Winter work at Woodhall Spa
By Peter Wisbey
The Hotchkin course was developed in the early 1900's, so there is a fair bit of history attached to these eighteen holes. It is a heathland course and is rated as one of the best inland courses of its type in the country, presently second behind the old course at Sunningdale.
The course is particularly renowned for its cavernous bunkers some of which are nearly two metres deep. The Hotchkin family owned the course until 1995, when it was then purchased by the English Golf Union along with enough land to build a training academy and another eighteen holes.
The new course is so different it may as well be in another county. The new holes were constructed on very heavy clay-based parkland. The two first tees for the two courses are only a hundred yards apart but their playing and aesthetic qualities are poles apart.
When the new course was constructed, there was an extensive drainage system installed and we continue to the present day to complement the existing network with gravel bands etc. Having said that we rarely have to close the course or take trolleys off, and we aim to keep it open all year round.
As the autumn draws to a close we are starting to look at the winter work that has been planned.
There are three major jobs planned, the most important is the refurbishment of the bunkers on the Hotchkin course. These bunkers are deep, as I've said and the underlying soil is very free draining, we find that in summer the turfed faces of the bunkers have a tendency to burn up. Our job is to re-face these bunkers using stacked turf. To give the bunkers the instant stability and a decent life span we will revett about a dozen to fifteen rows of turf as a foundation and then carry our final shaping over the top.
We have our own six acre turf nursery that we maintain ourselves, so all the turf will be taken from there as it has been locally matured.
The courses are set in mature woodland, so each winter we undertake a lot of tree management in the form of dead wooding, pollarding and coppicing.
The other major job is the management of gorse on the Hotchkin course, over the years the gorse has got a little bit out of control, and is perhaps too woody and aged in places. We are undertaking a staged process of pruning back so that we don't just immediately lose that thick mature cover from the whole course. As the undergrowth cover is deep we will be layering the gorse over the next few years to allow new growth to set in before pruning the gorse behind. We are a SSSI course and are therefore working very closely with English Nature in that respect.
We have a team of eighteen to manage the whole site. Our staff includes one and a half mechanics (the half spends the rest of his time working on the course!) The full time mechanic or workshop manager maintains our equipment to a high standard. We also employ two additional turf students in the summer.
As we do everything in house, I have two of my staff trained to look after the inner workings of our two irrigation systems. We have a full Toro system on our greens and tees. As yet we do not have irrigation to the fairways, and it is something that we may have to address in relation to the Hotchkin course in the future. We haven't really had a very hot summer since the middle nineties and the course has managed to withstand any periods of drought quite well since then.
We obviously manage the course maintenance to help improve our chances of survival in dry conditions by following a rigid and regular aeration program.
One of our biggest problems though would be the logistics of upgrading our system for fairway irrigation.
On the Hotchkin course we have a reservoir that currently holds about one and a half million gallons, which is not nearly big enough, but we have eight acres of land earmarked to extend this.
It is impossible these days to obtain a license for a borehole so we are reliant on the lake being naturally filled winter abstraction.
The cost of a project to extend the lake may be not that expensive as we have sufficient land, but as we are in a very rural location the real cost would probably be the need to install an electricity sub station to cope with the extra demands for pumping.
Currently the grass is still growing into October, and we have seen little incidence of disease so far, possibly because the weather has remained quite dry. Last winter we had the biggest outbreak of fusarium that I have encountered in over forty years of Green keeping. The main problem was that it scarred much of the course at a period in the year where there was little or no recovery and we had to live with the blemishes until growth started again. It was very sobering and unpleasant, the conversations that I had at the time with agronomists was that people like myself who have tried to wean the plant off fungicides were the worst hit.
However I am a minimalist and I haven't changed my views on this subject. It is something that we will all have to get used to as the new legislation removes many of the traditional products from use. To that end I try to use only low amounts of nitrogen to avoid the plant from becoming too lush and rarely use chemicals.
I am keen on the use of organics, and to that end we have been making our own top dressings for some years from composted on-site materials. We compost and turn our grass clippings, cores, leaf mould even kitchen waste into the end product, ready to mix with sand for our dressings.
I would summarise myself as a traditionalist embracing the best of modern technology to provide good courses that can be played year round without resorting to mats and temporary greens. We host a lot of amateur tournaments, EGU events and county championships here, so our management of the course has to revolve around continual play. Our last major tournament this year is on the 20th October, which is the Boys Team Championships, so the lads will have to have their lights on when they go out that day to prepare the course. They won't go out until about six-thirty though, because I don't like them to work too long in the dark. Health and safety has to prevail.