Royal Dornoch Golf Club has been touted in Golfer's Digest as 'the third greatest international [non-US] golf course'. Whilst the current club is recently established, compared to some other iconic Scottish links, many of its features are held as archetypical of ideal links golf.
Its Course Manager, Eoin Riddell, has worked at the world-famous dunes course for nearly a quarter of its history. Here, he recounts challenges and techniques on the windy north-east coast of Scotland.
Pitchcare: How long have you worked at Royal Dornoch?
Eoin Riddell: Thirty-two years in total; the last twelve as Course Manager. As a junior member, I used to be the weekend bunker raker, but I was unsure what I wanted to do when I left school at sixteen. I started a carpet fitting apprenticeship with a local business, but after a couple of months of doing this, I was approached by a committee member and asked if I would like to apply to be an apprentice on the golf course. I did, and was delighted when I was offered the position.
What training and education did you undertake?
Level 2 and 3 through Elmwood. I'm currently doing my Master Greenkeeper, and I just have the last stage to complete.
Was there one person who inspired you?
Not just one person. I would have never considered playing golf if it wasn't for my best mate's Granddad who introduced me to golf in the first place.
Many of my ex-bosses have helped me along the way. I was also lucky enough to have Jim Arthur as our agronomist when I first started. His book still has pride of place in my office.
Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else - for example a greens chairman or committee?
I am responsible for all the budgets for both courses. I recommend them, discuss them with my General Manager, then follow them through.
What is the club's history?
Golf on the club's land can be traced back to around 1616, centuries before Dornoch Golf Club's formation. After founding as a nine-hole in 1877, it was renovated completely by Old Tom Morris in 1886. King Edward VII granted it royal status in 1906. Since inception, it has never hosted a major tournament, partly due to its extreme northern latitude. When Tom Watson visited in 1981, he enjoyed the course so much he wouldn't leave. He played the course three times and described it as "the most fun I've ever had on a golf course."
How would you describe the course?
Typical links. There are two 18-hole courses. The Championship
course is 6748yds par 70, and the Struie course is 6265yds par
We look after just under a total of 700 acres: the Championship course, 80 acres; Struie course, 70 acres; grazing land, 250 acres; grass airstrip, 10 acres; turf nursery, 10 acres; practice areas/driving range, 30 acres; three teaching holes, 25 acres; SSSI dune land, 150 acres; the rest is made up in car parks and the land that has buildings, i.e. clubhouse, maintenance buildings, soil storage buildings.
How many staff do you employ?
There are sixteen full time members of the team, plus four seasonal, making a total of twenty available for the season. These are as follows, with years at Royal Dornoch in brackets:
Eoin Riddell, Course Manager (32 years)
Scott Aitchison, Deputy Course Manager (20)
George Clubb, greenkeeper (20)
Euan Macdonald, greenkeeper (16)
Andrew Mackay, greenkeeper (15)
Jamie Shepherd, greenkeeper (11)
David Mackay, greenkeeper (11)
Willie Nicholson, head mechanic (11)
Alexander Richardson, greenkeeper (10)
Andrew Houston, greenkeeper (7)
Andrew Rose, mechanic (4)
Steven Macleod, greenkeeper (4)
Stuart Gillies, apprentice greenkeeper (3)
Craig Mackay, greenkeeper (3 years)
Jack Harrison, general worker (1)
Nick Turner, general worker (1)
Do you employ a workshop technician?
Yes. Two: Willie, our head mechanic, and Andrew, who has just finished his apprenticeship and is presently doing his level 3 mechanics course.
All work is carried out in-house. We have a fully kitted-out workshop with all the necessary tools, hydraulic ramp, welders, grinders etc.
What additional help do you get (part time, consultants, agronomists, contractors etc.)?
We have a yearly visit to do data performance. If we are hosting any tournaments, they come more often.
How would you describe the soil profile generally?
Sandy. The greens and tees were constructed from the natural terrain with the same sandy soil rootzone.
We do a lot of in-house data performance measuring. The moisture meter is one that is used most. Trying to keep a firm dry true surface on a links course is the main aim (if the weather permits!).
Do you have an irrigation system?
A full Toro SitePro irrigation on the Championship course. On the Struie course, it's a bit of a mix of old and new that works when it wants to!
Does the course suffer from any regular natural occurrences such as flooding, high winds, excessive snowfall/frosts, drought etc?
We don't often get snow. Frost is more common. Wind is just part of life on the coast. Flooding can be a problem on the Struie course, but this again is rare. We used to have a coastal erosion problem on the Championship course.
We continually monitor these wetter areas and do extra aeration whenever possible. The coastal erosion is not a problem anymore as we have spent a lot of time installing armour rock on these areas.
Are there any issues with shade and air flow?
As we are a traditional links course, we have no trees. We have some shade issues on a few tees due to the gorse. We trim this back if it becomes too much of a problem.
Do you use temporary greens?
Only on the Struie course for frost days. The Championship is closed if frosty.
Do you have a driving range/practice facility?
One driving range, a professional teaching area, three par-four academy holes and pitching green. We have plans to build a new driving range with twelve covered bays and two teaching bays.
Tell us about your weekly/monthly maintenance regimes - cutting heights, aeration, scarifying, weed and pest control, overseeding, etc.?
Summer height for greens is 4mm; winter 6mm, using Toro Triflex. We use Toro 1000 hand mowers for tournaments. The greens are brushed weekly.
Greens surrounds are cut at 6mm and tees 6mm, using Toro Triflex with three-wheel drive. The fairways are at 10mm, using a Toro 5410H, and the semi-rough at 50mm with a Toro 4500.
We spray for weeds once a year, but hand weed greens, and we don't spray pesticides. We do not scarify, and may only verti-cut twice a year. We do a lot of brushing on all areas, and overseed once or twice a year with the Vredo seeder (depending how the greens are holding up).
Do you have specific tasks for specific staff or is it an 'all hands to the pump' approach?
We train all our greens staff to do all jobs, giving everyone the opportunity to experience different tasks.
Where does presentation rank?
Very highly. It is the little details that make the difference.
Are renovations affected by budgets?
Everything is affected by budgets, but we work hard to find the best solution for each situation.
What end of season and ongoing renovations do you undertake?
Greens, surrounds, tees and fairways are all overseeded at the end of every season. We are using pure fescue in all areas as we are trying to keep true links surfaces. This has been ongoing for the last ten years and will continue for the future.
How have changing weather patterns affected what you do?
We now do a lot more aeration than ever, due to the last few seasons being a lot wetter than normal.
Do you take regular soil samples to ascertain what work is required?
Yes - and they are sent to be tested, usually every six months.
How do you interact with your club members - for example, regular newsletters, notice board or course walks?
Weekly updates on what's happening on the course are included in the weekly members newsletter, sent by email. Social media is now a big thing, so we have Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Are you working on any special projects at the moment?
Yes. We have just started the first phase of changing our seventh hole on the championship course, with a new fairway and green complex. This is being phased in over four years.
The reason the timescale is so long is that all work is being done in-house by our own staff, which gives the greenkeepers ownership and makes them very protective of their work. It also means that we have trained our own staff to use excavators, dumpers and rollers that they may never get to use if we took in outside contractors. All this is happening alongside a normal winter maintenance programme.
What projects have been undertaken in recent years?
We have had to reroute our third fairway. This had to be moved for health and safety reasons due to new houses being built. Also, our par-five twelfth was lengthened, with new tees and a realigned fairway to give a better more appealing hole. Again, this was all done in-house by the Royal Dornoch greens staff.
Do you have any additional areas to maintain - for example, woodland, heathland, gardens?
We own 250 acres of fields that we lease out for animal grazing, and look after all the fencing and water troughs that are in these areas. We also look after the local grass airstrip.
Do you source additional help or is the work done in-house?
All work is usually done in-house. We have specialist machine operators. Training the greens staff to operate these machines only expands the capabilities of doing more in-house, which saves money in the long term.
Are you and your staff compliant with current legislation?
Yes. It is very important that we stay compliant, so we do yearly in-house training and refresher courses. We have a healthy training budget to cover all staff needs.
Are you considering employing or do you currently employ apprentices?
We currently have one apprentice going through their training. The scheme is working very well for us. We have a fair number of Dornoch-trained greenkeepers that have gone onto head greenkeeper positions elsewhere. We also pride ourselves on holding onto our apprentices - we still have eleven members of the greens staff that trained in Dornoch.
Who is responsible for first aid?
I am. We have five fully first aid qualified staff and all others have done their one-day 'first aid at work' course. These are refreshed every three years.
How do you purchase machinery?
We are on a five-year replacement programme. All machines are new and bought outright. We also have a yearly replacement plan in place for machinery not covered in the five-year deal.
We generally deal directly with the manufacturer, but after that with the local dealer also.
Are there any new pieces of kit that have significantly helped to improve your playing surfaces?
Not just one piece. With the new technology available, there are many that, when combined, help to produce better surfaces. Mowers have extra cutting blades to give a better clip rate. Then, there are turf irons, topdressers and brushes - these all help us produce better surfaces.
Do you have a wash down area that is compliant with current legislation?
Yes. We installed a Waste 2 Water system in 2006.
What would your wish list include?
A fairway topdresser. After the last few seasons being so wet, it would be good to get back firmer and drier fairways.
How do you undertake pest and weed control?
By spraying weeds only on closely-mown areas, apart from the greens, which are weeded by hand.
Do your courses suffer from specific disease outbreaks?
Very little (the odd bit of anthracnose and fusarium).
Are rabbits, badgers, foxes, geese, chafer grubs, worms etc. a problem?
We get the odd rabbit, and moles in the winter months, and also suffer from leatherjackets on some of the Struie course fairways.
My mechanic and I hold gun licences. We try to shoot weekly to keep down the rabbit population. We trap moles.
As for the leatherjackets and chafer grubs, we can't do any spraying now, so we try to stop the birds pecking with bird scarers.
How important do you consider the local flora and fauna?
We have just gained our GEO certification. The club is currently working on updating our environmental policy, under guidance from the GEO.
We consider the local flora and fauna very important, and we try to leave it alone whenever we can.
We work with national environment agencies; Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB specifically.
We don't currently employ an environmental consultant, but we have been looking into it.
After talking with the GEO, we will be trying to do more in the future. We used to have bee hives on the course, but sadly the member who looked after them is not well, so he removed them.
What would you consider to be the state of our industry?
I feel it could be better. The larger clubs are doing well, but the smaller clubs are still struggling.
Are we undervalued?
I don't feel that we are. Dornoch treat their staff well, but experience and knowledge should not be taken for granted.
How would you raise our profile?
It's very difficult to say, but our relevant associations are trying their best to promote the industry. If we could have more PR on big events, i.e. showing course set-up and work on the course behind the scenes, this may help all golfers appreciate what greenkeepers do for them daily.
Do you and your staff attend industry shows, seminars, demo days, road shows?
We try to attend BTME, the Scottish conference and any regional outings, but as we are in the north of Scotland it makes it difficult to get to many, as they are mainly in the central belt. That can mean a travel time of over eight hours!
What's in the shed?
Toro 3420 greens mowers x 4
Toro 3420 tees mowers 3wd x 2
Toro 5410 fairway mower
Toro 5010 fairway mowers x 3
Toro 3100 trim mower
Toro 4500 rough mowers x 2
Toro 3500 rough mower
Toro 5800 sprayer
Toro 1750 sprayer
Toro MDE Workmans x 8
Toro HDX Workmans x 2
Toro ProCore 648
Toro ProCore 1298
Toro 1000 hand mowers x 5
Toro ProForce blower
Toro TransPro trailers x 2
New Holland 5050 tractor
TYM 503 tractors x 2
Kubota STW40 compact tractor
Kubota STW34 compact tractor
Dakota 410 topdresser
Tru-turf turf irons x 2
Vredo Super compact seeders x 2
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXi8HD
Weidenmann Super 600 flail collector
Hallmarket big roll turf cutter
Hallmarket turf collector
Ryan turf cutter
Groundsman turf cutter
JCB 8030 mini excavator
JCB 3CX contractor
Ifor Williams trailers x 2
Marshal trailers x 3
EZ screen power screen
Royer power screen
Rytec side arm flail
Rytec Agric forestry mulcher
Bush-hogg pasture topper
Towable large roller
Greentech GreensGroomer brush
Sisis fairway brush
Honda water pumps x 4
Walk behind spreaders x 7
Macalister hand mower
Honda strimmers x 3
Stihl battery strimmer
Husqvarna Flymo mowers x 5
Stihl chainsaws x 2
Tractor mounted fertiliser spreader
Club Car buggies x 7
Garia Golf buggy
Nissan Navara pickup truck
Club Car Carryall UTV