‘People don’t see the struggle we have’: How clubs are surviving the toughest winter yet

Golf has been permitted in Scotland but that hasn't always been the blessing you might think. We sat down with one course manager to get a side of the story we don't often see

When Scott Davidson sat down at home with a cup of coffee after another long weekend at work, he picked up his phone as many of us do and turned to social media.

The course manager at Cathcart Castle in Glasgow, Scott’s course, like others across Scotland, remained open to golfers throughout January and February. Heading out to his car that day, he’d been asked some questions about the condition the course was in and so he decided to use Cathcart Castle green staff’s Twitter account to explain what has – or rather hasn’t, due to the weather – been taking place out on the course.

The Twitter thread he wrote was polite, it explained the situation and it was constructive. It also struck a chord with the wider industry and was liked and retweeted a number of times as greenkeepers saw their own situations reflected in Scott’s words.

“Most folk that know me know I like a laugh and a joke but I’m really dedicated and I love greenkeeping,” Scott, who started his career at Hazelhead in Aberdeen, explains. “I’d thought, you know what, I’m just going to put something out so folk can maybe understand our thought processes on the course and how we do the set up. I didn’t mean it to take off and my managing secretary text me later saying, ‘What have you tweeted?’”

winter golf

For the team at Cathcart Castle, the winter has been long, wet and cold and they have utilised the flexible furlough scheme to protect the financial status of the club, with the greenkeepers working on average half their usual contracted hours.

That’s an improvement on the first lockdown in spring 2020, when Scott found himself maintaining the course alone out of a regular team of six, assisted only by the managing secretary.

Staff returned as golf started up again in May, but by the end of summer the course was showing the consequences of its busiest summer season ever. High numbers continued throughout winter and the number of rounds played over the past 12 months is up 65% on the previous year, despite two metres of rain falling in 2020 and 147mm in January while already passing this amount in February.

If anyone was uncertain as to whether the 2020 golf boom will continue into 2021, the experience at Cathcart Castle gives a decent indication. Even though the course only has 12 holes open – sometimes fewer – the tee sheets are still rammed.

“In general terms, if it was wet or snowing you’d normally have half a dozen cars in the car park,” Scott says. “Today the tee sheet is full and we’re seeing guys walking off the course in the pitch black. I think with everyone being stuck indoors, working from home and with no social life, they are just needing to get out a bit and are just happy to play in anything. It’ll be pouring with rain and you’ll see the car park is still full.

“It means we’re going out there at 6.30 in the morning in the pitch black, trying to make a course decision, so it’s tough. Two weeks ago I maybe made the wrong call as we thought it was fine but there were a couple of holes that had actually frozen over and no sunlight got to them. We only realised a few hours later when we were standing on them and it was a bit ropey.”

You can’t win a fight against the weather and even though golfers are keen to play, there are still health and safety and long-term considerations to be taken. The third hole at Cathcart Castle has a 40m change in elevation, making it great for sledging but no good for driving a greens mower up the slope.

winter golf

“We’re just trying as much as possible to restrict machinery on the course,” Scott explains. “We’re doing things on foot or using paths but there are times when one of us forgets about the conditions and we go into an area and make a bit of a mess, but we’ll go back and repair it as best we can.

“It’s tough times and the 22nd of December was the last time we did any serious work on the greens. In a normal year we would have many major projects on like relevelling tees and doing drainage work but we’ve had to cut back on several projects this year.

“We started sand capping approaches and creating paths, but we’ve now held that back. We have to look after the finances until we have a clearer picture of how the season will pan out. There’ll be a knock-on effect on the business and that’s what I was trying to highlight, how everyone is being a bit more cautious at the moment.

“We’ve done a complete lounge renovation in the clubhouse last year and we put in a Trackman simulator room that’s not being used. When you go into the clubhouse and you don’t see members or house staff you realise how unusual a time it is. Sometimes there’s me, the secretary and the pro and that’s it. We’ll sit apart in the lounge and have a coffee together and look to the future in these uncertain times.

“There’ll be lots of golfers outside, but they sometimes don’t see the struggles we’ve got. They think we’re deciding the rules that they can’t get into their lockers or use the changing facilities or even that we’re behind the decision to make it two balls only. That’s what I’d like people to remember, that we could be locked down like England and Wales. We’re fortunate to be able to play some golf, but even it if it’s only an hour playing seven holes, an hour of golf is better than no golf.

With no visitors playing the course, it means that the members may be a bit more understanding about the conditions they faced earlier in the year and the lengths the staff went to, to enable golf to be played.

“It’s going to be quite interesting come April and May this year because in general terms we will normally be a month or two behind the south of England in growth terms and playing conditions. Our focus is to have winter projects complete and the course starting to be prepared from March onwards for the start of the competition season.

“Last year, with the restrictions we had and the guys being furloughed, bunkers weren’t looked after as well as they would normally be. There was a lot of work needed and when our managing secretary and I discussed this coming season we realised we may still be operating under continued restrictions and we shouldn’t be putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves. It may take all of this year, but let’s keep on doing what we can and slowly get things back to normality.”

“I’m 32 now, but if you’d asked me five years ago when I took over the job, I would have been panicking. I would have been a bit stressed out, but that’s all part of growing up. I know my abilities and the abilities of my team.

“I know the backing and support I’ve got from the golf club and we all work as one, so we may get to March and April and still have one hand tied behind our back, but we will always try to produce the best surfaces going for the conditions we have been given. There’ll be more hurdles thrown at us over the next couple of months, but we’ll deal with them and we’ll be fine.”

  • Scott Davidson picture courtesy of Germinal
  • Karl Hansell is the editor of Greenkeeper International magazine

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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