Royal Liverpool Golf Club (Hoylake), as most in the world of sports turf management will recognise, is a world-famous golf course steeped in traditions of tournament history. Royal Liverpool Golf Club is located in the small town of Hoylake, at the northwest corner of the Wirral Peninsula. The golf course extends between Hoylake and the neighbouring town of West Kirby.
It has a single 18-hole course, which is a seaside links. Robert Chambers and George Morris were commissioned to lay out the original 9-hole course, opened in 1869 which was then extended to eighteen holes two years later. This fact makes the club the second oldest golf links in England, pre-dated only by the Royal North Devon Golf Club, in Westward Ho! Devon.
It has hosted numerous major professional tournaments both male and female. Notably, The Open in 2006 with Tiger Woods finishing in first place, the now AIG Women’s Open in 2012 being won by South Korea’s Jiyai Shin and more recently, the last Open hosted at Hoylake being won by Rory McIlroy who lifted the Claret Jug in 2014.
For those of us in the sports turf world, who have been fortunate to have met or know James Bledge, we all can testify that ‘Bledge’ is a very personable golf course manager! Now don’t worry, I’m not being rude by calling him by his surname, ‘Bledge’ has always been so-called since childhood (even Mrs Bledge calls him ‘Bledge’)! He is a firm believer in achieving the absolute best results through his people and, to that end, is a great advocate of education, skill development and career progression. Bledge has always been hungry for more tournament golf experience, stemming from his early days preparing for the many Dunhill Cup competitions whilst at Kingsbarns Golf Links, and through all his tournament support volunteering work. One of Bledge’s many respected attributes is his all-encompassing passion for communication, whether that be to his Board, membership, or his team. “Not only do I get a great sense of accomplishment from communicating, but I also thrive on hosting large golf tournaments,” confessed Bledge, “and I prioritise my beliefs in promoting fine grasses and encouraging sustainability, whilst utilising all of the modern technology available within our industry.”
His story starts upon completion of his National Certificate in greenkeeping back in 1996 and landing his first role as Assistant at Dumfries & Galloway Golf Club. During his five years, he also achieved his Higher National certificate (1998) and later in 2004 his Higher National Diploma in golf course management before he received the calling for a one-year stint at Norwegian club Miklagard before returning home to Gullane Golf Club in Scotland for a short term. In 2006, he got the opportunity to join the team at the prestigious Kingsbarns Golf Links in Scotland as Senior Greenkeeper. Whilst there, he got his first taste of tournament life, helping to host three Dunhill Cups. In 2009, Scandinavia called again, this time a grow-in experience at the PGA Swedish National in the PGA resort in Bara around 6 miles east of Malmo.
A year later, with grow-in completed, a return to Scotland and gWest International Resort, as Senior Greenkeeper for yet another grow-in of their heathland/fescue dominant course; a position he held for three years before his move ‘down south’ to Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, Kent. Initially, it was as Course Manager, before being promoted to Golf Course and Estates Manager soon after. His role developed into full management of the entire golf course and estate, responsible for a team of twelve, including both course and estates budgets and responsibility for short and long-term planning at the club. This is where we now pick up the story with Bledge, as he embarks as Links Manager at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, and as he prepares for one of his greatest challenges (and in any turf manager’s career), preparing for one of the largest sporting events in the world – The Open.
It’s all in the planning
Like most successful managers, Bledge is obsessive about detail and planning! As any good turf manager will testify, good planning ranges from daily, weekly, monthly, and usually quarterly programmes, and sometimes yearly, which all help everyone in the business understand where they are travelling. Bledge’s office walls are covered in a myriad of wallcharts (which he has dotted in strategic positions).
Bledge explains, “I have a magnetic board which I put my stickers on for everything I need to plan. I start my work schedules initially around the golf club diary – what is on, and what course set up is required on any given day. I then look at my staff rota to see who is on duty for the week. As any manager will tell you, the weather is crucial to everything, so I look on my weather app. and write that up on the board. Once those items are logged, I can begin to programme what we need to achieve agronomically, from cutting regimes to dressings and applications of products. Lastly, I input my personal diary which helps me make sure I know where I must be at any given time or day, whether that be attending the many club meetings or my husband/dad duties!” laughed Bledge. He is the first to admit that all this information is ‘old school’, but as he could testify ‘it works’. “I communicate to the team verbally in the morning or as the day progresses and then my deputy and/or senior greenkeepers pick up the baton with the team for the rest of the day.”
Royal Liverpool’s capital expenditure programme for machinery replacement is on a rolling yearly basis. In this way, the club is not committed to any one manufacturer or fleet deal. “I can outright purchase annually what I need,” explained Bledge, “as it becomes available on the market. That way, we get the most up to date equipment as opposed to having to wait years for a finance deal to expire before we can start again. It works extremely well, and my fleet is always being refreshed with the best on offer regularly.” Bledge was rightly quick to praise his mechanic, Phil, who maintains this impressive armada of equipment, always keeping it in tip top condition.
Bledge runs a mixture of diesel, petrol, hybrid and all electric machines, and confesses that he would like more electric once he has developed the infrastructure to support an all-electric fleet. The maintenance facility has a mixture of red, green and yellow equipment, but stand out pieces are his Toro triplex all electric 3370s which he uses for greens, tees, surrounds and approaches. Interestingly, I asked about his ratio of using hand mowers and using triples on cutting greens, “We usually use triples 75% of the time but reduce the frequency leading up to events, favouring hand cutting. Leading into The Open, we will obviously drop out the triples and go 100% hand mowing with our all-electric Toro flex mowers.” Explained Bledge, “As we approach the event, we will increase some of our fleet numbers, as an example from six hand mowers to fourteen (we need six teams of two to cut each day, two being spare), fairway mowers from three to eight, utility vehicles seven to fifteen and triple mowers from three to six. The extras are being kindly donated from John Deere and Toro, and each manufacturer will be supplying a mechanic to help Phil keep everything sharp and operational.”
The devil is in the detail
As turf nerds, we all like to know a little data around benchmarking, especially for a Championship. Bledge informed me the height of cut on the predominantly bent greens are currently 4.5mm and will be dropped to tournament height a few weeks leading into the event. The R&A’s goal tends to be around 10 feet 6 inches on the stimpmetre, of course this is wholly dependent on moisture levels and prevailing weather conditions. To achieve this, the team will not be planning on excessive rolling, but instead favouring hand mowing single cut, double or triple cut to achieve the desired results.
Collars and approaches are currently at 7mm, and fairways are currently cut at 11mm but will most likely be reduced to 10mm for the event. Roughs are cut at two inch and deeper rough cut at four inches. As we discussed all things cutting heights, Bledge hinted that wouldn’t it be amazing if heights of cut could be more uniform at around 7mm or 8mm throughout the course from tee to approach in the future (watch this space for future update)?
The greens have been dry jetted four times over the last twelve months, with the help of Ken Siems; with shallow sand injected over deep injecting, as the organic levels are better deep down. It’s all about firmness, with Clegg hammering at 115 gravities now and The R&A will be hoping for significantly greater firmness than that for the Championship. Bledge plans to dress greens once more before the tournament, but have been applying approximately two hundred tonnes a year historically which has helped.
The Royal Liverpool team comprises twelve full time greenkeepers, a fifty strong artisan group of members (his fairway divot party) and a small posse of six local school kids for weekend course set-up duties. Again, planning is key for this small army, and is no mean feat, but with Bledge’s O.C.D. for planning he modestly makes it look simple!
When The Open comes to town, the team will be bolstered by an additional forty-seven crew, all sourced from local clubs. Bledge was quick to add that he was particularly proud of the competition the club ran to give an opportunity to two greenkeepers who otherwise might not have been able to join the support team. “We did an apprentice competition via Twitter where I asked five greenkeeper-style questions. The two winners won an all-expenses paid opportunity to join our team for the tournament week.”
Obviously, all turf managers understand their responsibility for sustainability and environmental awareness, and Bledge and his team are no different. The club has already gained it’s GEO certification, but the team have not rested on their laurels in driving even more great environmental projects recently. One such project is sand harvesting from site.
Bledge explained, “We use approximately 3,000 tonnes of sand every year for our topdressing programmes and bunker sand topping up.” He went on,” We dress greens, collars and approaches, tees and fairways regularly and so get through quite a bit in a year! Not only would it cost the club a fortune to buy all that sand, but it would cause an impact on the environment, hauling all this material around the country to get it to us.” As well as using harvested sand from the golf course, the team use any waste material gained from around the course when conducting remodelling works (primarily bunker revetting works) and re-use once it has composted down. “We use this for all our divoting and it’s another great example of using what we already have on site.”
Water consumption is very much a sensitive issue when it comes to turf maintenance. This has been compounded over recent years with drought warnings on the increase up and down the country. Royal Liverpool has a state-of-the-art Rainbird irrigation system, with heads covering all the major playing surfaces across the eighteen holes. Despite the water efficiencies the system already provides, the team nonetheless carried out an audit to investigate if there were any further efficiencies that could be made. They soon realised that by introducing a separate head next to each green head, they could save water if only collars required water (instead of setting the greens head to arc more and waste water). At the same time as this instillation was taking place, they took the opportunity to add a hand watering point next to the heads. “Hand watering is an additional water usage efficiency, and the closer hose points help reduce time and effort for the operator,” explained Bledge.
The irrigation audit also flagged up the wasteful outer lines of fairway heads. These 360° 700 or 900 series heads have systematically been ‘swapped out’ by 752 series part-circle fairway heads. Bledge was quick to praise the mammoth effort his irrigation technician,
Peter Lewis, had played in changing all two hundred heads over in the last few months! Worthy of note here too is that the ‘plates’ were different from old to new, and so all the custom yardage information had to be re-done too! Lastly, it was discovered that the heads which help irrigate the maze of turf pathways around the dunes are too large. It is planned to replace these to reduce water arcs, helping to only water the five-metre-wide area with what is required (smaller is better sometimes!).
Whilst discussing sustainability, and in particular the use of water and nutrient inputs (which again are modest and only used on an ‘as and when’ required basis), the turf composition across the entire golf course is hard top and sheep’s fescue. These grasses are supported across all playing surfaces (except greens) and are renowned for their drought tolerance and ability to thrive under low nutrient inputs; it’s what all great links courses aspire to.
The eighty-two bunkers all are constructed with revetted faces; fifty being remodelled by the team over this last winter. They are sprayed with total weedkiller, then routinely scorched with propane gas burners to keep them ‘clean’ and free from weeds and grasses. The sand (sourced from the course) is currently brushed up the faces with smooth rakes for the members, which helps the ball roll into raked centres. For the tournament, it is planned that the sides will be levelled, which will make the bases a little more punishing for the professionals.
The new 17th
My visit to Royal Liverpool would not have been complete without walking onto the newly constructed 17th par three hole, which has been designed by Martin Ebert of Mackenzie and Ebert fame, built by Golf Link Evolve in 2020. The 330-metre square postage stamp size green is surrounded by revetted bunkers and a host of sand scrapes whilst perched atop a sand dune! An amazing hole, one which I am sure this year’s Open champion will be happy to have walked off with four level par scores on his card!
To the rear of this spectacular green flows the river Dee estuary, and Bledge points out that he and his team get great satisfaction from working with The Cheshire Wildlife Trust to help support and maintain the two kilometres of estuary banks which form the club’s boundary. Indeed, I spotted on Bledge’s magnetic board at the onset of my visit, he and one of his team are due to attend a ‘toad training day’ (yes this isn’t a typo); the reason for this obscure session is so that they receive valuable education on all things amphibious! On successful completion of their mission, they then become fully registered and approved handlers of the rare natterjack toad, which have taken up residency along the boundary of the golf course and River Dee estuary.
It just leaves me to thank Bledge, his team and the club for allowing my visit at such a busy time – it was a privilege. The environmental guardianship work they have all completed is impressive and the future sustainability projects are extremely exciting and commendable. The golf course and playing surfaces are looking amazing and I’m sure all our readers will want to wish them all the best for delivery of a successful Open tournament. I hope they enjoy the excitement that it brings and the rest they deserve once the job is done!
Article by Phil Helmn MG