Along the M4 corridor, midway between Swindon and Reading, lies West Hertfordshire Golf Club. Its new Head Greenkeeper is Paul Brett, one of BIGGA's latest Master Greenkeepers. Phil Helmn MG went to meet him as he settled in to his new role
The West Berkshire course is set atop the Berkshire Downs, away from life's hustle and bustle just three miles from the village of Woodlands St Mary close to junction 14 of the M4.
It was established in 1975 and designed by a then relatively unknown architect Robin Stagg. Its peaceful location offers the players a relaxing round of golf amongst tree-lined fairways, and many areas of the course provide stunning views of the surrounding countryside. It's fair to say the West Berkshire offers a good challenge for all standards of player thanks to a choice of tee positions, ranging from 18 Holes 7008 yards (par 73) Blue course, 6738 yards White, 6275 yards Yellow to 5784 yards (Par 74) Red course. Following the original design, the course has benefitted from further systematic upgrades, the most recent coming in the 1990s with the introduction of USGA rootzone style greens.
The club boasts two large practice areas, a practice bunker area and an extensive putting green. The current irrigation system, although requiring upgrades, furnishes greens, tees and some fairways which tend to dry out in the summer. The course is a tough test of golf with a slightly uphill par-5 as a starter. Thereafter, you take on a run of par-4s, followed by a truly monstrous par-5 at the fifth measuring 626 yards from tee to pin. According to golf statisticians, it is one of the longest holes in England! Overall, there is plenty to challenge and excite golfers irrespective of handicap or experience.
I recently met up with newly minted 87th Master Greenkeeper Paul Brett (I'm reliably informed by other MGs the number is important), following his move from The Springs Golf Club where he enjoyed a twenty-five-year tenure. Paul is, quite rightly, immensely proud of his time at The Springs; during which he and his team amassed many notable achievements, apart from being one of the youngest head greenkeepers in the country at the tender age of 20 - I thought I was young at 26 when I got my first big break!
Paul listed the following accomplishments from his time at Springs:
• The river Thames was predicted to flood 1 in 100 years, but often engulfed the 14th & 15th holes. As a team, we planned in two extra holes clear of the floodplain which were constructed the following year keeping the course 18 holes whatever the weather
• We replaced our entire irrigation system in-house
• During a three-year period, where the club was up for sale, I took on the role of general manager, meaning I worked on the course, behind the bar and in the Pro shop
• All bunkers were redesigned in a naturalised style, two lakeside greens were extended, the 2nd hole was completely rebuilt, lakes were also edged with oak sleeper and a short game area was added
• I managed to add in water harvesting for the complete clubhouse redevelopment, as a result now all the car parks and roof space are harvested and pumped up to a holding tank and used to irrigate the golf course
• We also installed a new washdown area, designed by Dr Tom Young from the STRI, and a sewage treatment plant
• Amanda Dorans, Sustainability Coordinator Gleneagles, made her first visit to the Springs and, with her help, the course achieved GEO certified status and, in the same year, we were finalists in the golf environment awards
"I often thought of attempting the Master Greenkeeper process," confessed Paul. "However, due to being dyslexic and shy, I chose to avoid it. Whilst giving advice to both of my sons in preparation for university, and the challenges they faced being shy themselves, it made me look at myself and I decided it was time to practice what I preached. I really enjoyed all stages of the process and feel so proud to have my name on a list with so many great guys."
Achieving Master Greenkeeper status is no easy feat, but Paul explained he was able to complete the qualification due to his concentrated efforts over the years at his previous club, whilst he and his team were building a sound golf course infrastructure. This helped him to get everything ready and in place for the gruelling certification process.
"The qualification was tough, but I enjoyed the challenge and feel immensely proud of the achievement," continues Paul. At this point I had to ask "why the move then Paul, just when you had everything perfectly set up the way you wanted it?"
"Easy," was the reply, "I wanted a fresh challenge where I could put all my knowledge and experience into practice all over again. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to shape another location alongside achieving the best possible playing surfaces. I expect to make it a great place to work and develop with sustainability built into every decision and, from day one, the club will be signed up to Oncourse to help with the process."
The West Berkshire Golf Course will benefit from Paul's skills, and I asked if there was a plan, even though he had only been in position just two short weeks?
"I have some initial ideas," eluded Paul. "I'm very keen to begin on building behind the scenes with the staff, welfare facilities and machinery. However, I quickly realised that there was a need to update golf course documentation to cover health and safety, risk assessments or any standard operating procedures, so I have had to quickly begin to rectify this immediately."
Paul confirmed there was still some way to go on this, but he had managed to rectify some initial shortfalls quickly.
The West Berkshire Team left to right: Courteney Eatwell, Joe Simpson, Andy Mansell and Paul Brett
Paul explained that within his current team, Courteney Eatwell and Luke Makepeace will both be enrolled on their N.V.Q. level two qualifications this year and a recruitment drive to find another member of the team will be necessary to fulfil the workload which will be required.
Paul also recognised that there was a need to improve machinery, so has sourced local mechanic J.J. Bark to assist him in servicing the fleet. Whilst talking about the existing machinery, it was evident that there would need to be an extensive replacement programme, albeit an ex-demo fleet to begin with until something newer could be acquired.
"Once I feel comfortable that I have these items 'turned around' I can begin to address the issues I have identified out on the golf course," Paul explained. "Like most golf courses of this age, the greens (although constructed with USGA style rootzone) have become rich in thatch with reduced drainage capabilities. As a result, it's no surprise that the predominant grass species is therefore poa annua and so an extensive maintenance programme will be introduced. I plan to begin topdressing with straight sand - hopefully approximately 100T per year (little and often) - combined with an extensive aeration plan and an overseeding programme of bent/fescue, together with a programme of cultural thatch removal."
"There is no easy or quick remedy," Paul reiterated, "but, if I can start quickly, I can begin to improve putting surfaces, hopefully this season."
Many of the teeing surfaces are struggling from shade and wear, so Paul has planned a rotation of turf stripping, levelling and returfing of each area. "I've been using the Sun Seeker app." explained Paul. "It's been extremely useful to understand the path of the sun and how much light is actually hitting my surfaces. As a result, it's helped me priorities which tees require attention first."
Although the golf course can boast dry conditions for most of the year, Paul has identified some key playing areas which will require support in the form of primary and secondary drainage schemes.
"As we all can identify," Paul explained, "our winters seem to be getting wetter and wetter, so additional drainage is a must if we want to keep the golf course open as much as possible."
Whilst talking with Paul it was obvious that ecology and sustainability are especially important to him. Paul explained that it is very much a mission of his to be able to achieve a Golf Environment Organisation award for his new club and, to that end, every decision he and his team make will have that outcome as a core value.
All that remains for me to say is congratulations Paul on his Master Greenkeeper status. It was an absolute pleasure to meet him and I and the team at Pitchcare wish him and The West Berkshire Golf Club every success on their exciting journey.