Profile: Paul Worster, course manager and former BIGGA chairman

Stuart Phipps
By Stuart Phipps November 13, 2011 14:35

Profile: Paul Worster, course manager and former BIGGA chairman

“Renovating a bunker is actually very therapeutic,” Paul said as we met – which was curious, since he was smartly dressed in shirt-and-tie (a BIGGA – the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association – one, of course). But he was the chairman of BIGGA in 2010, and he had stowed his overalls away just minutes before.

It struck me that this summed up the man: both practical and business-like. And the more we talked, the more that impression was reinforced.

Paul has been maintaining golf courses for 35 years, a career he entered in order to maximise his opportunities to practice and play the game. As a gifted junior golfer at Cirencester Golf Club – and club champion – he was deeply in love with golf, and the chance to fill a vacancy on the club’s greenstaff was an ideal opening for a 17-year-old.

Those were the days when clubs regarded greenkeepers as farm labourers and the yardstick for their wages was the government’s Minimum Wages Scale for Agricultural Workers. But things were about to change as golf clubs realised that there was more to preparing a good playing surface that cutting the grass, and that it was better to recruit a properly-trained head greenkeeper than to scrimp and save on the wage bill.

Paul set about learning not only the manual skills needed but the horticultural and agronomic knowledge behind successful plant growth. This was achieved, in the first place at the local horticultural college at Hartpury near Gloucester, but in reality as a never-ending educational experience which runs on through BIGGA greenkeeper education “or Continuing Personal Development [CPD] as we prefer to call it”, he quipped.

After eight years working on the Cirencester course, Paul accepted an offer to go 12 miles down the road to Lilley Brook GC as head greenkeeper. This was his introduction to management of resources – men and money. He also learned how the course maintenance contributes to the overall success of the club.

Then, in 1992, came the ‘plum’ job – course manager at Minchinhampton GC. When Paul joined, there were two courses to look after – the Old (opened in 1889) and the new (the Avening, opened in 1975), some three miles apart by road. Today, there are three courses, with the Cherington being built in 1993, under Paul’s supervision.

Minchinhampton GC is an example of the best in private members’ clubs, where a succession of far-sighted members have identified the demand for golf in the area, and have built high-class facilities to meet that demand. Neighbouring clubs were sceptical about the high investment – and have been proved wrong. To grow from a rural course in a small village about 12 miles from Gloucester into a club with nearly 2,000 members which hosts an Open qualifier is impressive indeed. It also puts high demands on its course manager.

“I enjoy the challenge of such events – even though we are told to prepare the course exactly as we normally do,” he said.

Paul has an over-riding pre-occupation with protecting the environment, and is well-known for his pioneering work in this cause. “I am regularly called on to speak at local gardening clubs and the like – which means that the club is recognised for preserving flora and fauna, not destroying it. We want to be seen as providing an asset for the benefit of the local community.”

While the use of chemicals on the two main courses is kept to a minimum, the Old is entirely free of them. It has always been so: indeed, it is rare for any water to be used on the greens, although under severe drought conditions they may have to resort to filling a bowser and driving over to the Old to water it by hand – a daunting, labour-intensive business and hence best avoided. The greens become concrete-hard in a dry summer, but the putting surfaces remain fast and true (nine on the stimpmeter), despite the passage of the cows and horses over them! Interestingly, he tells me that these greens never suffer from fusarium attacks!

He explained: “These greens prove that a total ban on chemicals is not the end of golf – but it would take a decade to get the soil and grasses adjusted!”

Improvements to the Cherington and the Avening are never-ending: last year, for instance, a sizeable lake was added which not only tests the players, but provides a reservoir of 16,000 cubic meters for watering the greens and approaches.

As course manager in charge of three full-length golf courses, Paul has a remarkably small team: nine greenkeepers and one mechanic. Matt Worster, one of his two greenkeeping sons, is on his staff, and has been appointed the ‘ecology co-ordinator’ for the club. He is responsible for keeping an eye on everything that goes on in the clubhouses and on the courses, to assess the impact it has on the environment, and to think about whether it could be done more sympathetically.

Of necessity, Paul has become effective at delegating, and he has little input into the routine allocation of tasks, this being done by his deputy and the first assistant. “My job is all about people and getting the best out of them,” he stated.

Which perhaps overlooks his role as the key man whenever the greens’ committee meets – a duty that he also had at Lilly Brook GC. Paul prepares the annual course budget and submits it for approval by the treasurer and the committee. Once approved, he has authority to alter the spending patterns as necessary to ensure the courses are all presented to the highest standards. He is also responsible for ‘hiring-and-firing’ (not that there’s much of the latter!) – subject, of course, to the legal and administrative procedures undertaken by Rob East, the club secretary.

Paul joined BIGGA in 1975 and was voted onto the South West Section Committee in 1983, where he has served almost continuously ever since. “BIGGA is there to provide training and education opportunities for every greenkeeper, no matter what his / her duties are, and to prepare them for the next step up,” he said.

His work as an enthusiastic section education official eventually (inevitably, it seems) caught the national eye, and he became the chairman of the association.

Asked what will be his primary objective as chairman, he was quick to answer:

“Education. We are not getting the support at ground level that we should; this is clear from the small number of CPD points members are earning across the country.”

For this reason, he is particularly interested in the discussions that are in progress between the PGA, the Golf Club Managers’ Association (GCMA) and his organisation. “This is a very positive step that could lead to benefits not only to members of the three associations, but for the golf clubs we serve. Golf clubs must operate in a business-like way if they are to flourish – we are trained in our various trades and professions – all of them necessary for a club to be successful. Too often, clubs are reluctant to acknowledge this, and it is our job to make them aware of the expertise we provide: we have to market ourselves (and our abilities) to our clubs,” he said.

These words echo the feelings of many members of the GCMA, and must form a common aim for the future direction.

Paul has already taken a first step towards closer collaboration with the GCMA in the south west by working jointly with Bob Williams (manager, Chipping Sodbury) to organise a seminar for both BIGGA and GCMA members. “The benefit for BIGGA members comes from seeing the other aspects on which the overall success of a golf club depends, not just the technical aspects of healthy grass. BIGGA already runs seminars for that and other technical topics,” he stated.

Stuart Phipps
By Stuart Phipps November 13, 2011 14:35
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