In October last year, Ian Robson, UK and Export Manager for Hunter Grinders, travelled to The Defence Raya Golf Resort in Lahore, Pakistan to install a new Hunter Grinder ATI.
Ian is from Newcastle and was interested to discover that John Tate, the Course Manager, was also a local Newcastle boy. Ian wanted to know how John came to be in Lahore, and what on earth it was that kept him in what, on the surface, appeared to be a pretty inhospitable place.
Talking to John, Ian realised that he was neither a typical greenkeeper, or Geordie for that matter, and, in fact, had a history of being part of golf development in many places around the world where, despite the humidity, the dust and the intense heat, the challenges of achieving excellent golfing conditions in such an environmentally difficult place was stimulating in itself.
John Tate has been Course Manager of the 18 hole championship course for over a year now, and recalls how he found himself in Lahore
Sitting in 'downtown Lahore', I am fairly sure few will know what a popular sport golf is in Pakistan. There are four courses in Lahore alone, with another under construction; the older courses having been built in the colonial era. Presently, the golfing community is growing at 20% per annum.
It is true to say that I am pretty well travelled. In the late 80s, after a short spell in Southern Ireland, I went off to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. To say it was a culture shock is a bit of an understatement. However, being pretty open-minded, I soon settled.
After being dumped in a 'life camp' full of Germans, off we went to work on the construction of the IBB International which, I think I'm correct in saying, was the first 'green' greens course in West Africa. Having never seen or worked with Bermuda grass, I had to learn quickly - twenty odd years later and I'm still learning about it! Once I had grasped an understanding of the climate, it became quite easy to produce a high standard of turf although, admittedly, a workforce of one hundred and twenty helped!
Grass, trees, flowers grew 365 days a year, so we planted the course with a different colour on every hole - Delonix, Regina, Jacaranda, Acacia, Mango etc. - with superb results.
The wildlife was fairly exciting, with crocodiles and snakes everywhere! The smaller crocs would run away, but we had one that appeared to be about 5 metres long and an aggressive 'blighter' who upset many a midday fishing competition. The boys even refused to jump into the lake when I unfortunately had a hook snagged!
Golf in Africa was never dull, especially when invited to play with my dear friend Baba Kingerbe who, at the time, was the Nigerian Interior Minister, and a couple of other friends. Off we went but, after about two or three holes, we could hear gunfire! After eight holes we could hear the bullets passing over our heads. I did mention to Baba that "wouldn't it be a good idea to give up after nine?". His reply was "it's your putt". It turned out that there had been an attempt to overthrow the President two miles up the road!
Another interesting four-ball was with 'Chip' Bush - his father was US President at the time - and the US Ambassador, George Arthur Trail III. After a rather mundane round, we retired to a private restaurant room in the Hilton. Next door there was a meeting regarding the crisis in Sierra Leone. Mr Trail, after half a glass of red wine too much, mentioned that, if a certain Mr G Taylor did not behave himself, the 'Yanks' would go in and sort it out. He was removed from his post the next morning!
Working down in Bonny Island, off the southwest coast of Nigeria, was an experience. After flying to Port Harcourt, I travelled to the island by powerboat through the delta, mangrove islands and, what seemed like, constant rain. My accommodation was on a houseboat that was hit by tidal waves nightly from the oil tankers moving up and down the delta. The 'blighter', in this case, turned out to be a hippo. Believe me - do not keep one as a pet in your back garden. It will destroy the place on a dialy basis!
Bermuda grass would not grow here because of the lack of sunlight. We tried 'papsalum' as it grew naturally, and was known locally as Port Harcourt grass. It has a fairly similar method of maintenance to Bermuda, except it tended to thatch up regularly. Back then, it was very difficult to acquire herbicides, insecticides and fungicides - apart from a little spring, dead spot fungicide, which was never required!
However, insecticides - because of sod web and cut worm, which could be devastating - were essential! So, I had to make my own. The Nim tree, a cousin of Mahogany, grew on the course, and is renowned for its various chemical properties. Every part of the tree is said to have medicinal properties, so I soon learned about pyrethrum and how to extract it and, after a few months of experiments, found the right concentrations. I won't say it was 100% effective, but it certainly suppressed them.
My next stop was Antalya in Turkey! Unfortunately, the course had been sown with cool season grass. On the first day I had a course inspection with the owner! There was a few tufts of lolium under the trees, and that was the only grass on the course - the rest had been wiped out by pythium! The owner's demand was "we need to be open in three weeks!"
September in Antalya is generally hot, but I 'got lucky' with the temperatures and managed to blitz the course with lolium, providence (Agrostis) on the greens. The course opened on time, but was a little rough. It became playable, within ten weeks and I received not a single complaint.
The following summer, we converted the course to Bermuda 419, and the greens to 'tiff dwarf' the summer after.
I have never seen anything like Turkish Pythium in my life! You could just about set your watch by it. 21st, 22nd May, same spot every year, it would start, (we overseeded with Bermuda during the winter months). From the 20th of May, whilst the greens were Agrostis, we had a 'pythium man', and all he did was check the greens all day. I have seen pythium strike at 2.00pm there! I have seen foot marks through the green when a golfer walked through an infected area. It really was quite incredible. Because of the high Ph. in the water - 7.5 up to 8+when the tide came in - full or no moon, salt went from 700 to around 1300 - 2050 was the highest we measured - so trying to work out your fungicide active duration was pure guesswork!
Again, cut worm was easy to deal with, as was the dreaded white grub! What a nightmare, the aim was to eradicate them in their first instar (development stage); after that it becomes very difficult.
I met some great characters during my time in Antalya, including the local Mayor, who had been detained by the authorities, for six months, for some financial deal. When he was released, the whole village was out celebrating. It was a great party that night.
So, on to Pakistan. I am sure, to most from the outside looking in, it is perceived to be a dangerous country. However, having spent over a year here, the people are delightful, and I have never seen such a highly skilled and motivated labour force in my life.
The Defence Raya Golf and Country Club is as good a course as I have seen, designed with a housing complex around the course. As luck would have it, the soil structure is fairly similar to the Turkish south coast. Here, winter dormancy is from late November through to mid-February, which is our main golf season.
It has been a long fourteen months. Everything we do here is in-house, with a staff of one hundred and twenty, including eight masons to construct and maintain the cart track, water feature, shade canopy etc., and ten mechanics/electricians who look after all machines, plus twenty odd generators around the town.
We have constructed a tree and flower nursery that produced 250,000 shrubs from cuttings and seed - six staff are allocated to this. The plan is to turn it into a commercial enterprise next year. We hand planted ten acres of gardens with Bermuda grass, in the housing area, over a two month period in the summer. Then, during the monsoon season, is when tree planting starts. There's an eight to twelve week period (depending on the rains) in which 10,000 trees and 60,000 shrubs will be planted.
As for the greenkeepers, what a delightful rabble. As the course has 100% floodlights, we can work when we want. In the summer the temperatures are up to 40OC to 50OC, so we start at 4.30am and work until midday.
They are a great set of lads, fifteen in total, led by the supervisor, Imran. The biggest problem is to keep them cutting straight with no sharp turns. The greens are all hand mown, although we do cut them once a week with a triplex, which is more of a clean-up pass.
We vertidrain twice a year, along with regular verti-cutting, and have to use a lot of Ca and Mg in the fertiliser programme (all spoon fed) because, in the soil analysis, they were completely absent! Ph. was 8.2 and is now 7.2, so we're getting there! We use granite dust for the micro elements, and it works a treat.
The summer saw a green speed of seven to nine on the stimpmeter and, in winter, thirteen plus - it's exciting putting! Tees, surrounds and fairways all have the same programme, but not as intense.
The main pest problems here in Pakistan are cut worm, funnel ant and the dreaded termite, a touch of spring dead spot (never had to spray a fungicide once) and pythium on the flower seedling, which is easily controlled.
Irrigation depends on the season. We find that, when temperatures are up around 40OC or more, we need to syringe three times a day just to keep the grass cool! Even in dormancy, a little water is required.
We also have a breeding programme of peacocks and pheasants, which will be released on the course, to accompany our ducks!
We run our golf operations department more as a commercial enterprise, between the army and the private sector. My Fayaz - a great character - runs our office and is excellent at dealing with the troops. We seem to spend half our time on designing the city landscapes, water features for roundabouts etc. which, in turn, pays for the course. Our golf secretary, 'The Brig', is one of the most delightful gents I have ever met and can handle himself on the track, however his heart and soul is in the course, which helps.
For Ian Robson to come to Pakistan was, I am sure, quite a culture shock, and during his trip we took him to Wagha Gate, the border between Pakistan and India. I would imagine that he has never been escorted by a convoy of troops with flashing lights before.
For the uninitiated, Wagha Gate is where the changing of the guard takes place under the scrutiny of two 'football stands' full of representatives from Pakistan on one side and India on the other. During the change, there is a ritual 'hurling of abuse' at each other. It's very funny, and well worth the trip.
Despite the bizarre and somewhat intimidating circumstances of being accompanied everywhere by an army guard, Ian took it all in his stride and did a superb job, organising the grinder to be transported here and in the training of the staff.
The grinder is an absolute must here, as there is a lot of dust in the wind which knocks the cut off the units pretty quickly. Our intention is to use it commercially, as it is the only one in Pakistan. Ian completed the training in the few days available, and gained great respect with his patience and relaxed manner. One consequence is that Baba Yousef, Chief of Mechanics, is now praying in the direction of Moscow, and chief mechanic, Nadime, is praying towards Cape Town - nowhere near the direction of Mecca, because they insist on praying next to the grinder.
The moral to the story is, that if you want to work successfully in Asia, and even more so in Africa, you must become father, mother, doctor, and mediator to your team! And an expert in producing your own chemicals. But, most of all, appreciate that you have been lucky to have had the chance.