Situated a stone's throw from Cornwall's beautiful south coast, St Austell Golf Club is a private undulating parkland/heathland course designed by James Braid. The area is best known for the Eden Project, The Lost Gardens of Heligan and the surreal landscape of the china clay mines. Lee Williams met with Vince Vosper, the club's forty-eight-year-old Head Greenkeeper, who has been at the club for thirty years.
After leaving school, Vince Vosper was looking through the local paper when he saw an advert for an apprentice greenkeeper at St Austell Golf Club. He applied and got the position, where he spent twelve months on a YTS scheme. "Sadly, when the year was up, there were no jobs available, so I ended up working in a factory in Bodmin. Twelve months later, a job opened up, and I came back as an apprentice/assistant greenkeeper. Through the years, I have worked my way up to my current position which I have been in for the last eight years."
Like so many of us who started out in the sports turf industry as an apprentice, he was given many of what would be classed as the menial tasks like raking bunkers, strimming etc. But this never put him off wanting to pursue a career as a greenkeeper. "When I first arrived, they were building the first and second greens, and the guy who was in charge back then had me screening soil for weeks on end. Then, of course, I did not get a job, but when I returned, I was doing everything, and I have enjoyed every minute of it."
Vince attended horticultural college in Devon and gained all the relevant qualifications, including NVQ Level 2 and 3 in sports turf management, spraying, chainsaw and tractor certificates.
Always on hand and consulting Vince on all things turf is David Bevan, Technical Sales Area Manager for Agrovista Amenity. "He lives local to the course, so he is always on hand to come in and have a chat. Dave gives us advice on what chemicals and fertilisers to use. He is an ex-greenkeeper from Bodmin Golf Club, so it is handy to pick his brain. You should not be too proud to ask for advice here and there, especially in this job. He is terrific; he's literally at the end of the phone. He will also take soil samples for us every two years, which I find is good enough."
The eighteen-hole course is built on an old farmer's fields and, up at the top end of the course, is an old tin mine. "The soil profile on what was agricultural land is perfect but, when you get to the top, it becomes clay with shale in places. There's also a lot of undulations due to the old mine shafts."
Over the years, the greenkeeping team has worked hard to improve the soil profile of the greens and the way they play. "We have a mixture of greens. Some of them were just cut out of the ground seventy years ago and are very clayey. The others were built from the ground up with proper foundations thirty years ago. We have carried out a lot of deep aeration, added tonnes of sand and built drains into the ones which were mown out. I feel we have now got to a point where they are all pretty much even."
The Watermation irrigation system is now thirty years old and is starting to cause Vince a lot of headaches. "It is quite delicate; so far this year we have fixed five water leaks! We recently replaced all the old sprinklers with Rainbird heads, which has made the system much more efficient and they are a lot easier to adjust. We have irrigation on most tees and all greens, but nothing on the fairways."
"We collect our water from the old mine shaft at the top of the course in the engine house. The water is then extracted via a pump into a big tank, which came from one of the clay pits around here. It holds about two hours' worth of water and takes three to four hours to fill up."
As well as adding extra drainage in the greens, Vince has carried out a lot of drainage work throughout the course. "Since I have been here, we have completely drained the tenth as that had no drainage in it and was absolutely shocking. I started stripping the turf off one morning, and I deliberately stripped off more than I could possibly do to force their hand a bit to get me a mini digger and the right stuff. I dug a circle drain around the green and then linked up every six feet. It's absolutely transformed it. We have installed drains down the side of the seventh fairway and dug drains in a lot of localised areas."
Whilst on my trip down in Cornwall, a recurring conversation centred around climate change. Vince was no different, and he too has noticed the changes in weather patterns. "I think climate change is occurring. When I was younger, summer was in summer! Now, down here, it can be baking hot any time from April onwards. Seasons are coming earlier and they are definitely wetter. We have had some of the wettest winters in memory. The last two winters were absolutely shocking, with the course closing because of rain almost every day. But we have done what we can to work with the changing weather patterns and to try and keep the course open as much as possible. If the golfers cannot play golf, they do not rejoin, and we do not get paid. We have also experienced a lot higher winds which have taken out a lot of the fir trees. Over the years, they have steadily been blown down one by one to the point that what is left are skeletons; they look awful. I have been saying for a while now we just need to get rid of what is remaining, so this year we took them out and removed the roots. Hopefully, this will give us a little bit less chainsaw work over the winter."
Vince talks me through the weekly maintenance programme around the course. "Throughout the summer, we cut the greens at 3.5mm. As a greenkeeper, you want to keep a bit of protection on them, but when people start to say they are slow, especially leading up to golf week, we will drop them down to 3mm."
"We mainly cut the greens with the Toro Greensmaster Triflex in the main playing season as there are only four of us. Then, from mid-October through to March, we will cut with the hand mowers at a height of 5-6mm. Every two weeks, we will switch between verti-cutting and grooming depending on how they look, how they are responding, weather conditions and how our water system is."
"For aeration, we have our own SISIS roller/tiner that goes out on tees, greens and temporaries every two weeks in summer with needle tines. In winter, we use a thicker tine. At the beginning and the end of the season, we bring in a contractor to verti-drain. I would love to have more options when it comes to aeration, but we are not a big money club.
You see all the guys on the forums with their Toro Procore 648 and I would love to have one but, unfortunately, we will only see it on a demo knowing we are very unlikely to get one. So, we just have to do our best with what we have available."
"We aim to apply between fifty and sixty tonnes of topdressing a year. By the end of July, we had already managed to get twenty-nine tonnes down. I have just had another twenty-nine tonnes delivered which we will aim to get down over the next few months."
In renovation week and at the end of the season, Vince will overseed the greens with bents and fescues, but he tells me he has tried something new on one or two of the problem greens. "We generally overseed with five bags of Limagrain MM10 grass seed, which is a mixture of Fescues and Browntop Bent, at the beginning of August and again with three bags mid to end of March. Two of our lower greens - four and six - have really been struggling, so Dave suggested overseeding with a Dwarf Ryegrass mix. I always say I do not want to go near Ryegrass, but I thought I'd give it a go. Those two greens have now completely transformed and we now have fantastic coverage on there, so fair play. The only thing I was concerned about was could I cut down low enough, but we have cut them down to 3.5mm with no effort. It is definitely something we will continue to do."
Within Vince's programme, Dave Bevan has introduced Biomass sugar, as an alternative way of providing greens nutrition through carbon and sugars. He also introduced him to high seaweed feeds, along with a new wetting agent programme and the use of Humic and Fulvic acid.
Dave comments: "Historically, Vince chased colour, but I have changed his mind set of 'green is good' and we are now looking to improve root development and mass, whilst introducing a better environment for the finer bent grasses to thrive. This programme has contributed to less reliance on fungicides and we have reduced his applications by half in the first two years of working with him."
Five years ago, the club more or less replaced their whole fleet of equipment on a five-year hire purchase deal through Devon Garden Machinery. This included two Toro Greensmaster Triflex mowers - one for the tees and one for greens, a Toro Reelmaster Sidewinder and a zero-turn mower. "It was great to have all the new machines, but five years is a long time in this job. The new Toro machines are excellent, but we have had them for six years and some things are now just breaking on a regular basis."
"Most of the servicing on the machines is undertaken by ourselves. I buy in a service kit and change the oil and filters myself. For any repairs we cannot fix ourselves, and for cylinder regrinds, we use a local guy who is very good."
Like China Fleet Golf Club and Looe Golf Club, which I also visited while in Devon and Cornwall, Vince has suffered with leatherjackets. "We've had a problem with leatherjackets for the last two years. It was a choice between nematode control or Syngenta's Acelepryn. I listened to Dave's advice on that and went with Acelepryn, but it is difficult to say what results we have had from the product at the moment. We still have a leatherjacket problem, but the rates that they let you apply this type of product are not amazing. I think it will be a case of seeing what happens when we apply again this year to see how well it has worked. The seagulls don't seem to be tearing up the greens as much as they were, so it must be having some effect."
When Vince first started working on the course, everything was manicured from greens to rough, but this has begun to change as he now appreciates the advantages of letting some areas grow up. "The Greens Chairman has a passion for heather and gorse and we've allowed many natural areas of the course to grow, attracting birds and wildlife. I mow the greens now and look out at the longer grass waving in the wind, and I think that looks really nice. I think it is all part of how things have been changing over the years. We have an area between the eighth tee and twelfth which we call the eco-rough, which we just let go, and it now has some wildflowers growing in there.
"Last year, we entered a tree planting programme and a large number of trees were donated by members, which were planted at the start of lockdown."
Vinced concluded: "I am lucky to work with such a great team who are all dedicated to the course and committed to achieve excellent standards. The Greens Committee have always supported everything we do, which is brilliant for both us and the course."
What's in the shed
Kubota RTV 900
Kubota tractors one with loader x 2
Toro Triflexes 3400 x 2
Toro Z mower
Toro fairway mower RM5500
Wessex rotary trail gangmower
Jacobsen hybrid handmowers x 2