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The cliff tops overlooking the English Channel is where Lee Williams met with Paul Newcombe, East Devon Golf Club's long-serving Head Greenkeeper, whose original dream was to be a professional golfer. However, he is proud to hold East Devon's course record with a sixty-four, which he achieved at the age of sixteen.
Set in the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, on the clifftop on the western edge of Budleigh Salterton, East Devon Golf Club is a heathland golf course measuring 6,344 yards and rising to 450 feet at its highest point. It is renowned for its fast greens and spectacular views across Devon and Lyme Bay, from Haytor on Dartmoor to Portland Bill in Dorset.
Paul left school in 1979, playing off a two handicap and fully intending to be a professional golfer. "At this time, my father told me I had to get a job and I was lucky enough to get a summer position here working as a greenkeeper, which I loved. I then moved to St. Pierre in Chepstow, but still with a view of turning pro. I had a good colleague, who was involved in Whitbread at the time, and he got me a job up there, but I didn't feel comfortable a long way from home and got pretty homesick."
"I came back down to Devon where I got a job as a greenkeeper at Exeter Golf and Country Club within three days of being back. I spent a happy seven years there working my way up to the first assistant role."
Whilst working as a greenkeeper, Paul didn't give up on his golf. He was now playing off scratch, playing county golf and the odd big national event. "I was very much a part-time golfer, but I was getting some good results," he comments.
Head Greenkeeper Paul Newcombe
In 1987, Paul was approached, out of the blue, by the President of Downes Crediton Golf Club. "He rang me and asked if I would like to be Head Greenkeeper. I accepted the offer and spent three very happy years there. Then, in 1990, the opportunity arose for me to apply for the position of Head Greenkeeper here at East Devon. After going through the interview process, I was lucky enough to get the job, and I have been here for nearly thirty years; and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I do sometimes wonder if I could have become a pro, but I had no backing. That's why my father said, 'you have to find a job son'. I love what I do, greenkeeping is a fantastic job, and I have no regrets. I see myself as a working head greenkeeper; I love being hands-on and getting involved with the team. That's why I still call myself a head greenkeeper and not a course manager. I'm a greenkeeper more than a manager; that's what I do best."
Paul has attended many educational courses and achieved various qualifications to broaden his knowledge over the years.
"In the early days, I took a lot of IOG courses, long before City & Guilds qualifications were available, which I have also done. I continue to this day - management, first aid, chainsaws, and obviously spraying tickets - so I have continued to learn. The most recent course was to improve my chainsaw tickets because of the projects we have going on; and I lost two of my staff who were trained up."
A few people have inspired Paul in his career, especially in the early days, but the one that stands out is Jim Arthur who wrote many articles and books, including Practical Greenkeeping which was published by the R&A in 1997. During his long career, Jim Arthur was an advisor to more than 550 golf clubs in Britain and Europe. He had a reputation for plain-speaking, and his consistent theme was that the traditional methods are the simplest and most effective, both in terms of condition and cost.
"Firstly, I have to mention Geoff Mills at Exeter who was absolutely brilliant, and he is still a good friend now, and I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him."
"Secondly, Jim Arthur, of all people, was a very good friend of mine. Where my parents lived in Budleigh, which is a stone's throw from the course, the girl who wrote up all of Jim's notes when he was doing his agronomy lived opposite my parents. So, when I came back to Budleigh, I asked her if she would have a word with Jim for me as he had a fallen out with my club; as he did with several clubs back in the day. He originally came back and said he didn't want to be involved but, a month later, I received a call from him. He'd had a change of heart and said he would love to walk the course with me and have a chat. We did this many times over the years and, even though he was retired, he gave up his time for me.
We became good friends; he was a top bloke and I owe a lot to him. We didn't agree on everything. He always felt I was cutting the greens to low; he was very much a Fescue man and I was a golfer; I wanted reasonable pace. Geoff and Jim have been a great inspiration to me."
The club has started an exciting long-term project to bring the course back to what it once was; a true heathland course. This has been backed by the Director of Golf, Steve Morton, who has worked hard to up the budgets for the heather restoration project and has helped push it along in the last four years. Paul explains: "Originally, it was a Harry Colt design, and James Braid has been involved a little bit too, but it's still very much a Harry Colt course. It was formed in 1902 and, if you look back at the old pictures, you can see it was a pure heathland course. In recent times, we have involved Frank Pont, a Dutch course architect who is a Harry Colt specialist. He has helped to point us in the right direction. Tree expert John Nicholson, who has worked at 600 clubs around the country, has provided us with a tree survey. We have also had an ecology survey carried out with the backing of Clinton Devon Estates who are our landlords. We have utilised the RSPB who have brought in heather brushings for us, which have been planted on top of areas we have already cleared."
I asked Paul how long he thought the project would go on for and if the members were onboard with the changes? "It will be carrying on long after I have retired; we need to get the course back to where it once was and take it into the next hundred years. There's a lot of work to be done; we are pushing forward with it, and it's going well."
Whilst on this topic, Helen Chivers, the club's Head of Marketing, joined us and told me her thoughts as she is also a firm believer in the project. "Change is difficult, and people remember what they see now. Paul's been here for years and he is well aware that a lot of the gorse you see now wasn't here in the seventies and eighties. We have had some people saying that it's been there forever, and then we show them pictures from thirty years ago and there is no gorse at all. The initial shock when you take out a lot of gorse which has been there for fifteen years or more is one of disappointment, but then they see the trees that we have uncovered, and they see the topography and views they haven't seen for years, perhaps never! Then, almost universally, they say 'this is amazing, why did we not do this earlier?'."
I suggested to Helen this will only be good for the future of the course and will be a great marketing tool to attract even more golfers in the years to come. "Yes, that's true," she exclaims. "It also helps make Paul's and his team's job much easier once we get it in a state where they can use machines to trim it, which we will invest in when the time arrives. I would also like to point out that lowland heathland is in decline across the whole of the UK and there are only two heathland courses in the whole of Devon. We are not prepared to lose one of the unique qualities we have, alongside being on top of a cliff overlooking the coast and being a Harry Colt golf course. Our uniqueness comes from having that heather and the pine trees and, if we were to lose that, we just become another parkland course on top of a cliff. Heather is in decline, and we need to ensure that we keep these different ecologies and biodiversity. That's all part of it; it's exciting."
Paul remembers starting a similar project back in the nineties, after they were given the same advice, so began to clear areas. But they then started to get a lot of grief from the membership and the pressure to stop was overwhelming and the areas just went back to gorse. "We are now fortunate enough to have a great team of people behind us who are all singing off the same hymn sheet. So, as we are doing the work and clearing new areas, we are also spraying off the gorse that has grown back in the past, killing it off. This is allowing the heather to come back naturally, as well as planting new brushes we have been provided from the RSPB. We are really pushing to get back to as pure heathland as we can. We know we are going to have some gorse, but the plan is to stop the scrub trees coming up."
Helen explains: "The board wants this to happen, we want the course to be here in another hundred years. So, we are backing Paul and the team to do it. We have a plan and a vision of how it should look and, alongside the experts, I'm sure they will deliver the end result. As Paul said, we have tried before and it lost momentum, you need that long-term assurance and backing that it's going to carry on."
Paul adds, "I joined in 1975, and the gorse was very young, and it looked lovely when it was in flower, so I can understand that the golfers weren't too happy at the beginning. But, thirty years down the line, it is straggly, past its sell-by date and it's turned into bracken. It then gets fertile; the trees grow up through it, and you start losing your heathland and, as we have been told, the heathland was turning into parkland. We decided it was time we did something about it."
In 2011, another big project was carried out to protect the club's future and its identity. The sea is slowly eroding the coastline, so the club had to act. "The idea was to keep the course as close to what it has been for the last hundred years for the next hundred years. So, what we did was bring the sixteenth hole in, we moved the thirteenth sideways, and we swapped the seventeenth tee over to the other side of the sixteenth green. That has now taken everything away from the cliff and we feel we now have another hundred years of the golf course without change, and we have kept it as close to what it was before. The idea was not to improve the course, but to keep its integrity, as the thirteenth was already a nice hole and would have been difficult to improve on."
Finally, I asked Paul how far away from going into the sea, was it? "The coastal heritage path which was there in 2010 is now on the beach, and the old seventeenth tee is only fifteen paces away from the edge of the cliff now! So, yes, it was very close."
Golf has been played in Budleigh Salterton since 1894, with the original Budleigh Salterton Golf Club being a nine-hole course situated on the east bank of the River Otter. Although benefitting from similarly commanding views to those of the current course, there were problems with the location, notably, the lack of a full 18 holes and difficult access.
East Devon Golf Club as we know it today opened on 31 March 1902 on a moorland course laid out by Captain Robert Tosswill. The current course largely created in the 1920s by one of the most significant course architects of all time, Harry S. Colt. The famous James Braid added to the Colt design during his time as course advisor in the 1930s, his main legacy being the current 8th hole and 18th green and surrounding bunkers.
During its 120 year history, East Devon Golf Club has played host to Royalty, HRH The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) played the course in 1921; famous sporting names, including Australian cricketers Sir Donald Bradman, Richie Benaud, Greg and Ian Chappell; celebrities and golfing greats such as Peter Alliss, who considered the view from the 16th tee to be "one of the best views in golf".
More recently, the club has become an England Golf championship venue, hosting the 2012 Ladies County Finals, the 2017 English Club Championship and the 2018 English Girls' Open Championship.