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It's been a few years since Pitchcare first visited Long Ashton Golf Club, following their extensive greens rebuild programme. So, we went back to catch up with Course Manager, James Braithwaite, to discuss the club's latest project involving Bristol City Football Club and much more.
Course Manager, James Braithwaite
The golf course at Long Ashton started its life in 1893 as a nine-hole course. However, this was all to change by 1905 when a further addition of land provided the stepping stone to link the second nine holes. Set in 220 acres of mature wooded parkland and situated just ten minutes from Bristol's city centre, Long Ashton is one of the area's premier golf clubs and home of European Tour Pro, Chris Wood.
There are many changes and developments facing the club, including bunker renovations and a ten-year long-term plan, but the main issue lies on the twelfth hole. Currently, Bristol City Football Club are trying to get a category one status academy and have acquired land owned by Bristol Grammar School (situated at the top of the driving range), which then runs down the side of the twelfth. Because of how close the training pitch is to the twelfth fairway it has presented a health and safety risk, and James has been tasked with solving the problem.
"We did a survey to see how many golf balls were going over the boundary. In fairness, there weren't many, but even one is enough. So, in a bid to make it safe when their training academy is built, we raised the issue with Bristol City who were very supportive of everything we suggested. We wanted to avoid putting a net all the way down our boundary, as it would be an exceptionally high net. So, we had a look at a few different options and, with a small sub-committee involved, the decision was made to turn the twelfth from a straight hole to a dogleg. This involved shortening the hole slightly, turning the tee and turning the fairway into a dogleg shape. This means there will be a buffer zone at the shortest point of fifty-four metres from the centre of the fairway to the turning point, providing seventy-five metres of protection - giving us enough room to play the hole without balls going over into the football facility."
"Then, we will make the right-hand side an absolute no go zone by putting in bunkers and bringing the out of bounds right in. By planting gorse all the way up the far side behind the new bunkering, it will make it very visual; we have raised both tees so you can see the full length of the fairway and all the hazards that are in play and, hopefully, the golfers won't dream of taking on the corner. We have tried to make it as safe as we possibly can, and I would like to think the risk now will be extremely low."
All the changes on the twelfth have meant James has had to take out the thirteenth tee, which ironically, was put in when Bristol City built the first part of the academy on the other side when, in 2008, the club had to move the thirteenth hole. "We have had to take the back tee out to accommodate the fairway and also change the teeing surfaces. Two new tees have gone in and, to guard those, we have put in bunkers to the left-hand side of the fourteenth."
"Needless to say, it's quite a big project and our contractors MJ Abbott have worked brilliantly; we have a great working relationship and I can't fault their work.
We have carried out a few projects together and, when I see them in Harrogate, they call me 'the Long Ashton Chinese burn'. The running joke is how much I can get the price down."
Alongside all this work, James and his team are also continuing the ongoing bunker regeneration project. "We have completed twelve bunkers so far which involves reshaping, installing the Durabunker artificial face and putting down a rubber crumb liner all in-house. Completing the work is a slow process, but it has proven very cost-effective; it's costing us £2200 per bunker. We are probably saving about £18 a square metre on rubber crumb doing it in-house, including labour. I have had quotes from contractors anywhere between £22-30 a square metre, and it's pretty easy to do."
When it comes to the redevelopment of the course, it doesn't stop there … they are currently undergoing a ten-year plan for the whole of the course. "We have asked all members to come forward with their ideas and, along with ours, we will collate all of the information to devise a new short, medium and long-term plan."
I asked James what the club and its members will be looking at as a priority. "Continuing the changes and improvement of the bunkering will be high on the list, as we have been getting good feedback for the ones we have completed so far."
James didn't get into greenkeeping until he was in his twenties, starting his career working on the shop floor at BSA Foundry in Darlington where his dad was the manager. "I eventually worked my way up the ladder and moved to the region, so ended up travelling home every weekend to play cricket in the Derbyshire Central League, staying at my grandparent's house."
"In 1992, the foundry closed and I was looking for employment. Luckily, I wasn't out of work for long as a friend of mine, who owned a butchers, offered me some part-time work butchering and delivering. I would deliver to the Hall Garth Hotel just outside of Darlington and, at that time, it was starting to build a nine-hole golf course. I went down and spoke to John Forbes who owned it, I got an interview and asked if he would train me up as a greenkeeper … the rest, as they say, is history."
"My first task was golf course construction, literally from the ground up, including the addition of drainage and all the gravel carpets by hand; just two of us with a wheelbarrow and shovels moving around 120 tonnes per green. Next, we added the blinding layer, moving 70 tonnes of sharp sand with barrows, shovels and rakes. With depth gauges that we made ourselves, we got levels of 190 tonnes of material on nine greens. When it came time to put 240 tonnes of rootzone on a green it just became too much, so we hired a digger and driver and completed it that way."
"Whilst all this was going on, I was still working for my friend part-time and evenings/weekends at the hotel as a silver service waiter. The club sent me to do my NVQ Level 2 (on block release) at Askham Bryan College which was a two year course and, in that time, I was put forward for Toro Greenkeeper of the Year award which I was fortunate enough to win in 1995/96. I worked my way up to deputy head before eventually applying for the position of head greenkeeper, but they decided to bring a consultant in instead and I realised there was no further progression. Then, whilst holidaying near Bristol, my wife said it would be nice to live down here and, luckily, a job came up at Long Ashton."
That was twenty-three years ago, and James has gained many further qualifications along the way; NVQ Levels 2 & 3 in Sportsturf, Winter Turf Managers qualification (Umass), D32/33, L12 and G3, full first aider, Chainsaw CS30/31 & 36, PA1, PA2 and PA6, Abrasive Wheel, Pest Control, Basic H&S. As well as all this, James does a lot of public speaking and also worked part-time for a while as an assessor for Bridgewater College, which has now led to him lecturing for GCMA.
Left to right: Ray Holmes, Peter Baynton, John Bachelor, Simon Lang, Allan Smith, Matt Broughton and James Braithwaite
Helping James maintain the course day to day is John Bachelor - Deputy Course Manager (18 years' service); NVQ Levels 2 & 3, PA1, PA2 and PA6, Chainsaw CS 30/31, 360 digger licence, public speaking course. Allan Smith - First Assistant (14 years); NVQ levels 2 & 3, PA1, PA2 and PA6, Chainsaw CS30/31 and worked one Open Championship on the support team. Peter Baynton - Assistant Greenkeeper/part-time mechanic (30 years); NVQ Level 2 Sportsturf Maintenance, various Toro mechanic courses, machinery maintenance and grinding competent. Matt Broughton - Assistant Greenkeeper (2 months); NVQ Level 2 Sportsturf Maintenance, NVQ RHS level 2 and Chainsaw CS30/31. Simon Lang - Assistant Greenkeeper (2 months); no formal greenkeeping qualifications but over thirty years' experience in grounds and greenkeeping, PA1 and PA6, Chainsaw CS30/31. And, last but not least, Ray Holmes - Gardener/Handyman (7 years).
James varies his renovation methods on the greens, as the course has two different types of construction; the new ones which were built in 2014, and three that are built to the same spec as the ones James helped construct at Darlington. "We double hollow cored all the greens at the end of the season but, it was quite late in the year so I used 6mm micro cores. On the new greens, I only went to a depth of 35mm into the original turf layer, as the sand underneath is fine. On the older greens, I went full depth at 130mm and dressed them all with Mansfield kiln dried sand. This was brushed in with the Double A Sweep N Fill brush - and what a piece of kit that is! I would go as far to say, it is one of the best pieces of kit that has been invented since I started greenkeeping; it fills ninety-nine percent of the holes, compared to other methods. We then overseeded with DLF Pro Master 60 Green Shade seed mix, as we have seven greens that are in the shade and struggle at this time of year. We are predominantly meadow grass/bent, but this mix will add fescue and ten percent Sebrena 1, which is a rough stalked meadow grass; it spreads by stolons, gives good colour in the winter, it's shade tolerant and reasonably wear and disease tolerant. With this in mind, we have now lifted the Toro Triflex 3420 greens mowers to a height of cut of 4.5mm and will lower this in summer to 3mm. I would like to add that, with the great help of our members, we managed to get all this work done in two days."
Over James' years at the club, they have varied the ways in which they purchase or lease their machinery depending on the committee at the time. "In the past, we have had a rolling plan, in 2006 we went to a big fleet buy for five years and, in 2010 some of the stuff didn't need replacing. Then, we looked at doing another big fleet buy in
2015 but, with the greens plan coming along, it made sense to stretch the machines' life for another two years. So, in the next two years, this will mean we have around a £50,000 buffer per year to put towards the greens etc. A few pieces of machinery are on an operating lease, which I don't believe is the best way around it. When you go down this route you have to stick with it every five years and you don't get a buffer zone. I have to say, I'm blessed here when it comes to machinery as the club are very good to me; I have gradually managed to build a very good fleet over the years."
It's very apparent that James really enjoys working for the club; like all places, they have their ups and downs, but he is well respected. At times though, James feels it can be a very lonely place for a course manager. "In our industry, the respect just isn't there, nor is recognition of the profession and friends have left the industry because of this. I recently lost one member of staff purely because he felt we are just classed as grass cutters. I'm now trying to helpfight our corner. I also work for the Golf Club Managers Association (GCMA) lecturing to up and coming general managers. This involves educating people about basic greenkeeping communications and promoting what we do within the industry. I recently did two, two-hour talks on the basics of aeration, communication, frost policies and course policy documents. One thing I ask when I first address them is 'what they think a greenkeeper is' - and the majority will always say a grasscutter. Next, I go through at least eighteen daily tasks of a greenkeeper and, by the end of it, they have a completely different opinion of the job. This is my way of trying to put back into the industry and hopefully help raise our profile a little."
Following various re-designs, the famous partnership of Hawtrey and Taylor were commissioned in 1937 to advise and plan the course which, in the main, is still played today. However, it was not until 1957 that the Club eventually purchased the land, which in its earlier years had formed part of the Ashton Court estate. Further additions in 1966 included a 12-acre site, which is now regarded as one of the best practice facilities in this part of the country.
The Club has staged several major golf tournaments, notably The Martini International Tournament in 1966, won jointly by Peter Allis and Bill Large, and the Coca-Cola Young Professionals in 1972, won by Peter Oosterhuis. In the last decade, the English Boys' and British Ladies' tournaments have also taken place.
What's in the shed
Toro GM1000 hand mower x 2
Toro 3250-D greens mower with verti-cut units
Toro Triflex 3420 greens mower x 2
Toro Goundsmaster 3500 with sidewinder
Toro Reelmaster 3100 Sidewinder
Toro Goundsmaster 3280 out front rotary
Toro Groundsmaster 4500 semi- rough mower x 2
Toro Groundsmaster 3400
Tees mower x 2
Toro Reelmaster 5610-D 4WD fairway mower x 2
Toro Sandpro 3020 bunker rake
Toro Workman HDX-D truckster x 2
Toro Workman 4300-D trickster
Kawasaki Mule (range ball collector)
New Holland TN60 tractor
Iseki TH4335 (33HP) compact tractor
Massey Ferguson 1547 tractor with loader
Toro ProCore 648
Sisis Greens Slitter
Dakota TurfTender topdresser 410
Toro GreensPro greens iron
Bargam 400lt tractor-mounted sprayer
Double A Sweep N fill brush
Greentek Thatch-away units
Greentek Sarell Roller and Brush
Greentek Vibro Rollers
Wiedenmann leaf blower (Whisper Quiet)
Bear Cat Chipper (PTO driven)
Amazone Groundskeeper 180 Jumbo
Ryan 18" turf cutter
Titan 3.5T trailer
Tomlin 3T high lift trailer
Marstons tipping trailer
Fleming 4T trailer
STIHL MS390 chainsaw
STIHL HS86 hedgecutter
STIHL FS85 brushcutter
STIHL FS87 brushcutter
Lawnflite Pro 55HWS pedestrian rotary mower
Toro pedestrian mower x 2
EGO backpack blowers x 2
Toro hover mower
Cooper Peglar knapsack sprayer
Everris Accupro 2000 cyclone fertiliser spreader x 2