Course profile: Knotty Hill Golf Centre

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir November 29, 2011 17:43

Course profile: Knotty Hill Golf Centre

Denis Craggs, the founder of Knotty Hill Golf Centre at Sedgefield, near Stockton-on-Tees in Durham, is a man with a vision – to provide affordable golf all year round for the serious golfer and casual player alike, of all ages, in a friendly, inclusive atmosphere.

That vision has seen the Craggs family establish a successful business that has grown steadily over the last 20 years from a 14-bay floodlit driving range to a 45-hole golf centre with two driving ranges, a short game practice green with bunkers and chipping areas, and an outdoor natural grass tee range. Amazingly, membership and green fees have hardly changed since the centre opened in 1991, and the same number of staff maintain the course now as when the first 18 holes were opened in 1992.

The Craggs family has been farming in the area for 100 years, and it was Denis’ father Frank who had the original idea for a golf course as far back as the mid-1960s, after the family bought an additional 210 acres of farmland in 1962. The idea resurfaced when interest in golf really took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and farm diversification was all the rage.

Knotty Hill very nearly didn’t make it past the drawing board, as Denis struggled to find anyone willing to lend him the money to get started. After much effort and research, an initial loan was obtained from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. Since that time, Denis has never taken out another loan, with expansion of the business always being funded by income.

“That’s why the driving range came first,” said Denis.

“There was no farm income as we had no crops to sell, so we had to make some money somehow. Once we got the driving range up and running, that effectively paid for the first 18 holes to be constructed, and it just went on from there.

“Our initial studies into golf led us to understand that, just like farming, we had to expand to survive and ultimately make a profit. We had always planned to build two 18-hole courses eventually, and we also wanted a clubhouse, so we needed to increase visitor numbers to achieve both aims.

“We also always planned to build a big, modern course to use big, modern machinery. The contours of the site naturally lent themselves to golf, and we’ve never really had to change the basic topography, it was there from the start – we’ve been very lucky in that respect.”

The first 18 holes grew to 27 by 1996, the 36-hole target was reached a couple of years later, and the clubhouse was built in 2000. Finally, the current 45-hole golf centre was opened in 2009, providing five loops of nine, with the flexibility to change holes around so that visitors can experience something different each time they play, and to ensure at least 18 holes can always be open right through the winter.

Unusually, the clubhouse has no alcohol licence. “We want to keep it that way, too, to have it open to all and make everyone that comes here feel equal,” said Denis. “When we did our original research, one of the main things we found that people really hated was members’ cliques and too many rules – we always said we had to change this perception of golf.

“The clubhouse has been a massive selling point for this club, as people can relax and bring the whole family. I do believe some golf courses are losing out simply because people are frightened to go – we try to cater for everybody, regardless of age or ability.”

With the expansion of the course, however, came a dilemma. More holes meant more grass to maintain and therefore increased costs. In 2007, the family initiated a five-year plan with the essential aim of reducing fuel consumption and man hours, which led to the course being closed every Monday to enable the bulk of the course maintenance activities to be carried out without affecting play.

“Basically we found that to continue expanding, we needed to address the machinery situation to control the course running costs, which were getting too high. We’d designed the course to take big machinery, but we were running too many greens’ and fairway mowers, and chasing people around the course – people come to play golf, they don’t want to be pestered by us working around them.

“We therefore thought about closing for one day a week, to try and do most of the key jobs on that day, and admittedly it was a big decision. However, we carried out a three-month trial and found that it had no detrimental effect on our income at all – most people opted to play on a different day, so we went for it full-time.

“It also cuts stress levels, both inside and outside the clubhouse. The system really works perfectly for us, and the difference is incredible. When other golf clubs visit, they can’t believe how much grass we can cut in one go. Our best day so far was in the last week in March, when we managed to cut all 45 holes, starting at 6am and finishing at 8.30pm. We’re now cutting, at the height of the season, 1,500 acres of grass a week, on a 540 acre site.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you face in your role?

Denis Craggs: The aim at Knotty Hill is to stay open and play on full greens all year round. The main challenge is to manage the course maintenance schedule on 45 holes and control our overall running costs, without any detriment to the business as a whole.

Have you had to make changes to your maintenance programme to allow for member / player requirements, climate change or environmental considerations? 

Denis Craggs: The key change has been closing the course completely on a Monday, so that we can get our main course maintenance jobs done in a timely fashion. By using bigger machines and with a whole day free of play, we can operate in a totally different way. We can cut more grass in a quarter of the time it used to take, and just go out early in the morning and late at night during the rest of the week, so we don’t disturb the golfers. The weather plays a big part in this too; by going with bigger kit, you can pick your window of operation, and also make massive savings on fuel. The work we can get through has increased so much, we can just blitz it – and not just grass cutting, but also slitting, scarifying, solid tining, over-seeding and topdressing.

A good number of clubs will now be heavily focused on managing their course maintenance costs, and face the challenge of pulling costs out of their maintenance schedules. What areas would you advise clubs to address and target first if they need to do this, and why?

Denis Craggs: We take a very individual approach here at Knotty Hill, and it wouldn’t work for everybody. The analogy with farming, which was about controlling and reducing our costs per acre, still holds good today; I’ve applied the same approach to my golf business, and it works for us, in our particular circumstances.

We have very large areas of grass so we can use bigger kit to maintain it, but we’ve probably just about reached our limit on the ground’s side now, in terms of taking out costs – I don’t think there’s much more room for manoeuvre there.

We’re also very lucky with our ground conditions, and the weather generally, so we have a massive natural advantage in that respect, and other courses may not have the same scope to do what we do.

What is your position on sustainable golf?

Denis Craggs: The whole golf centre has been set up the way it has to be sustainable as a profitable business that our family can continue to manage and benefit from. Everything we do is to that end, while providing the opportunity to play golf to as wide a range of people as possible, as cost-effectively as possible, and all from our own resources. We do all our own excavation work, we design and build any new holes ourselves, and we do all our own servicing and maintenance. Over time we’ve even planted 86,000 trees across the site ourselves.

How often do you topdress your greens and what products do you favour?

Denis Craggs: We carry out a light topdressing on the greens once a month after a light spiking, and a heavy topdressing and over-seeding at the start and end of the season. All our topdressing material is excavated and screened on site using our own equipment and labour, which also contributes to lower operating costs.

What height of cut do you use across the course?

Denis Craggs: We cut the fairways with gang mowers at 17mm in the summer and lift this to 25mm in September / October, to carry through the winter, using rotary mowers. In summer the rotaries do the roughs and the surrounds at 45mm. The greens are cut at 4mm and the tees at 15mm.

What aeration programme and techniques do you prefer to use for the course? Where, when and how often do you undertake this and what equipment do you currently use?

Denis Craggs: We use three Wiedenmann Terra Spikes for deep fairway aeration in the spring and at the back end of the season, and we’re building another special frame to carry all three machines to speed up the job. We’re currently using the three utility tractors for this, whereas we reckon the new John Deere 5100R will be able to manage all three aerators at once. We also deep tine the greens and tees at the same time, and we try to spike the greens once a month, with lightweight Ryan GA30 ride-ons.

Are there any new projects / plans you have in hand to improve the course?

Denis Craggs: We are currently bringing on five new permanent greens that have been built on the last loop of nine, and we are looking to establish this as our new academy course so we can introduce more youngsters and beginners to golf. We already get a lot of grandparents and grandchildren playing at weekends, for example, and junior parties for coaching in the school holidays. Some adults feel more comfortable and relaxed playing away from the main courses, they don’t feel so intimidated, and they can also just play nine holes if they want to.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir November 29, 2011 17:43
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1 Comment

  1. Biff December 26, 12:43

    Always found the staff friendly and helpful. All courses well looked after. Some tee boxes slope a bit but not to bad. Food is very good in club house.

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