Macclesfield Golf Club is situated in picturesque landscape on the edge of the Peak District National Park. On a clear day, views stretch across five counties. The course is not long, but it is a great test, with some interesting and beautiful golf holes. On a very wet winter's day, Lee Williams met up with thirty-four-year-old Head Greenkeeper Phil Worth, who joined the club two years ago and admitted 2020 was one of the most challenging years he has had in greenkeeping.
Phil's first career choice was to become a designer so, after leaving school, he went on to do a course in Sports Equipment Design at Salford University. In the summer breaks, he would work as a seasonal greenkeeper to get him away from the desk and to help pay for tuition fees. He enjoyed his time on the golf course so much that he decided to do a u-turn and pursue a greenkeeping career.
"I first started off at New Mills Golf Club in Derbyshire in 2007 as an apprentice greenkeeper and did my NVQ Level Two there. It's fair to say it wasn't the most affluent of golf courses, but it certainly taught me a number of valuable lessons such as operating sustainably on a minimal budget and the importance of teamwork to achieve the highest possible standards."
"After two years, I had the ambition to move my career forward and work at a more prestigious venue that offered far superior resources and investment. In 2011, I joined The Mere Golf and Country Club as an Assistant Greenkeeper which was a world away from New Mills; a resort-style venue with all the latest Toro machinery, bigger budgets and a better chance of gaining the experience I was looking for. During my time there I achieved a lot, with the main highlights being preparation of the course to Championship standard for 'The Open Regional Qualifier', being accepted as part of the BIGGA support team to work at the PGA Championship at Wentworth, starting my Foundation Degree in Sportsturf and, most significantly, gaining a promotion into the role of Greenkeeping Supervisor."
Being a young man in his twenties, and having no real family ties, Phil decided to send his CV to lots of courses on the other side of the world. He got a job offer a month later and took a leap of faith and went to work in New Zealand and Australia. "I got a seasonal greenkeeper position at Jacks Point in Queenstown, New Zealand. I was only planning to be out there for six months, but that escalated to two years as I enjoyed it so much. I also worked for Royal Sydney Golf Club and New South Wales Golf Club, which was number three in Australia at the time. I gained a lot of experience about warm-season grasses, revetting bunkers and a variety of overseas management techniques."
I asked Phil what led him to come back over to sunny England? "I had achieved what I wanted to out there; I had my fun and, in between jobs, I went travelling. When I got back to the UK that winter, I worked at Royal Lytham Golf Club for the Walker Cup then managed to get a job as First Assistant at Tytherington Golf Club in Macclesfield, where I worked for six months, before moving to Prestbury Golf Club in a similar role. Whilst at Prestbury, I completed my Foundation Degree and learned a lot from the club's Course Manager, Mark Crossley."
"After a short time, I heard that Mark Hillaby, who was Head Greenkeeper here at the time, was moving on and I fancied a pop at applying for the position as I felt it was my time to step up into a managerial role, having gained a lot of experience in the industry. I came for my first interview, got through to the second interview, where I had to give a big presentation, and I am grateful I got the role. I have enjoyed it so far, but 2020 was a freak year and one of the most challenging years I have ever had in greenkeeping, but I have loved the responsibility in challenging times. I'm very fortunate to have a fantastic team here who assist me in presenting a golf course that we can be proud of."
Left to right: Tom Silcock, Ross Giles, Phil Worth and Chris Moores
Helping Phil maintain the course to his high standards is thirty-eight year old, Chris Moores, Deputy Course Manager/Mechanic, six years served and has an NVQ Level 3 in Sports Turf plus spraying certificates; twenty years old, Tom Silcock, Assistant Greenkeeper, four years served, NVQ Level Two in Sports Turf plus spraying certificates; twenty-six year old, Ross Giles, Assistant Greenkeeper, three months served, NVQ Level 2 in Sports turf and PA1.
Phil describes the site as being a parkland course in nature although the top of the course consisting of eleven holes also have characteristics that depict a heathland environment with gorse, pockets of heather and finer grasses. The bottom seven holes are more of a typical parkland environment consisting of heavy clay-based soils and mature trees.
Construction of the greens is varied around the course, as Phil explains. "We have a few older greens which are soil push-ups, some are sand-based with drainage, and we have a USGA spec green at the bottom. This gives us three different profiles to work with, so we try and micro-manage the best we can, adjusting fertiliser inputs, techniques and products accordingly."
The club's Toro irrigation system is getting dated and, ideally, Phil would love to have the budget available to replace it. But, for now, it is a matter of make do and mend. "The system is still fully functional, and we have pop-ups on the greens and two tees. We will fix any leaks and replace sprinkler heads if and when needed."
The course is situated on a hill at the edge of the peak district; this comes with its advantages and disadvantages. "We can get some pretty adverse weather conditions; high winds, spells of heavy rain and cold temperatures, but the plus side of being on a hill helps the top of the course drain very well, whereas the bottom course at the foot of the hill stays a lot wetter. In winter, we tend to use a twelve hole course, which helps protect the wetter holes and the golfers seem to enjoy playing that in the worst months weather-wise as it provides a fair test of golf."
Phil talks me through his maintenance on the greens throughout the season. "Cutting heights vary depending on conditions, but we tend to cut at a height between 3.25mm and 4mm in the summer using a Baroness LM315GC ride-on greens mower. We will cut at around 6mm using the Toro GM 1000 hand mowers, twice a week in winter depending on conditions. I would love to hand mow all year round as they have a lighter footprint and brush attachments which is great for presentation and quality of cut but, with the amount of growth in summer and limited staff, it's not possible unfortunately. Every month, during the main season, we aim to give the greens a light verti-cut going a few millimetres into the surface to encourage lateral growth and discourage seed heads. If the budget allows during the season, we will hire in a Vredo disc seeder and overseed using Johnsons J All Bent seed mixture."
"Our aeration programme on the greens includes using the Toro ProCore 648 every couple of weeks during the growing season using 10mm tines at a depth of four inches. Two or three times a year, we will verti-drain, varying the width and depth of tines. To keep the greens opened up during the winter, I like to use the slitter."
""We topdress as much as we can depending on the weather and the budget available. Last year, due to the demands of a busy golfing calender and adverse weather conditions, we only managed to get eighty tonnes on. In an ideal world, I would like to double that quantity, applying on a little and often basis. These quantities are essential for us to help reduce the organic matter levels in the top 25mm and improve the smoothness and trueness of the putting surfaces."
Phil hired in the Koro FTM from Campey Turf Care Systems to aggressively scarify the greens for renovation week. "We went down to 10mm, so there was a lot of organic matter that came out. It did a great job. We then applied forty tonnes of dressing using our Dakota Topdresser and brushed it in with the SISIS brush. Next year, I would like to hollow core the greens and go a bit deeper and try and get through that organic matter level."
Presentation of the course is key to Phil and his team and something they pride themselves on. "This is one of the things the members really appreciate during the main season. I pride myself on attention to detail and, given the characteristics of the site coupled with its unique topography, it has a lot to offer when presented in the right way. The team love this side of greenkeeping and do a fantastic job of producing an aesthetically pleasing course."
The ever-changing weather patterns we are experiencing have some detrimental effects on sporting venues, and greenkeepers and groundsmen have to adapt to this, and Phil is no different. "In recent years, rainfall figures for the area have vastly increased. Winter has been a mixed bag of very cold temperatures and snow, followed by periods of heavy rainfall - consequently leading to prolonged periods of saturated ground conditions and localised flooding. This is having a negative influence on the maintenance of turf surfaces, therefore accurate timing of maintenance practices is critical to ensure we hit the windows available to us. I'm finding now that May is more like our old summers. Then you get to June onwards and the heavens open, so we find we're more productive at the start of the season. It has changed a lot over the last five years, and we just have to adapt our methods to suit."
Phil likes to keep his fertiliser regime on the greens as simple as possible and believes, by looking at the surfaces, you can tell what requirements they need; he has a lot of variants to consider between the differing construction and soil types he has to work with. I believe, as turf managers, it's very easy to overcomplicate things and become overwhelmed by the amount of products available on the market, therefore we aim to adopt a measured approach in order to achieve desirable results. "Our sand based greens tend to be a little needy and often require additional inputs, whilst the soil-based greens generally perform well throughout the year - with the exception to a few problem areas, which we are looking to micro-manage and install a primary drainage system to improve their year round playability."
"I use a variety of fertiliser products, but I tend to kick off the season with ICL's Greenmaster Cold Start to get them going and aid winter recovery. Then, I begin a liquid feed programme with the Consolidate range which allows me great flexibility and consistency of plant growth instead of peaks and troughs. I have also recently been improving our moisture management techniques by using H2Pro DewSmart during the winter and FlowSmart, as a penetrant wetting agent, to pull the water through the profile. We also apply liquid iron and tank mix with Phosphites to control disease. In autumn, they will get a final granular application of Invigorator to help harden the turf going into winter."
The club's improvement programme was effected in 2020 with staff being furloughed on a rota basis and the heavy and prolonged rain at the end of the year has not helped. "Covid meant it was a strange year, so a lot of our projects were put on hold. Hopefully, this year, we have several projects to carry out - prioritising drainage work. On the seventeenth fairway we need to install a pipe drainage system, as it's one hole that's often waterlogged during the winter consequently affecting play - which is far from ideal when we are looking to promote eighteen holes throughout the year. We also have a few bunkers we need to renovate and tree work to be carried out, so fingers crossed for a better 2021."
The Baroness front line machinery is leased through GGM Groundscare, but the current deal runs out this year. Phil and the club are starting to look at putting a new replacement plan together, but it has not been an easy time financially for the club. "I hope to stick with Baroness products as we have really enjoyed using their cutting machinery. With the course being very undulating the Baroness mowers three-wheel drive system has been perfect for the site. Our local dealers and the service they provide has been excellent and they have helped us out a lot."
"My Deputy Head carries out our servicing and regrinds of the machinery; he is mainly self-taught, improving his knowledge as he goes along; he does a great job."
Phil tells me leatherjacket control has become a significant issue in recent years with an effective chemical not being available anymore. "Last year, a lot of the damage was caused to surfaces by leatherjackets, eating away at the roots of the plant and also crows pecking at the surface of the greens, affecting the quality of the turf. We have tried a few new products and techniques, but only time will tell if they have been successful. I believe it is a significant issue for the industry going forward. Not only that, we have problems with the control of wormcasts. It would be nice to get a bit more help from the associations and manufacturers as we advance because who knows where the future is going with it?"
The site's ecology is very important to Phil and the club, and they are always looking to improve. "We are aiming to increase the regeneration of pockets of heather and add wildflower areas to support the ecology and biodiversity of the site. We have installed bird boxes, and I'm considering getting a beekeeper to install hives around the course to promote a natural environment where wildlife can thrive. The club is always looking to develop its Environmental Policy to ensure that nature and golf can co-exist."
What's in the shed
New Holland Tractor Boomer 25
New Holland Tractor Boomer 35
New Holland TN60DA & MC40 Loader
Jacobsen G Plex Mower
Toro GM1000 Hand mowers x 3
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D x 2
Jacobsen GP400 Greens Mower
Toro Reelmaster 6500-D
Toro Groundsmaster 4300-D
Toro Groundsmaster 4500-D
Jacobsen Greensking V mower
Baroness LM2400 Fairway mower
Baroness LM315GC Greensmower
Toro ProCore 648