This week the European Tour returns to one of the UK’s great heathland courses, Walton Heath. The last time the tour stopped here, as the European Open, was in 1991 when Australian Mike Harwood beat Sandy Lyle by two shots. Prior to that Andrew Murray, Paul Way, Tom Kite and Bobby Wadkins were winners.
In 1981 the course staged maybe the greatest Ryder Cup team ever as a wealth of American major winners and Hall of Famers stuffed their European opponents. It was thought that Jim Furyk’s side might emulate them in Paris. Time, though, will be less kind to that team.
Otherwise it has held one Senior Open which, again, was won by another American as Russ Cochran prevailed in 2011.
More recently it has become the home to the European Tour’s US Open qualifying where a collection of hopefuls battle their way round the Old and New in search of one of the golden tickets – Michael Campbell is the most famous to emerge from this particular pack when, in the first year of sectional qualifying from Walton Heath, he went on to win the main event at Pinehurst No. 2.
This year Justin Rose and Sky Sports are your hosts on a composite course of mainly the Old along with two from the New.
The man in charge is Michael Mann who, via an apprenticeship at Prestwick, four years at Wentworth, West Hill and Farleigh Court, has been Walton Heath’s course manager for the past three years.
If anyone knows a thing or two about maintaining amazing heathland courses, it is Mann
This is what he told me…
“I love heathland courses and I always wanted to get back to them. We have a team of 22 and we manage it as 36 holes rather than two 18s. It is a more gentle start on the New, the start on the Old is tough with the first few holes into the wind but then you get something back with a couple of par 5s.
“We are 190 metres above sea level which a lot of people don’t know. The whole site is common land and we have pockets, including the clubhouse and practice ground, which are private land.
“The big weeks of the year are the US Open qualifying at the start of June, the Walton Heath Trophy (formerly the South of England Amateur) at the end of July and, this year, the British Masters.
“Because of our elevation the spring can be a bit late and we might not have much growth, this year it wasn’t too bad, but I quite like having that focus early season and getting on top of things. The build-up to the US Open qualifying but the spring maintenance in March isn’t anything too major, solid tining and micro coring, and after that we need to get the surfaces right for the end of May.
“Like any course in the UK, The Masters is the worst thing for a course as, if we get a late spring after a harsh winter, then the course won’t look too much like Augusta.
“There is always a compromise whenever we are holding an event. For the US Open it is just one day over 36 holes so we can push things to a point, if it’s a four-day event then it’s slightly different.
“In July for the Walton Heath Trophy the course looks really good, it has been dry this year and running. The course should play like that, we don’t have fairway irrigation and we try to keep the grass on the fairways. You don’t mind it browning off but you make sure you’re not losing grass cover. The rough is tough in July.
“We spend a lot of time on heather management, you should be able to find your ball but it should be tough to get out of. Where there is long grass for the US Open it can be quite penal but we then top it by seven or eight inches and cut and collect it so you can find your balls.
“We have done a lot of work last two years, we will take it down to an inch and a half which takes away a lot of organic matter and make it more fertile for the following year. Year on year it is getting thinner so that takes time. You will always get comments about members being frustrated about the rough but it is improving.
“A heathland habitat is a man-made thing. People assume Walton Heath is all sand but it is heavy clay and flint. A high proportion of the flint is gravel which is good for golf courses. Heather will colonise itself where nothing else grow. It doesn’t require much water and grass will blow in and start to out-compete the heath and saplings start to grow. Then you have the beginnings of an oak forest.
“Heathlands have historically been managed through grazing, going back centuries, and courses like here have trees coming up and it’s only in the last 15 years where we’ve taken it back to heather and the big trees have been removed.
“Heather has got a 30-year life cycle so it starts really juvenile and fleshy and that’s how you want to keep it. We trim it once a year. If heather becomes degenerate and leggy and woody even cutting it at five to eight inches it gets woody underneath and you get a hedgerow effect with it being woody underneath so you can’t find your ball.
“So we cut it all back to the ground and scrape the ground where all the seed has dropped down over the years. Heather management is really satisfying, some areas were bare ground and now tiny heather plants are coming through which is great.
“The weather is the biggest challenge to holding a tournament at this time of year but the last two Octobers the conditions have been nice and the temperatures in the teens. People think you are in the depths of winter in October but you’re not. So dry is ideal. The rough won’t be long and the long grass and heather will be the same length.
“For the members we will try to have the greens at around 10 feet which is a nice pace for here. The USGA specify 10.5 which is fine. It was quite windy the night before the US Open and we were at 11 so we scaled it back a bit.
It will be 10.5-11 this week and we’ll double cut them. In the lead up we’ll double mow in the morning and afternoon and get the rollers on it as well. If we were double cutting in the morning and single cutting in the afternoon and getting 11 feet every day then we might miss the evening cut and do a single cut in the morning. I always prefer rolling personally and would drop the cut rather than the roll as the roll gives you smoothness and that is more important than pace.”