Hamptworth Golf & Country Club markets itself as 'The New Forest's Hidden Gem', and any visiting golfer stumbling upon it would find that a claim hard to argue against. Hamptworth sits within the New Forest boundary, midway between Salisbury and Southampton, on the border of Wiltshire and Hampshire, but not 'in' the New Forest, where Verderers control ancient commoners rights and New Forest ponies are free to roam. That is defined by the area within the cattle grids, and the nearest of those is just a couple of miles down the road.
I have come to meet Head Greenkeeper, Tim Facer, to find out how managing a golf club in a national park affects his work. At reception, I am met by his wife, Janet, who is clubhouse manager and, judging by the other tasks she undertakes during my visit - making coffee, serving behind the bar etc. - is obviously pivotal to the smooth running of the friendly, contemporary clubhouse.
Janet explains that her hubby is out on the course at the moment and introduces me to the club's director/owner, Mark Lawrence, who welcomed me and took time for an introductory chat.
Mark is an agricultural engineer by profession, but now runs his own modular building company; two facts that are important to the running of the club in occasional manpower and machinery.
Hamptworth was designed, built and, for a short while, owned by golf course constructor, Brian D Pierson, in the mid 1990s, before ownership was transferred to two directors of Parker Pens, in 1997, who wanted something to do when the company was sold to Gillette.
"I became involved in the club during that period," explains Mark "and the owner in 2003. At that time, membership was only 250 due, in the main, to the course being exceptionally wet throughout the winter months. "That was something we immediately had to address. I had seen the affects of a gravel bander at another course, so one of the members, Bob Eccles, offered to buy one, and we set to work. It helped, but further work was still required, as Tim will no doubt explain."
My first visit to the club was way back in the winter of 2000 and, whilst the course occupies a stunningly beautiful and undulating 300 acres, I can concur that, at that time, standing water was definitely an issue. But, as I sit in the clubhouse looking across the 9th and 18th double green, the attractions of this course are clear to see.
Tim Facer joins the conversation. "What's he been telling you?" he asks. "Don't believe a word of it!" It is clear that Mark and Tim share a good working relationship, and the two of them talk enthusiastically about 'their' course.
Mark goes on to explain that the course is surrounded by SSSIs, all areas of woodland, that are under the control of Natural England (formerly English Nature). Two further 'fingers' of SSSI woodland encroach on the course. In all, 130 acres of the 300 acre site are under their authority. All trees on the site have preservation orders.
At one time, the SSSIs were all fenced off, creating, as Tim says "an unnatural barrier around the course." With the assistance of the organisation's David Burton, Mark and Tim were able to persuade them that the course and the woodlands would look far more natural if these were removed. "David's help and advice has been very helpful," says Tim. "Sadly, for us, he has now moved up to the higher echelons of the organisation, so we don't see him much now."
Tim is, though, fortunate to have the assistance and advice of Andrew Poole, a retired Forestry Commission officer and club member who, at the time of my visit, was planting a beech hedge at the entrance. "We wanted to plant a natural hedge," says Tim, "but New Forest planners wanted beech!"
"We also work with the STRI on ecological matters, but we haven't seen them for a couple of years, hopefully because we are doing things right!"
Tim Facer is a native of East Sussex and did much of his early training at Royal Eastbourne and Peacehaven Golf Clubs, before moving on to East Sussex National as Assistant Superintendent. With a structure change, he became one of three head greenkeepers looking after the two courses. After ten years at the National he joined Hamptworth as Head Greenkeeper fifteen years ago.
"When I came here, there was a team of eight greenkeepers and it was managed very much as a resort course, probably due to the influence of big business ownership. That was something I was used to at the National, but I felt it didn't suit the location and setting of Hamptworth so, over the years, we have returned it to look and feel more in keeping with its surroundings."
Over time, the greenkeeping staff has dwindled to just three; Tim and two assistants, Nick Fox and Mark's son, Matt, both twenty-eight years old and both trained up 'on the job' by Tim, although Nick has taken NVQ 1 and 2.
I ask how on earth they manage to present the course so well on such a skeleton staff.
Mark explains that, although the basic working hours are fairly standard - seven hours a day in winter, eight in spring and autumn and nine in summer, Matt and Nick work on a 'job and finish' basis. "By that I mean that, if they start a job, they finish it the same day. For that they get paid above the going recommended rate."
"And I'm here 24-7" interjects Tim light-heartedly. "Living on site can have it's drawbacks."
"I'm very much a hands-on head greenkeeper," says Tim. "I'd much rather be sat on a machine than in an office doing paperwork, and the situation here means that I work on the course full-time, catching up with paperwork when I have to. Of course, that does mean there's occasionally some last minute 'ordering' happening, but needs must."
"As the staffing levels have dwindled, so too has the level of machinery required. When I came here, much of the equipment was John Deere, which I had worked with at the National. It's perfectly good kit, don't get me wrong, but I wanted machinery that could carry out specific tasks. For example, I like to have 22" collars around my greens. That would usually mean mowing with a pedestrian cylinder, which is a fairly time-consuming exercise. So, we purchased a Jacobsen Greensking IV Plus triple mower, which is the only machine on the market that allows each cylinder to work independently. So, we can cut the approaches and then switch off two of the cylinders and mow around the perimeter of the green to create the collar - and then move on to the next in double quick time."
Tim has since replaced much of the mowing equipment with Jacobsen, sourced from TH White. "The only downside is their distance from the course, so we use New Forest Farm Machinery, who still maintain our John Deere Equipment, for grinding," explains Tim.
Day to day set up is the greenkeeper's responsibility, with any ongoing repairs carried out by one of Mark's engineers.
"We maintain the greens at 3mm in the summer, rising to 5mm in the winter. They are USGA spec, so can be fairly hungry. We give them a regular liquid feed and 4:6:4 Headland Sustane, supplemented with a seaweed and chelated iron mix. We'll hollow tine twice in the spring and in mid-october and topdress with a silicon sand."
Tees are maintained at 8mm throughout the year and fairways at 16mm. Tees are fed twice a year with Headland Xtend slow release fertiliser (22:2:8). Fertilisers are recommended by their Countrywide representative, David Smart. "He also carries out our soil samples for us, and makes his recommendations based on the results. But, I don't always listen to him," says Tim, "as I like to use my experience and my eyes."
Semi-rough is kept at 2" (50mm) and clippings from greens and tees are spread here to add nutrient and green up the grass. Intermediate rough is cut to 4" (100mm).
"The rough was a problem area for us," says Tim. "It was very thick and players were losing balls, slowing down their rounds to a point where it became a frustration for everyone. So, now, a local farmer comes in September and cuts the rough for hay, then bales it and removes from site. This is helping to thin the grass and encourage fescue grasses and native wild flowers to grow. We have also sown a wildflower mix to add to the diversity of species."
Mark's eighty year old father, Bill, an ex-farm manager, also helps out with the rough areas, when he is not enjoying the pleasures of the croquet lawns!
There are twenty-three bunkers on the course, and they have been the subject of extensive renovations over the past couple of winters. "We have enlarged some and added a couple of new ones - you must think I'm mad to add to our daily workload with such a small team - and we've also carried out extensive drainage work using the polybed system."
"This is a fairly new system consisting of a standard drainage pipe surrounded by expanded polythene packaging type material, all encased in mesh," explains Tim. "It simply links to the existing drainage outlets. It comes in three metre lengths, so is easy to handle. What I particularly like about it is how easy it is to install. Simply dig a trench and back fill with sand - no grit required. Now, all the bunkers drain freely and, with the addition of a new Jacobsen Groom Master II bunker rake, the maintenance times have been significantly reduced. There is method in my madness."
One bunker, on the third, was particularly wet and, rather than renovating it, Tim decided to turn it into a pond. "It was trying to become a pond on its own, anyway," says Tim. "So we dug it out, expecting the native clay to hold water. But, that didn't work as it was a gritty clay. We've now lined it with blue clay, and that hasn't worked either! So, one of Mark's digger drivers is going to come in and dig down four metres to the really heavy clay, and we'll line it with that. If that fails, we'll have twenty-four bunkers!"
The bunkers need to be raked daily, due to damage by deer. "We have four species on the course - sika, roe, fallow and muntjac - and they all seem attracted to the bunkers. The muntjac are especially damaging to the trees as well, eating the bark close to the ground."
I ask if the rabbits cause much damage? "We don't have any rabbits," says Tim. I am surprised by that reply. What, none? "I put it down to the amount of buzzards we have around the course." says Tim. "It is not unusual to find as many as a five on one fairway, some mornings." And the foxes too, I suggest. "We don't have any foxes either, although I did see one trot across a fairway a few days ago." Maybe badgers? "No, none of those either. There used to be a set, but that now appears to be dormant."
The numerous streams that wind their way across the course are home to kingfishers, sand martins and water voles. "Natural England do not allow any work to be carried out on the streams," explains Tim, "as all three species are temperamental about their habitat. The only time we get involved is if a bank collapses and needs clearing out."
The battle with drainage appears to be working, but is still ongoing. "There are areas of the course where I still want to channel more water off. So, this winter, using our own digger, we have dug more trenches that should do the trick and, in some places, will also act as further hazards for the golfers. Although they look a bit 'hard' in the landscape at the moment, they'll be allowed to overgrow naturally." A fact borne out by older trenches that now look a natural part of the course.
Other winter work has been the extension of the buggy paths around the course. Neither the paths or ditches take the shortest route. "I like curves," says Tim. "They look more aesthetically pleasing."
The spoils from the trenches and buggy paths are being used to create competition tees on the 5th and 9th, and give some additional definition to the fairway on the 15th.
Tim is also overseeing a major project behind the car park where, as well as the existing two tarmacadam tennis courts and four croquet lawns, the driving range is being modified, a fifth croquet lawn is being added and a short game practice area constructed.
As we drive to take a look at the work being undertaken, we pass a newly built two-bay net. "That's another of my winter jobs," says Tim. "The seniors requested it, so I built it out of some old telephone poles. It's well used and has been a worthwhile little project."
The short game area, which will consist of three undulating greens with bunkers, is being formed by golf course constructor, Ian Stevens, who has returned to the UK after ten years in Ireland where, amongst others, he worked on the K Club.
The fifth croquet lawn is being added as new members are being attracted. Both golf croquet and association croquet are played, and all lawns are open all year round to allow members to play in the winter. This year, the club will host an international match between England and the USA.
Maintenance of the croquet lawns is undertaken by Mike Phillips, a retired dentist, who is a member, and has now become one of the groundstaff!
With membership now well over five hundred, and play possible throughout the year, without the need for temporary tees or greens, the improvements Mark, Tim and the team have made to the course in the last decade, are certainly reaping dividends.
As we return to the clubhouse I ask Tim why, with such a small team, he is adding further to his workload, but I think I know the gist of his answer.
"This is very much a family club. My three children were born here and it's such a great environment for them to be brought up in. I've got everything I need here apart from, perhaps, one additional member of staff."
What's in the shed?
Jacobsen LF3800 4WD 5 gang
Jacobsen HR4600 4WD semi-
Jacobsen AR3 triple mower
Jacobsen G-Plex III x 3
Jacobsen Greensking IV Plus
Jacobsen Greensking IV (very old)
Votex Compact Blower
Sheltons Gravel Band Drainer
John Deere 4410 compact tractor
John Deere 2250 tractor with front loader
John Deere Aercore 1000
John Deere Compact Soil Roller
John Deere Compact Rotovator
John Deere 220a pedestrian
cylinder mowers x 3
John Deere 4610 with loader
Marston High Tipping Trailer
Turfco Widespin 1530 Topdresser
Lloyds Paladin cylinder mower
Hayter rotary mower
RL 1502 leaf picker
RL 102 fairway slitter
Votex RML 151 compact rough cutter
Marston small compact trailer
Marston large trailer
Sitrex compact rough cutter
Stihl FS 450 strimmers x 2
Kawasaki KBH48A strimmers x 2
Suzuki M120 X Flymos x 2
Flymo XL500 petrol hover mower
Stihl HS 81R hedgecutter
Stihl BR 600 back pack blower
Stihl HT 75 pole pruner
Stihl MS230 chainsaw
Mitsubishi TL33 bunker edger