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The secrets of looking after a golf course during a major

Nairn Dunbar course manager Richard Johnstone is a volunteer greenkeeper at the PGA Championship. He reveals what major standards mean to Steve Carroll
 

2.45am. It takes a special type of character to be happy when the alarm goes off this early.

But you suspect Richard Johnstone leaps out of bed. He probably dived under the covers kitted out in PGA Championship livery.

The course manager at Nairn Dunbar has been a greenkeeper for nearly 20 years but there’s a look on his face when he starts talking about turf.

He just loves grass, like it’s a child. At Bethpage, he’s the kid in the sweetshop.

Johnstone is one of 80 volunteers, who have come from all corners of the globe, to assist superintendent Andy Wilson and his 60-strong team preparing the course this week.

That he’s here at all is partly down to luck, arising from a chance meeting with Wilson’s wife at TPC Sawgrass two years ago, and the Scot is well aware of his good fortune.

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So when you ask him what it means to be here, to have a chance to stamp his mark on a major championship, it’s difficult to find the right words.

“It’s hard to describe. It’s the whole experience. It’s about being part of the team.”

Johnstone’s been on fairways duty this week – part of an acrobatic mower sweep that looks like a Red Arrows display.

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The machines move in perfect synchronicity across the surface and the ballet of movement is not just for show. Not a blade, of machine or grass, can be out of place.

“There are 10 fairway mowers just running in tandem and one person doing the clean up lap,” Johnstone says of the process. “It’s an hour and a half to cut all the fairways.

“You have to keep in tandem and make sure you’re keeping in line and not missing any sections, while watching the mower in front.

“The biggest thing you’ll find might be a hydraulic leak. If there’s any leaking, you’ve got a tennis ball beside you on the mower – you might have seen that in pictures – and you have to throw it out.

“The mowers completely stop. If you cut over the oil it will drag and smear it across the fairways and the TV cameras will pick that up.”

Ah, the eyes of the world – unforgiving for the players where the smallest of mistakes are so ruthlessly exposed at Bethpage but equally so for those charged with maintaining the course.

People can be quick to carp.

“Everything has got to be nailed down. The sprinkler heads, even the drain heads, have got to be trimmed. Everything has got to be spot on.”

They go as far as blowing the rough.

“There’s a lot of rough around the greens and a lot of mowers and buggies going round it. So you blow it, rather than it being all trampled, so the ball will nestle down in it rather than sitting on top and it looks better on the TV.”

That kind of perfection brings with it a touch of nerves. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. That was even more so when the weather intervened at the start of PGA week and left the fairway team a little short of practice going in to when it really mattered.

PGA Championship

Johnstone explained: “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday are kind of practice sessions – practising for the big days and trying to just nail it down, get the perfection, get everything flowing.

“When it was raining earlier on in the week (on those days) we couldn’t cut the fairways because of the amount of rain. They were flooding.

“Wednesday night was the first time the fairways were cut and on Thursday morning we cut them again.”

“You’re always a bit nervous doing these things,” he continued. “You know how to do them but it is just the nerves of the week I suppose.

“Most of the greenkeepers here are all trained and experienced and know how to do all the jobs.

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“I’ve never cut fairways at a major tournament before and that’s the thing people are always looking for – the photo or the video of the tandem of 10 or 15 mowers running in a row.”

If it all sounds too pensive then don’t be fooled. There are 16 nationalities among the volunteers, from Johnstone’s Scotland to Slovenia, New Zealand and Australia, and for many the week is as much about making new friends and contacts as it is about cutting holes at the highest level.

“It is really nice to feel involved and with all the guys, the camaraderie and everyone working together and having a bit of a laugh.

“It’s not serious. You’re given your jobs and you are asked to have fun as well.

“We are all trying to achieve the same goal – get the course in perfect condition for the players and the TV cameras and, by the sounds of it, they are all enjoying the course.”

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He’ll take away from Bethpage the traditional photo with the winner on Sunday, and a flag that already bears the names of more than 65 of the field – more memorabilia for an office that’s in danger of becoming cluttered with priceless memories.

Johnstone also volunteered at Le Golf National last year, and felt the joy of Europe’s victory. The PGA Championship is “really up there” but Paris brings back recollections that are hard to top.

And yet he is already looking ahead – five years to when Sam Ryder’s little gold trophy comes to Bethpage.

“My name will be going on the list.”

Keep up to date with all the action from Bethpage with NCG’s dedicated PGA Championship website as well as on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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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