I confess to not being much of a fan of links golf. Many appear to have a harsh and barren feel that does not attract my eye. Also, at my handicap level, I like to have points of reference to be able to gauge distance, and this leads me to a preference for parkland courses - I'm also not a fan of range finders, but that's another story!
So, it was with a little trepidation that I headed to the links of West Cornwall Golf Club, the county's oldest course, to meet Course Manager, Keith Kemp. I needn't have worried, for here is a course that fits the eye perfectly, and a man that fits the course equally well.
Peter Britton reports
There are two things that immediately strike visitors to West Cornwall Golf Club - Lelant Church which, rather comfortingly, looks out over a number of the holes, and the simply stunning views across St. Ives Bay, taking in the towns of St Ives and Hayle, Porth Kidney Sands and Godrevy Lighthouse. Further observations show a course beautifully set up - even after the torrential rain and high winds of late April - and how 'soft' it looks for a links. This is possibly due to the fact that it is squeezed in to just 120 acres and, by modern standards, is a fairly short 5,900 yards par 69 layout.
The course is the oldest in Cornwall, having been founded in 1889 by the Rev. R. V. Tyacke, as a relaxation from writing sermons for his congregation, no doubt.
Its most famous son is Jim Barnes who became the inaugural winner of the USPGA Championship in 1916. He won it again when it was next held in 1919, and then went on to win the US Open in 1921 and The Open in 1925.
At its lowest level, the course is just a few feet above the high water mark, overlooking the RSPB reserve on Hayle Estuary. At its highest, it is 300 feet above sea level.
The course is criss-crossed by public pathways leading to the beaches, and it is not uncommon to see anglers and holidaymakers interacting with the golfers.
Visitors to St Ives who take the 'Park & Ride' train from Lelant Saltings station are able to see the course looking inland, whilst also enjoying spectacular views out to sea. The Victorian railway, sadly running modern electric trains - it would have been wonderful to see steam trains, although the fire risk would have been substantial - separates the course from the sea; the area between the railway and the beach is an SSSI which, whilst owned by the golf club is not managed by them.
Tending the links is Keith Kemp, a native of Hayle. He first joined the team in 1991 as an apprentice, taking NVQ levels 1 and 2 at Cannington College, Bridgwater, and level 3 at the Duchy College in Callington. Keith also makes reference to Billy Mitchell, the Head Greenkeeper at Perranporth Golf Club, and Billy's brother, Jon who, between them, have imparted so much knowledge about tending links golf courses to youngsters coming into the profession. According to Keith, where links greenkeeping is concerned, Billy is a bit of a legend, both in Cornwall and beyond.
In 1994, somewhat frustrated by the maintenance regimes then in place, Keith moved to Truro Golf Club to help look after the city's parkland course, but the lure of his home town and, more especially, links golf, saw him return in 2000.
"I knew that I would have to curb my frustrations on my return, but I also knew that the position of head greenkeeper would eventually become available, and I wanted to be considered for the position," says Keith.
This 'means to an end' is the first clue that Keith gives to his undying passion for his birthplace.
"I had to wait seven years before finally being promoted to the position, with the former head becoming my deputy for a year before he retired," explains Keith, "and my title is now Course Manager."
So, just what was the cause of his frustrations? "The previous head greenkeeper used to cut the greens down to 3mm and throw all sorts of chemicals at the course, many of them agricultural. I could see the native grasses struggling to stay healthy, whilst the damage these practices were doing to the local ecology was enormous."
"For example, we used to have breeding pairs of skylarks, but they disappeared over twelve years ago. What was going on lower down the food chain was anyone's guess! Non-native grasses were prevalent, too."
"The truth is, he was being directed by the then committee rather than the other way round. You know what it's like when you get near to retirement, you are just waiting for the day. So, he went along with them for an easy life, which I could understand, to a degree. The truth is, he had lost his love for the course."
"But, as the condition of the course started to deteriorate further, some of the members started complaining, to a point where it became a 'them and us' scenario."
"So, in 2006, the decision was taken to bring in independent agronomist, David Rhodes, to shake things up. Anyone that knows David will know that he is a straight talking northerner, and I'll be honest and say that, at first, I found him somewhat, shall we say, 'abrasive'."
"He began his review of the club's working methods with the greenkeepers, and found that our record keeping was poor, far too many chemicals were being used, excessive amounts of water were being put on and disease was rife. My hackles were up, but David took me to one side and said 'you don't like me, do you?' So, we sat down over a cup of coffee to clear the air and, to be honest, I went home that evening and thought, 'well, everything he says is correct, so what am I complaining about? Didn't I want change?' Of course, the answer was yes, very much so. Once I had got my head round what he was trying to achieve, I was with him all the way."
"Next, he tackled the committee, with comments like; 'what the hell do you think you are doing?' and 'why employ professionals if you won't let them do their job?' It was a difficult time for all concerned but, collectively, we all saw that what David was saying was simply just being brutally honest."
"David and I drew up a plan of action; a return to the Jim Arthur methods was called for. At about the same time, the STRI were introducing their Sustainable Golf programme, and we used this as a back up to explain our new maintenance regimes to the new board of directors that had replaced the committee."
"I immediately dispensed with the chemical inputs and concentrated on a more organic approach, starting with aeration, aeration and more aeration, raising the heights of cut, brushing and boxing off grass clippings from all mown areas. We now make our own compost from the clippings, and the waste from the kitchen is also collected and added to the mix. I'm also hopeful that we will be given permission to harvest seaweed from the beach in the not too distant future as well."
"Within a couple of years, the benefits could be seen by all. Now our greens are returning to fescue - seventy percent in most cases - and outbreaks of disease have been reduced."
Keith has a staff of three. His deputy is Nick Olds, who has been at the club for eight years. He is also the mechanic, performing all the day to day maintenance tasks required. Steven Elliott has forty years service and Luke Jefferys is on his second stint at the club, this time for four years. All are qualified to level 2. And then there is Wilson, the Collie x Weimaraner, who accompanies Keith everywhere.
The team are compliant with Health & Safety regulations and first aid, and are offered level 3, although Keith accepts that some might not want to take their careers any further.
"The team have taken to the new maintenance regimes very well," says Keith, and I sense that his frustrations had also been shared by them.
Working hours are 7.00am to 3.30pm in the summer and 8.00am to 4.00pm in the winter months. Holiday entitlement is twenty-eight days, including bank holidays. Weekend work is shared on a rota system, but Keith admits that he is often out on the course outside working hours, either with Wilson or his four-year-old son, Jack, who loves the surroundings.
Much of the equipment is John Deere, which is purchased from local JD dealer, Mason King, who are based in the middle of the county at Winners Perch. "I'm a fan of everything Deere," confesses Keith. "Their machines are very reliable and user friendly. If we've ever needed spare parts, they are always with us next day. Great service. We also use DGM in Torquay for other equipment that is outside Mason King's remit."
"Greens are kept at 5mm during the summer, and between 6-6.5mm in the winter. Clippings are collected, so we always have the tractor/trailer combo close at hand. The greens are now weeded by hand."
"Tees are cut at 12mm all year round and fairways at 14mm in the summer and around 16-17mm in the winter. We apply a Headland Relay 46:0:0 weed and feed once a year; a far cry from the previous methods employed! Tees will also be given a dose of Headland Multigreen 25:5:15 as required."
As well as returning the course to a proper links, the team have busied themselves with various projects. New pot bunkers have been installed on various holes and, with the 1st tee having to be moved forward to accommodate new housing across the road from the club, a new putting green has been built, along with decorative planting at the entrance. Even the relatively small picnic area outside the clubhouse is maintained to a high standard.
Yet, perhaps one of the most striking visual improvements are banks of wild flowers, planted from a seed mix that Keith has been trialing for one of the major suppliers. In the height of summer these look absolutely stunning and, as well as attracting all manner of insects, add a splash of colour around the clubhouse and machinery shed.
Behind the clubhouse, Keith has built a new practice area with integral pot bunker. Its construction is slightly unusual in that the face is made from 3G turf to reduce maintenance. "All the golfers want to do is practice getting the ball up and out," says Keith. "To date, we have had no adverse comments, and the members seem delighted with this new addition."
Beyond the chipping area is a turf nursery that Keith maintains with native grasses and, beyond that, the composting area.
Up to this point, our discussions have taken place over coffee in the tastefully restored 1920s clubhouse, but Keith is keen to take me out on the course to get the full-on experience of its location and to highlight some areas of interest.
Once I am shoe-horned into the Gator, we head off past the church to the lowest part of the course where holes 5, 6 and 7 are located. These are the only holes on the other side of the railway and offer stunning views across the estuary and bird reserve. At this point, I cringe at the thought of the cultural practices that were previously being carried out, and the unseen damage that was being caused to this ecologically sensitive area.
As we head back to the main part of the course, we pass a new junior tee in the process of being constructed. Keith explains that some of the juniors were unable to reach the fairway from the existing front tee, so they had put in the new one to rectify that problem.
A little further on, we come to what can only be described as the rusting metal skeleton of a once huge building. It sits just outside the boundary of the course. I am surprised to learn that there is a preservation order on it. "During World War II, the building was a bomb factory," explains Keith. "Trains would come right up to the building to be loaded, and then head off to the military bases at Plymouth. It was all part of a cunning plan to stop the Germans finding it. The old railway line has gone, but there is still evidence of it, including a section that has been made into a bunker. This particular area of the estuary is known as Dynamite Quay, for obvious reasons."
Does Keith consider it an eyesore? "No, not at all. It's part of the area's rich history. You'll see, across the bay, that there is a lot of building work going on as part of a wave energy project being financed by the ING Group. That will only enhance the area and our views."
As we head off towards the coastal part of the course, a fisherman wanders by on his way home, and the two-carriage train click-clacks its way back from St Ives. If it all sounds a tad idyllic, it's because it is.
Keith then takes me to the highest, and his favourite, part of the course, driving across typically undulating links fairways. From this vantage point, the harbour and beaches of St Ives can clearly be seen and, in the other direction, a huge sweep of sandy beaches and the town of Hayle. It is also clear to see just how tight the course is in places.
As we take a scenic route back to the clubhouse, we pass the turf nursery and compost area. Keith also points out the log piles he has introduced to encourage invertebrates and other wildlife back to the course.
Keith is enthusiastic about the future. "I am very privileged to be working on my home town golf course. I feel as though I am retaining and maintaining part of the town's heritage. Do you know," he says, "we have even seen skylarks back on the course this spring. Hopefully, they will breed. Now, that would be a huge vote of confidence for what we are doing."
Back at the clubhouse, I am introduced to Gareth Evans, the club's General Manager. He is equally enthusiastic about what is now being achieved out on the course. "Bringing in David Rhodes was a sensible thing to do," he says. "We have five hundred members here, and the last thing we needed to do was to change the working regimes and affect their confidence. Hearing about the prescribed work from a highly respected consultant meant that Keith could get on with the work unhindered. On his last visit, David said to me 'you don't need me anymore, Keith is doing a fine job'."
What's in the shed?
John Deere 8700 fairway mower
John Deere 2500E greens mower
John Deere 2500B tees mower
Baroness triple rough mower
Lastec Articulator rough mower
John Deere pedestrian mower
Ford 3910 tractor
John Deere Gator
Amtec fertiliser spreader
John Deere Aercore 800
Charterhouse 7316 Verti-drain
Ransomes turf lifter
Wessex fairway sweeper
Various Thatchaway units