Interview: Adam McColl; course AND club manager at Crews Hill GC

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 26, 2012 17:20

Interview: Adam McColl; course AND club manager at Crews Hill GC

Crews Hill Golf Club, which celebrates its centenary in four years, is situated in the northern tip of Greater London in an area surrounded by rolling countryside, garden nurseries and farmland. It is often referred to as ‘the jewel of north London’, and with good reason – designed by Harry Colt, the 18-hole course lies in just 120 acres of land.

The prestigious club has faced issues that just about every other golf club in the country has had to deal with of late – how to cut costs while maintaining or improving the quality of the course. For Crews Hill, this has involved appointing the head greenkeeper as the club’s acting general manager.

We caught up with him – Adam McColl – to find out about the work that goes into ensuring an outstanding golf course remains that way, despite budgetary pressures.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?

Adam McColl: As head greenkeeper, to continually improve the course with a reducing budget during a recession. I feel that golf clubs need to diversify in order to survive, something I hope to bring to Crews Hill. I have recently taken on the role of acting general manager; this is to ensure we have as much money as possible to invest in the golf course and provide a better experience both on and off the course for our members.

What is your dream for Crews Hill Golf Club?

Adam McColl: I manage it as if it were my own. I want to create something that lasts, that stands the test of time. Crews Hill has been here for nearly 100 years and there is a lot of work to be done. I want to make sure it is still here, better than ever, in the next 100 years. I believe it is time to give golfers a true customer experience, one that makes them come back time and time again. I want to create a golf course that works with the environment and a club the members and I can all be proud of.

What projects will you be undertaking throughout 2012?

Adam McColl: With monetary restraints, we are doing as much as possible. At the AGM, a course legacy fund was started to generate money for specific tasks on the course, which was very well received. The captains also raise money in their year for a specific task, so we are looking to reconstruct the first tee and putting green in the not-too-distant future.  The restoration of the banks of the brook will be undertaken by the greens’ team of which a member has kindly donated money towards. We will also be looking to carry out two tee reconstructions, hedge layering and a little more tree removal.

Can you tell us more about the brook?

Adam McColl: The brook is the most impressive natural feature on the golf course, however, it has been neglected for a long time. It is overgrown from scrub and non-indigenous trees plus the banks are eroding away.

We are clearing the scrub and removing some trees which will allow us to chamfer the banks and grow some fine fescue and wild flowers there.

The greens’ team care about the course; we are in the best place to carry out this work. Although this is a slower process, we know the work is being carried out to the highest standard. We have been loaned the plant machinery by a member, which is invaluable for carrying out the tasks involved.

The first two pieces of equipment purchased when I arrived at Crews Hill were a turf cutter and rotovator. Both, I believe, to be the most important pieces of equipment for construction. We can renovate nearly all areas with this equipment and they have paid for themselves already in the short amount of work we have done by being able to reuse the turf we have lifted and ameliorate soil. I was very fortunate to learn a lot on course construction from Carl Crocher and the team at Caldy Golf Club, when I worked there.

Who makes up your greenkeeping team?

Adam McColl: There are five of us in the greens’ team. Neil is my deputy and has a vast knowledge of the course. Charlie, Nick and Paul make up the rest of the team; all my staff are very important to me. They are very versatile and multi-skilled. I think this is imperative to keep standards high, as they all want to carry out tasks better than the last person. It is also great for some friendly banter!

How do you maintain such high performance from them?

Adam McColl: When I first started at Crews Hill, I made sure I showed each member of the team what was required by them from each task, this stops the buck being passed as they know exactly what is required. I treat them as I want to be treated; I love and enjoy my job, so why shouldn’t I allow them to? I like to set them new challenges to ensure they are learning new skills and try to keep them motivated.

All the greens’ team have just come back fromHarrogate, which was the first time the club has allowed this to happen. This was an invaluable experience for all, making the most of the educational opportunities. The golf club has recognised the effort and quality delivered by the greens’ team over the past year. We take great pride in our work, which has resulted in us all receiving golf membership of the club as a Christmas bonus.

You have worked with compost teas and introduced soil biology into your root zone. Why?

Adam McColl: I believe strongly in soil biology and the symbiotic relationship between the grass plant and fungi, I try to use it to my advantage. Before using compost teas, our soil was analysed by Laverstoke Park Laboratories for biology and the results proved it was already there. I am trying to increase the numbers and correct the balance. I believe whatever grass you are trying to grow, you can use soil biology – bacteria or fungi – to your advantage. Unfortunately, not enough research has been carried out in these areas to quantify my theories. Whether I use compost teas, plant protectants or biological stimulants, I try to keep it as organic as possible; synthetic fertilisers were made by man, not by nature.

How have you selected grass cultivars?

Adam McColl: We use the turfgrass seed book, selecting grass species with the best characteristics for the course and what we are trying to achieve. We worked with Hurrell & McLean this year because they could mix the seed to our requirements, which really pleased us. They were also a lot cheaper than other seed companies. We use pure bent blend on greens, dwarf rye blend on tees and a fescue blend on fairways and surrounds. I believe these are the best grasses for those surfaces on our site and the way we manage those areas.

In terms of drainage, what problems have you had and where?

Adam McColl: In the main, the course drains fairly well. We will be running four main drains through the course so we can tap into them when required. One of which has already been completed and the area is far drier this year.  Crews Hill has nine greens that we need to drain as soon as possible; they are old push-up greens with a clay base and sit wet during winter. The greens are played throughout the year – there are no temporaries – which makes it increasingly difficult in the spring with the loss of sward cover over winter months, due to wear. We will be draining at least one of these greens this year.

You have taken out circa 70 trees, what was the reason for this, where have they been taken from and how did it go? 

Adam McColl: Nearly all the trees have been removed from around greens to allow more light to the sward and air movement across the surface, two vital tools in protecting the plant from disease. The removal has gone considerably well. We have tried to keep golfers informed by erecting information boards where the work has taken place, carrying out yearly presentations to the members and continually answering members’ questions has also helped. I try to be approachable and keep the greens’ committee as informed as possible, so they can also answer questions. Members have seen the response from the greens since the trees have been removed and this has made it much easier. I love trees as much as anyone else, but they have to be planted in the correct areas on the golf course. We are asked to produce high quality surfaces and to do this we need to create the right environment.

How many bunkers do you have over the course, how have they been designed and what maintenance programme do you have for these?

Adam McColl: We have 64 bunkers on the course, they were originally designed by Harry Colt. However, over the years this design has been somewhat lost. We have plans to renovate all the bunkers, carried out by the greens’ team. They are raked three times a week and edged when required.

How often do you feed your greens, what with and how?

Adam McColl: One of the first things I did when starting at Crews Hill was a full chemical analysis of three greens to give us a starting point. I do not believe fertilisation is a guessing game; the grass plant should be given a balanced diet and just because something is being applied to the greens does not mean the plant is getting it. It is all about the soil and making nutrients available for when the plant needs them. I use very little granular feeds, for me, it is about managing the sward I have, while changing it to the sward I desire and what I feel is best for the club. To do this we use liquid fertilisers, plant protectants, compost tea and biological stimulants, of which seaweed has some fantastic properties.

What height of cut do you use across the course?

Adam McColl: Greens, 4mm in summer and, depending on moisture content, about 6mm in winter, which uses up 30 man hours in summer; tees, 10mm in summer and winter, which uses up 24 man hours in summer; fairways, 16mm in summer and winter, which uses up 16 man hours in summer; semi-rough, 35mm in summer – it’s not cut in winter – taking nine hours of work in summer, and rough, which is also not cut in winter, 75mm in summer and this uses up 24 hours of time every other week.

This is a 30 per cent decrease in cutting time from when I started. Mapping a route around the course and staying ahead of golf allows us time to do other important tasks such as aeration, over-seeding and top-dressing throughout the summer.

What aeration programme and methods do you prefer to use for the course?

Adam McColl: Most aeration is carried out during the summer months when the soil organisms need it and the soil is most active.  Pencil and micro-tines are used and light dust dressings applied afterwards to keep the surface open. We also sarel roll at least once a week during the season. The aeration equipment we have at the moment is not ideal; I would like a deep-tine aerator to be fully versatile. We hire this in twice a year at the moment, but would use it much more if we had it on site.

You are working with an agronomist [Philip Armitage]. How did you go about selecting one, why and how are things progressing?

Adam McColl: Philip Armitage from European Turfgrass Specialists has a vast amount of experience and I trust him. I have known him for a few years and he understands the way I think and helps me implement my plans for the course. I believe the relationship between an agronomist and head greenkeeper / course manager is vital; you have to work together. I have been very fortunate that my greens’ committee have trusted me to carry out the works; this is also a very important relationship.

What irrigation system does the course currently have and in which areas? In light of rising costs of water, will you be investigating water storage?

Adam McColl: The irrigation system was upgraded about eight years ago with a full medium density polyethylene pipe to all areas and block systems for greens and tees, mains-fed to two pumps and a basic electronic control system, which we are thinking about upgrading to a computerised system. We are looking at utilising the brook running through the course. We would like a reed bed at the far end of the course to clean this water and reuse it, however, that plan is some way off yet.

What are your views on sustainability?

Adam McColl: As keepers of a natural environment and habitat, I believe it is our duty to look after all aspects of the land. I was lucky enough at the start of my career to be involved with the ‘gingerbread men’ – a group of top class greenkeepers trying to care more about the land they managed. Too much hype was created about inputs and lowering the amount of nitrogen we apply. If nutrients are not leeching out of your soil and you have not got excessive thatch, you’re not applying too much. In answer, I believe in sustainability, and I believe we can manage our courses and protect the environment at the same time. I think we should manage our courses to minimise fungicide and pesticide use.

Have you suffered any outbreaks of disease and, if so, what products are you using to counter this?

Adam McColl: Crews Hill gets diseases like every course. However, when we do, it is not severe and I believe this is because of the practices implemented. A close eye is kept on fusarium in the winter and spring, anthracnose attacks the poa late summer, which we use as natural eradication creating gaps in the sward so we can over-seed with bent grass. The greens have at least 60 per cent moisture over the winter months, creating a great host for disease. We are working on them with deep-tine aeration, sand dressings and additional drainage, but this will take time.

Two applications of fungicide were applied last winter for fusarium and one so far this year. We believe this is so low because of the plant protectants we use, however this is anecdotal evidence. My ideal situation would be no fungicide applications at all, but we have to get the greens drier first.  If we can get down to spot treatments in the near future I will be very pleased. I have been very impressed by Syngenta’s new product Medallion, derived from a natural fungi. I hope, in the future, these will be the only type of fungicides available. The most important thing about Medallion for me is it does not destroy all the beneficial fungi in the soil.

What machinery fleet are you currently using?

Adam McColl: A John Deere fleet deal was done four years ago so equipment can be purchased in 2013. We currently have that fleet and Kubota tractors. These machines were inherited in very poor condition.  Maintenance and servicing had not been carried out for a while so the summer was stressful. Now the machines are in proper working order, down-time is minimal.

Has there been any particular machinery manufacturer innovations or solutions that have grabbed your eye or impressed you recently?

Adam McColl: I think hydrostatic tractors are fantastic when aerating, one less thing for the operator to think about. I think brushing, grooming and rolling equipment are very important to produce true, consistent surfaces. We are very fortunate today with the machines we use compared to those of yesteryear. Cutting machinery has been over complicated in recent years to warrant their high price tag.

What do you see as the hot topics of the moment in greenkeeping?

Adam McColl: I think sustainability will stay with us for a while yet, I think some greenkeepers jumped into it without fully understanding the principles and had some very poor results. I think some have used sustainability as an excuse for poor results.

I would like to see specific product information on fertilisers / products and would prefer them to be tested independently and made to prove their claims before being able to sell them as the new wonder product. I went to a few seminars atHarrogatewith Dr Rossi, which where fantastic. He explained how he was trailing garlic and having it chemically analysed; the first batch was great and the second useless. This should not be allowed to happen.

What changes do you think need to be made to benefit the industry sector and profession of the greenkeeper?

Adam McColl: I think vast steps have already been made in our industry and those currently working in it are indebted to those gone before us. Greenkeeping is a career and by those that understand it, very well respected. A wider understanding of how environmentally conscious most greenkeepers are would be nice. Televised coverage of golf courses throughout theUKand their benefit to habitat and wildlife, I think, would make some critics take notice. This could fill some of the gaps in major televised golf events.

What advice would you give to young greenkeepers wanting to advance?

Adam McColl: Work hard, learn as much as you can, ask as many questions as you can.  Get involved, push yourself hard and enjoy what you do. Realise that everyone makes bad decisions; if you truly want it, you will get there.  Listen to those around you that make sense, but always go with your gut feeling. Be honest, work when others won’t, don’t do things just for monetary gain, do it to learn and advance yourself. You don’t have to be paid for every hour you work if you feel you’re getting lots out of the experience.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 26, 2012 17:20
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3 Comments

  1. Dionne Rembacken March 2, 23:04

    I found this article a joy to read. Very positive throughout, interesting and very knowledgable. For me who has no understanding of green keeping at all, I couldn’t stop reading it.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Pack Leader (@PackLeader5) February 26, 17:31

    Adam McColl – a top leader at his golf club http://t.co/dUCdaJLQ

    Reply to this comment
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