, making the structure more fluid."

Three of the more "career-minded" greenkeepers have left to pursue their futures, he adds, while a head greenkeeper for each course has been recruited, with deputies, seniors and assistants below them.

A committed BIGGA member, Michael congratulates the member body for its work in addressing the sector's salary scale issues but adds: "Golf in the UK is cheap. Everyone knows what needs to happen, but making it happen is the challenge."

"I'm a glass half full guy, but so many I talk to have a glass half empty stance."

"Greenkeepers are increasingly publicly acknowledged for what they do, such as at major events like the Open, and course managers get a 'well done' too, but it's the assistant greenkeepers that are on my mind now. Their worth has to be promoted more."

"We work in a wonderful environment with many benefits laid on a plate for you, including the opportunity to play golf on great courses like Walton Heath. It's important for greenkeepers to play golf so they understand things more from members' perspective, although Covid has impacted the time I have available to play."

We move on to the new head greenkeepers. James Bruder arrived from East Berkshire five months ago, (having also served at St George's Hill) with "a passion for turf management and enthusiastic about and experienced with heather regeneration". Seems like a natural fit to transplant his skills to Walton Heath.

"James is reponsible for the day to day operations on the Old Course. We discuss strategy daily, weekly and monthly and he executes the plan," Michael explains.

Due to start on 25 July is Wes Lenihan, James's New Course counterpart, who previously was head at Ealing Golf Club.

"I'm working closely with Alex Woodward, our new CEO who came into post last September," Michael continues. "He takes a keen interest in what we do and helped us introduce the team restructure."

Mid-stream, New Course deputy head Edoardo Fauro comes into the office with a query for Michael and warmly introduces himself. I'm coming away with a strong sense of a team dynamic - James had come in earlier to speak to Michael and also radiated warmth and strong people skills.

"Edoardo left us in 2019, but has recently returned. It's important to hold on to good people," Michael stresses. As it is to let the team do the job. "No point in recruiting good people and then not letting them prove they can deliver,"

Singled out for special mention is the workshop team. Graham Goldup and assistant Robert Crossbie have both been at Walton Heath for at least 20 years and Michael cannot praise them enough. "They are so good at preparing equipment," he says. "Graham's world class. They allow us to maintain everything in house. We only outsource when we absolutely have to."

Under Walton Heath's rolling ten-year strategy, the club struck a Total Solutions deal with Toro in 2019, which includes mainly diesel mowers, plus the irrigation system but no battery powered units as yet.

"Electrics is still in its infancy," Michael states, "although solar panels power the complex and generate as much electricity as we use, making us sustainable. We sell any surplus to the grid. Inevitably, electric power will become the norm," he adds.

Good morning

Punctuality is key to performance, Michael believes. "Nothing more important than a good morning's work. Everyone is here at 6am to start the day."

Warming to his theme, he expands: "The key to effective management is building strong relationships and consistency of decision-making, as this can affect morale profoundly. You have to be firm sometimes but don't dress it up as a bad news story, and be fair to everyone."

The head greenkeepers have a major role to play within this management style. "We want to give people more love, be more supportive and be able to discuss personal problems, while regular one to ones with the heads come within the masterplan."

"I love the job I've chosen and like to get good feedback to compensate for the other times, but you have to do the difficult parts to enjoy the good ones."

I ask the inevitable question, 'Do you have any women on the team?', and receive an interesting answer. "We would welcome women greenkeepers to the team, abilities permitting of course, but none have applied yet. Hosting the Women's Open 2023 gives the opportunity to focus on women's participation in golf, which needs to increase."

"Female role models such as presenter Naga Munchetty, who loves golf, and the Solheim Cup women's tournament are helping move things forward. A What'sApp group I'm part of mentioned that tournament, amongst all the sports chatter, which perhaps indicates the times are changing."

The consensus is clear that men and women should rank equally and Walton Heath welcomes the chance to help grow the women's game by hosting global tournaments such as next year's event.

Unwelcome guests

Like many a course, Walton Heath does what it can to deter unwelcome guests of the kind that can badly mar playing surfaces. "Leatherjackets were an issue in 2020," Michael recalls, "and we lost a good deal of cover on the fairways during the May dry spell."

"Our aim is to rely less on pesticides and fungicides and apply organic treatments such as molasses-based material (as part of an integrated pest management approach) to tackle leatherjackets. We apply selectives to spot weed with our Cooper Pegler knapsacks, boom spraying larger areas."

Other species of unwanted visitor can plague the playing surfaces. Vandalism strikes every so often. "As an open access site, it can be difficult to prevent unauthorised entry. During the pandemic, a bike rider tore up one of the greens. News of it went viral and Piers Morgan picked up on the story. Strategically placed logs help restrict that kind of intrusion."

"Rabbits too can wreak havoc" Michael confirms, although you wonder whether raptors such as the red kites, kestrels, owls and sparrowhawks that patrol overhead might do for a good few of them.

Walking out over the landscape, talk again turns to heather, which lines the wide fairways, fringes bunkers and springs up in isolated pockets. "There's about twenty hectares spread over the two courses. It has a 30-year life cycle, passing through the pioneer, juvenile, mature and degenerative stages. If we wish to keep it in the juvenile state, we mow at five to six inches."

Under the heather regeneration plan, the team top the plant to harvest its seeds then sow these over bare patches (created when degeneration sets in) after scraping back to bare ground.

Michael points out examples of the mauve-coloured ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) rustling though the wiry stems in search of his bete noir - the heather beetle, which defoliates the plant, leaving it under stress and transpiring uncontrollably, he adds. Fortunately, there is a natural predator, wasps, though they seemed thin on the ground when we were out on course.

In amongst the common variety, purple-pink bell heather (Erica cinerea) is showing up, which blooms before the mauve appears.

We examine previously seeded areas looking for growth. It's there but barely noticeable to my eyes, but in plain sight to Michael, who clearly sees this as evidence of a successful regeneration strategy.

Brightening the ground cover is heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) its crisp white flowers popping up among the prevailing growth.

We walk the 14th hole of the Old Course, where Michael mentions they've been coring and overseeding with a mix of hard fescue and browntop bent, part of the strategy of ridding the site of annual meadowgrass.

"The dry spell has brought the Poa to its knees," he says. "Managing it out is time consuming but hard fescue and browntop bent are starting to predominate now."

I almost forget to mention that Walton Heath is an artisans venue. I spot the still fresh telltale patches that mark their work. "We have almost 70 who work here. Once a month they divot the fairways with hard fescue and bent grasses mixed with sandy rootzone." Surely an invaluable aid to many hard-pressed greens teams.

Michael's preferred seed supplier is Barenbrug, whose development site in Holland he has visited. "I liked their rigorous methods and processes," he says. "They prepare a bespoke mix for us of hard fescue, slender creeping fescue and browntop bent. We tend to overseed the greens with 100% browntop bent."

As a parting shot as we walk back, Michael states: "Heathland as a habitat is pretty rare and we have an obligation as a land manager to maintain it."

My big takeaway from Walton Heath is that the management of such a precious natural resource is in extremely capable hands.

What's in the shed

Toro 3550D approach mowers x 4
Toro 4700D rough mowers x 2
Toro 6700D fairway mowers x 4
Toro 1600 pedestrian mowers for tee's x 8
Toro 1000 pedestrian mowers for greens x 8
Grillo for cutting long rough and heather x 3
Utility vehicles x 12
Smithco greens irons x 4
Toro 5800 sprayers x 2
Turfoco 1550
Topdressers x 2
Toro 648 ProCore x 2
Diggers x 2
Tractors x 6
Plus numerous aeration equipment

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Contact Kerry Haywood

07973 394037

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