A fair haven for sustainable golf

Since 1934, Fairhaven Golf Club has delivered traditional links golf, immaculately kept for year-round play to all handicaps. This is one of the Lancashire golf coast’s “real gems” says Top 100 Golf Courses; Fairhaven squeezed into the England rankings at 97 for 2018-2019 and is recognised as one of the finest Championship courses in the north.

Like several courses in a region rich in golfing heritage, Fairhaven is a regional Open qualifying venue, and 2022 is no exception, with the club hosting Open regional qualifying this June in the run-up to the event, scheduled for St Andrews in July.

But to go back to its origins for a second. Originally a 12-hole course in 1892, sited next to Fairhaven Lake, Fairhaven was founded as a club three years later, moving half a mile inland in 1924 to its present location in the then Lytham Hall Park. The flat terrain was landscaped by renowned architect of the time James Braid, alongside local professional J H Steer, to create the hills, hollows and bunkers golfers enjoy today.

After some remodelling in 1931 to raise the course nearer to championship standards, further work followed in 1977, raising the profile of the bunkers and altering greens contours.

Course manager Joe Barnes, 36, arrived in March 2021, inheriting the fine body of work and achievement of his predecessor Peter Simpson, who sadly passed away in late 2020.

“I applied for the post after seeing the job advertisement run by BIGGA,” Joe explains. Two interviews followed, in December and New Year – with then general manager Martin Robinson [now working for American Golf] and greens director Iain Brown, immediate past greens director Jim McFeat and Simon Bone, gents’ vice-captain.

“The first interview was general, the second one involved me delivering a PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Making Fairhaven Golf Club go from Good to Great’.”

That vowed transition is already underway. As an inland links course, Fairhaven has similar rootzone and turf composition to neighbouring clubs, including Royal Lytham – a site Joe commands ample experience maintaining.

Joe grew up on the Fylde coast. After taking his A-levels at a local college, “I got the golf bug and decided to pursue a career in greenkeeping.”

Apprenticing at Lytham Green Drive GC parkland course from 2003-2006, he completed his NVQ level 2 before moving base to Penwortham, another parkland course just outside Preston, from 2006 to 2008 “to gain further experience” as an assistant greenkeeper, taking his work-based NVQ Level 3 through Myerscough College meanwhile.

From May 2008, his next post was assistant greenkeeper at Royal Lytham & St Annes, taking his education up another notch by completing his foundation degree in Sports Turf, again from Myerscough.

Course duty called however – the 2012 Open Championship interrupting his studies before he returned to graduate.

Promotion to first assistant followed in 2013, then a further rise, to deputy head, in 2017, under boss Paul Smith.

His career path seems clear enough. “I’ve always aspired to run my own course,” Joe confirms, “so when the opportunity came up here, it was a no-brainer – and I could live locally.”

Ecology ranks high at Fairhaven and the club enlists help delivering a sustainable golf setting from James Hutchinson, BIGGA’s Sustainability and Ecology Manager.

Fairhaven’s strategy is to undertake sustainable practices wherever possible – “achieving more by doing less” as Joe dubs it, “by leaving nature to do its thing.”

The mission embraces a programme to nurture the balance of nature and requires some concessions to “manufactured” elements though, such as the drive to establish fine turf flow areas from each tee, then fairway to greens surrounds, cut at 8-9mm, which channel through to the next tee, concentrating traffic along the flow areas to help preserve and enhance course ecology.

Impacting sustainable practices across Britain’s golf clubs is the issue of dwindling sand reserves across the country. Fewer quarries are opening up to replace exhausted ones, reportedly, which in turn will force future change for greens teams like Fairhaven’s.

“The topdressing sand we use is supplied to us by Whitemoss and is a fine sand,” says Joe, “which creates firmer surfaces but reduced pore space compared to coarser sands, so there’s potential for slower percolation rates. As ever, this makes aeration a key part of our routine maintenance. With sand availability finite, topdress recyclers such as the Koro Recycling Dresser may be seen regularly in the future of golf course maintenance, allowing users to remove sand from the root zone and redress the surface.”

The method can be a sound way to dilute organic matter when necessary, Joe adds, but the process is yet to be applied to greens, where finer sand predominates, but courses will be using the method eventually, he believes.

Fairhaven ranks 97th in the Top 100 courses in England but position doesn’t trouble Joe unduly. “I’m confident we’ll improve the course and its presentation over time and I’ll always seek to do that,” he states.

After a newly completed £1.5m rebuild and upgrade programme in the clubhouse, “to bring standards up to 2022”, the mission is to present the club “in a modern yet traditional way”.

“This is a very traditional club and, as a golfer myself, I can see both player and greenkeeper perspectives.” Among its 600 members is a “very healthy” ladies section and a well-established juniors contingent.

“In May, when we are preparing the course for Open qualifying events, the club hosts the annual Fairhaven Trophy, which coincides with the Lytham Trophy for amateurs, attracting top juniors from across Europe,” Joe says. Building on that platform, the club plans to enhance the juniors section even more, he adds.

A course manager’s post demands more than a passionate devotion to turfcare, as Joe appreciates. “I like most to be out on the course but I accept that admin and paperwork takes up more of my time than earlier in my career. I have full control of my budget and that allows me the freedom to plan course maintenance exactly as I see fit.”

Out on course, changing pin positions is a regular task. “I do a lot of it as it allows me to assess the putting surfaces – new holes for every competition, including gentlemen’s on Saturdays and ladies on Thursdays.” As a golfer, Joe’s indulgence is understandable perhaps and an activity from which he probably gains plenty of satisfaction.

And speaking of budgets, Joe sees the importance of keeping kit modern to meet the demands of a course such as Fairhaven. “A good machinery fleet allows us a better quality of cut on undulating ground,” he explains. “We have a five-year lease deal with Toro, which is due for renewal in 2023/24. We generally renew every five years.” An admirer of the brand – “The greens mowers are great” – red is the main colour at Fairhaven for the time being.

Fully geared up with Husqvarna electric strimmers, blowers and chainsaws, Fairhaven’s transition to greener kit is still work in progress. “Our pedestrian mowers are petrol, the ride-ons diesel,” says Joe. “The move to an electric fleet is no doubt a possibility and may be complete by the time we upgrade the maintenance facilities in a year or two.”

“We do need more machines to achieve fully what I want out on the course, so I hope to extend the mowing fleet over the next five years. The flow areas require two or three Toro 3550s or equivalent, rather than just the one we have currently.”

And aiding golf sustainability further is the Waste2Water washdown installation, which uses bacterial colonies to process water collected after staff have cleaned soiled machinery.

The day-to-day team of eight swells when needed to twenty or more, with volunteers chipping in to help. “One Thursday in every month we run a divoting party before the ladies competition. A group of members come to the maintenance compound. One group tackles the back nine, the other the front nine under the guidance of the team. They’re a real help and allow us to concentrate on the more skilled aspects of course maintenance.”

The team had grown from seven to eight since Joe came, under Fairhaven’s five-year strategy to increase it to ten. But that was pre-Covid aspirations, he says, “and, since then, we have reassessed things and I believe that a team of eight plus one or two seasonals would be ideal. In any case, a team of ten through winter would be excessive for our site, I feel.”

In an era when the thorny issue of greenkeeper salaries has come to prominence once more, Joe sings the praises of his employer. “Fairhaven pays very fair,” he reports.

The independent Committee for Golf Club Salaries (CGCS), which includes GCMA [Golf Club Managers Association] and BIGGA members on it, meets to review and recommend salaries for greenkeepers and club managers.

In 2020, the CGCS launched an online salary calculator system, including separate tools for course managers, deputies and assistants.

“Although pay scales are applied at clubs’ discretion,” adds Joe, “greens staff here are on pay grades that reflect their experience and responsibilities.” A fact that reflects a critical aspect of today’s industry.

“Greenkeeping is as professional as it has ever been. Many course managers and head greenkeepers are educated to degree standard but, sadly, some clubs don’t reward greens staff as well as they should, although the situation is improving.

“But it’s still a damn shame when clubs lose good greenkeepers because they can earn more in another sector of work. I’ve heard of it happen here on the Fylde coast.”

Joe’s experience has stretched to travelling to Florida to help the greenkeeping effort for the 2018 Players Championship. “I applied through BIGGA,” he recalls, “then was interviewed by one of John Deere’s territory managers and was accepted, along with seven other BIGGA members from different regions.”

It proved to be a busy couple of years, he adds. “I applied on the cusp of Royal Lytham hosting the Ricoh Women’s Open and the Seniors Open in back to back years, but the trip was a fantastic opportunity to see how greenkeepers work across the pond.”

“A big thing for me was how the greens staff were looked after. They spare no expense to provide great working conditions and ensure staff wellbeing. When I returned to Lytham, we pushed on to give staff all they needed. Maintenance and welfare facilities over there are unbelievably good.”

“It’s something we are looking to improve now at Fairhaven. Health and safety – larger sheds that allow 1m gaps around each machine for example, rather than interiors bursting at the seams with kit, so that staff can move safely and, if there was ever a fire, there is a safe route out.”

“Our H&S advisor who comes in to check on such things recommends a 0.5m safe space around machinery but if the shed size allowed, 1m would be ideal.”

Washdown areas, kitchen, lockers and drying room are also part and parcel of the provision, Joe adds.

We return to discussing Fairhaven’s team. Longest-serving member is deputy course manager Mike Lees, who has completed twenty-five years at the club. “My go-to man,” Joe enthuses, “who’s been at the forefront of health and safety here.”

He looked after the course whilst Peter was off ill and did a great job.

First assistant Craig Morris is next longest serving, notching up fifteen years. “He takes the lead on machinery maintenance; tasks such as routine servicing and grinding cutting units. We go to the local dealer when we have major issues with machinery but having these skill sets in the team brings healthy cost savings.”

Craig and other team members attend mechanics courses so that skills are interchangeable to some degree. “The in-house capability certainly reduces machine downtime,” Joe notes – critical when Fairhaven has so much preparation for qualifying tournaments to complete.

The other five team members – Ben Proctor, Niall Holt, Darren Watt, Jim Beattie and Callum Davis – are all assistant greenkeepers. “Niall, Callum and Jim are the main men for chainsaw work,” says Joe.

Contrary to fable, says the club website, the course has never been punctuated by 365 bunkers, “but there were certainly more than the present 118, as the original hollows were filled with sand and raked until 1939”.

Under its wider mission to consistently improve and enhance Fairhaven, since 2003 the club has included new bunkering and subtle course development recommended by renowned architect Donald Steel.

Given today’s tally, that’s still a fair number compared with some clubs, maintenance on them can prove a continuing task.

As a regular golfer, Joe knows professionals prefer to tackle approach shots with bunkers than without because of the challenge they present.

“Potentially, we can be in danger of manicuring bases of bunkers too much, making them easier to play out of. Perhaps making them more hazardous isn’t such a bad thing. However, golfers here are mostly members, so we try to strike a happy medium between championship and leisure play.”

Bunker work has resumed again in earnest on the traps that characterise most Links courses. “In summer, we rake bunkers as and when needed and always before competitions. In winter, we dedicate time to rebuilding the revetted faces,” Joe explains.

“We now use walling turf harvested on site to build bunkers, stacking up layer on layer and backfilling with sand before we use in-house recycled soil for the final couple of rows, providing a more suitable rootzone as the mix nourishes the top turf better than straight sand.”

Again donning his golfing cap, Joe knows that greens carry the day with players. “If they putt well, most golfers are happy and we have to strike a balance promoting the right species of grass – fine fescues and bents where we can for instance. We have our fair share of Poa in the greens, but we are working towards keeping its presence to a minimum through sound traditional practices and overseeding annually with bents and fescue.”

Is he ever asked about cut heights? “I’m not sure members really care about that. Stimping comes up sometimes but smoothness of surface is key over speed. However, we will stimp when hosting big events, double cutting and rolling if needed to achieve tournament speed.”

Through summer, the Pogo moisture meter comes into its own, collecting data on the top inch or two. “With a 15% moisture content, the greens perform well and give fine grasses the chance to out-compete the undesirable ones.”

September or October is renovation time. “We input high quantities of seed then allow to germinate and establish, raising cut height immediately to 5mm on the triple mower, or 5.5mm with the pedestrians. Then higher again in the colder months to 6mm+.”

Like some clubs today, the game’s afoot with weed control strategies as trends shift from ride-on boom application to a more selective, tightly controlled manual approach.

“For herbicide application, I prefer knapsack spraying now,” Joe declares, “as it makes more sense financially and environmentally. You’re targeting chemical only where it is needed.”

A posse of three or four staff, walking in a line, spot treating weeds on the fairways using Cooper Pegler CP15 knapsacks works well, Joe adds, as does applying herbicide this way a metre into the heavier rough.

“However, for green surrounds, we boom spray to ensure we don’t miss any and to give golfers the best playing surface we can.”

Fertiliser application is still the realm of the boom sprayer though, Joe stresses.

The team takes care with the more sensitive areas of the course. “For the ecological rough, we cut and collect at the beginning and end of the growing season but never touch it through the summer,” he says.

The eco rough is fondly favoured by Fairhaven’s resident wildlife, which includes pheasants and hares. “They love the rough but scarper as soon as the course gets busy,” Joe jokes.

The relentless march of encroachment of Fairhaven’s boundaries, coupled with ecologically important areas, bring their own continuing maintenance commitments.

“The 16th, 17th and 18th holes border standings of protected trees, whilst the 14th and 15th line a crematorium. The poplar trees there can be prone to rotting internally, creating a hollow in the middle of the trunk, and that makes them dangerous from risk of collapsing and falling, especially in the more extreme weather we are experiencing now.”

Shallow-rooted Leylandii are on the radar too. “They are mainly near the practice greens, with a couple more near the sheds. The plan is to replace them with pines, which will be more in keeping with the course.”

“We use tree chippings to spread over the woodland floor that borders our club entrance, therefore recycling tree waste to suppress weeds, whilst we mix any other sandy soil waste, from bunkers for example, with grass clippings to create a nutrient-rich material which, once it has broken down, the team use in the top four inches of rootzone during construction works on course.”

Inevitably perhaps, climate change can shift maintenance priorities as prolonged wet and dry periods challenge turf growth.

“Droughts have hit us every summer of late,” Joe reports, “with up to six weeks plus without a drop of rain. If we cut to the usual height in these periods, we can potentially lose turf cover. To help turf stand up to drought longer, the team applies a sand/compost mix which aids moisture and nutrient retention to areas prone to early drying out, whilst topdressing with sand alone on the lower-lying wetter fairways.”

Lack of fairway irrigation and having to rely on mains water only serves to aggravate the problem. “The Pogo meter comes in handy as water resources are currently very limited. If we run the tees and greens irrigation programme overnight, we will not have enough water to fill the tank enough for hand watering the next day, so it’s a balancing act.”

“It’s in the club’s immediate plans to perform test drills in a bid to put in a horizontal well or bore hole, providing a more sustainable water resource and reducing the risk of losing turf through drought due to higher water availability.”

“To be able to abstract water from the ground will provide plentiful supplies and allow us to extend irrigation to the fairways.”

What’s in the shed?
Mowing Fleet

Toro Triflex 3420 x 2 – greens/tees
Toro Greensmaster 1000 x 4 – greens/tees
Toro Reelmaster 3550 – surrounds
Toro Reelmaster 5010H – fairways
Toro Reelmaster 6500 – fairways
Toro 3100 Sidewinder – bunker banks
Toro Groundsmaster 4300 – semi-rough
Tractors/Utility Vehicles
Tym 433 tractor
Tym 503 tractor
Kubota L3600 tractor
Toro Workman MDX x 2
John Deere ProGator 2030A
John Deere Gator HPX
Toro MultiPro 5800 Sprayer
GKB SP100 topdresser
Dakota 412 topdresser
Redexim VertiDrain 7316
Sweep ‘N’ Fill
Wiedenmann Terra Rake
GreenTek Multi-Brush
Bernhard Angle Master 4000
Bernhard Express Dual 4000 Grinder
Toro ProCore 648

Article by Greg Rhodes

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