What has harsh weather and short-staffed greenkeeping teams meant for our courses? And what needs to be done in the race to get them ready for reopening? We asked one greenkeeper to reveal all

The wait for golf reopening is nearly over and the race is now on for our greenkeeping teams to get courses ready for March 29.

What challenges are they facing as that date approaches and what impact has the wet winter had on their ability to get out to tend the tees, fairways and greens?

Tony Hunter is course manager at Silverstone, in Buckinghamshire. He broke down how tough the weather had been this year and what it means for the season ahead…

What are you able to do on the course at the moment?

We’re trying to claw back some of the time we’re owed as I haven’t had a day off since I got back from holiday in March last year. We’re brushing the greens, having a look around and then heading off because, with it being so wet, there isn’t much we can do and we aren’t going to get our holidays in otherwise. 

We had lots we wanted to do this winter that we haven’t been able to because of the inclement weather. When we were locked down for a month in November we managed to get the digger in and do drainage work for some bunkers. That was digging right across the front of the greens, so lockdown was ideal. But there were three of us then and we’re now down to two, so there’s only so much two people can do. Even trimming trees takes a long time because you’ve got to cut it down, clear it up and take it away. You realise that one extra person makes such a big difference.

We normally have a team of four and one helper in the summer. There’s been two of us since the beginning of January and only three of us since the beginning of October so we’ve struggled a little bit.

What general maintenance have you been able to do?

It’s too wet and the fairways haven’t been cut since the beginning of December.

We managed to get the greens cut one dry weekend in January when we risked it and took the greens mower out, followed by a mule with a tow rope just in case it got stuck!

We got them cut and put some lawn sand down and it hasn’t stopped raining since. The greens aren’t that long, but they’re quite fluffy and there’s nothing we can do about it.

If golf was to return tomorrow, how long would it take to get those greens playable?

We might be able to get out and cut, but we’ve raised the height of cut up to 7mm anyway. They’re probably sitting at 11mm now and if we were to cut them straight down to 5mm they’d die. The trouble is we can’t get a machine around the course, because it’s too wet. The course is sat on clay, so when it rains the water goes nowhere. Last year we tried to go out with hand mowers, but they would sink as well, it’s so wet out there.

The way the weather has been, it’s been quite a relief that there are no golfers around as I don’t think we’d have coped with just two of us. I actually closed the course a week before lockdown because it looked like Twickenham around the tees and was causing real damage.

How did you cope with the golf boom last summer?

When golf reopened in May we were able to get one member of the team back from furlough straight away and the other a month later. Because the weather was good we were able to keep on top of everything. It was so busy that I was cutting everything with the fairway machine and a Trimax Snake because it was quick and easy.

We can’t disturb anyone with noise around here so we started at 4.30am in the summer to give us enough time to get out and do the work. But once it got to 10 o’clock the golf course was rammed and that was it really. We could do machinery maintenance and bits around the clubhouse, but that was about it because we simply couldn’t find a gap on the golf course to get anything done.

The first few weeks, the golfers didn’t care what the course was like, they were just happy to be out. But it didn’t take long the comments soon began. You just think, give us a break, two weeks ago you were happy just to be out and now you’re getting back into your old ways.

By the end of the summer was the golf course starting to show some wear and tear because of that?

From 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the evening, very rarely did we have a spare tee time. We actually had people walking on at 6am but we had to stop them because otherwise there would have been no time to do anything. The club also wanted to do two-tee starts, but again that would have stopped us doing any work.

Golf was mad during the summer and I think much of that was rugby and football players who had nothing else to do, so they decided they’d give golf a go. They perhaps caused a little more damage than your regular golfer would have.

Our irrigation system is unreliable so I watered a lot at night. The pump broke and it took me so long to fix it that I’d rather be here in case there are any problems. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I left the pumps on automatic.

When we were locked down in November, the first thing we did was get a good heavy dressing down on the greens because we knew they weren’t going to be played on. We covered them and left them while we did other work because there was a lot of rain around that washed them in. It was convenient for us because it’s so busy here that we hardly get any time to put topdressing on the greens.

How are you preparing for what stands to be another busy year on the course?

I spoke to the committee about that and they asked whether we can do any maintenance now. We can’t because we can’t take a tractor across the course to start coring or spiking or whatever we want to do because of the mess it would make. There’s a lot we want to do that we can’t and that is frustrating.

You just know that as soon as golf is allowed the weather will change and we’ll start ‘digging up the greens’ as the golfers call it, putting holes everywhere and covering the greens in sand. We’re warning our members that will happen and we can’t not do maintenance just because they’ve come back after being away for a few months.

Are you a greenkeeper? How have you coped through lockdown and will you be ready in time for March 29? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.

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