Looking at how greenkeepers have dealt with the pandemic, we talk to Woolley Park about operating in lockdown and what comes next
There are family businesses – but what they are doing at Woolley Park might be taking the practice to extremes.
“It’s me, my mum, and my dad,” explains John Rowbottom of what essential greens maintenance looks like at the West Yorkshire course during coronavirus.
A team of five would usually be running mowers over this 27-hole complex but coronavirus meant shutdown and furlough.
Keeping the Wakefield course in shape has now become an exercise in bloodlines.
“My mum was the original greenkeeper 25 years ago. She was the first to cut greens when we first opened. Dad has been a farmer, and was also one of the greenkeepers in the early stages.
“I suppose we’ve gone back to truly being a family business.”
This was supposed to be a year of celebration for the Rowbottom family. It’s 25 years since they, like so many other farmers in the early 1990s, took a piece of their land and sculpted into a course and club.
The birthday cake is on hold. The aim right now is simply to maintain a course they can open as soon as possible when government finally gives the green light.
But what does that look like? In a mist of social media images of perfect stripes and sunscapes, what will the reality be for golfers who fill up the tee times when opening day finally arrives in the near future?
We asked Rowbottom to break the course up into sections – tees, fairways, greens, bunkers – to give you a hint of what to expect when you turn up in your club’s car park…
Tees and fairways
We’ve spent 25 years reinvesting everything we have back into the golf course. At the end of last year, I bought two brand new Toro 6700 7-headed fairway mowers.
I might not have purchased them, if I knew what we do now, but I set both to 15mm cutting heights and that has allowed me to maintain all tees, fairways and surrounds with two mowers. It’s truly maximising my efficiencies.
Normally, we’d usually run to around 10 to 12mm for tees depending on the conditions. They’re a bit longer now but that will withstand us taking them down in one hit.
We will be able to get straight back in there and, by the end of the week, we will be down to proper tees height. I’m mowing everything once a week.
This is the bit that stumps everyone. We’ve gone from cutting greens every day, based on growing conditions, to now me cutting them once a week. I went in last Sunday to do some checks and they just look like part of the surrounds at the moment.
I’m keeping them at 5mm and they seem happy enough taking that cut without doing any damage.
As soon as we get back a full strength squad, and we’re playing again, we will bring that height of cut down incrementally and work our way down to 4¼.
We’ll probably put a couple of cuts in there to bring things down gently and use our rollers to maintain speeds.
The playing surfaces are not going to be there (straight away). I finished greens maintenance the day before lockdown started. I hollow cored greens and left them.
I didn’t get to top dress and I still have the odd core open now because I’m only mowing them once a week.
The surface isn’t going to be spot on, initially, and golfers are going to have to bear with us. Most people I know are still at their winter height cuts, making sure they are not stressing the grass out. We’ll all be bringing them down little by little.
The hand work hasn’t been done. My week is spent purely on machinery and keeping the main part of the golf course as tidy as I can.
We are renowned at Woolley Park for pretty generous fairways. My biggest change has been trying to juggle essential maintenance with a lockdown family as I’ve got two kids at home.
Semi-rough, for example, would normally have been a two-day job for one of our guys to maintain all that.
I’ve cut it to a day’s work. That means there’s quite a large lump of what was semi-rough that has now grown into rough.
The course has become narrow in places. The first time golfers hit a ball I think they might be a bit daunted off the tee. Some of these fairways are going to look really narrow.
They don’t look that bad. They’ve grown a few weeds here and there and the rabbits have had a good scrape in them. A morning putting them straight isn’t going to be too much work.
“These are going to be very strange times,” concludes Rowbottom of the impact of the pandemic and the uncertainty about what is yet to come.
“It’s not golf as we left it. From a business and greenkeeping point of view, it’s different and it’s scary what we are going to have to put in place to allow people to play.
“I’m hoping I can get all my guys back in. As and when we get the go ahead for the to golf club open, is it going to be ‘we’re switching on the lights tomorrow and golf is open? Will we get a week’s preparation where I can get the guys in and get some work down while it is quiet?”