Profile: John Watts, group course manager for two golf courses

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 21, 2012 13:09

Profile: John Watts, group course manager for two golf courses

Just a 15 minute drive from Leeds city centre lies Cookridge Hall Golf Club and its 18-hole course.

The course, American in design, incorporates many of the natural features of the north Leeds countryside. The front nine holes are littered with daunting water hazards and strategic bunkering, culminating in one of many memorable holes the short par three, 6th. Although only 150 yards off the white tees, golfers have to carry the ball all the way to a gently undulating green to avoid the fateful splash and being caught out by the huge lake. The back nine could be classed as more forgiving, although the 18th, aptly named Temptation, features a green that can be found in one shot from the tee. However, standing guard to swallow any errant tee shot is the lake adjacent to the green. A conservative iron shot down the middle of the fairway leaves an awkward and often costly pitch across the lake to an undulating fast green; a par four is no guarantee.

Meanwhile, Waterfront Golf Club is a facility located nearby in south Yorkshire. Set in 170 acres of established parkland, the nine-hole course takes in breathtaking views of the surrounding Old Moor Nature Reserve and Manvers Lake.

John Watts is group course manager for both golf courses. We caught up with him to discuss his demanding roles.

You are group course manager at Cookridge Hall and Waterfront – can you outline the principle differences of the two courses and the markets they are targeting? How do you meet the members’ needs?

John Watts: Cookridge Hall Golf Club is a 6,788-yard par 72, 18-hole championship course with a 20-bay floodlit driving range and a practice area built on 160 acres. Cookridge has a strong membership and is a popular corporate venue. We try to meet the members’ needs by providing the highest possible quality playing surfaces and consistent conditions whilst keeping disruption to a minimum. At Waterfront Golf Club in Rotherham we have a 3,359-yard, par 36, nine-hole course, which is newly built as part of a large land regeneration programme in the Manvers area. The area was formally used as a colliery and mine distribution area. However, the landscaping and tree planting work was carried out several years ago, which has created the feel of a much more established course. We aim at both membership and the pay-and-play golf markets with an open-to-all view.

What is the biggest challenge you face in these roles?

John Watts: Balancing the needs of both courses with members’ and guests’ expectations alongside keeping both courses moving forwards, while remaining within available budgets as costs are rising faster than incomes. We aim to make Cookridge Hall a regular county and championship venue. We are also developing Waterfront into being the best course of its type in the area.

What do your current teams for each course number? Who are they and do they have specific job functions or do they cross fertilise on tasks?

John Watts: At Cookridge we have five full-time staff at the moment, including myself, all qualified to NVQ 2 or above. My deputy is Jason Gledhill and our assistants are Simon Oliver, Joe Watts and Phil Judd. All the guys undertake the full range of jobs across the course as I believe they should regularly practice and maintain the full range of their skills. There is also no job on the course which I don’t do myself as I think it’s important to lead by example as much as possible and it also gives me a greater feeling for the conditions on the course. At Waterfront we have two full-time greenkeepers and a summertime assistant. Richard Jones is head greeenkeeper and Bradley Metcalf is his assistant. Bradley recently qualified to NVQ Level 2. For the last two years our summertime assistant has been Keith Hepworth – I adopt the same staffing philosophy at both courses.

How do you maintain such high performance from your staff and what team training / development do you undertake to ensure best working practices and course quality?

John Watts: I try to keep staff motivation high by including them as much as possible in the decision making and running of their respective courses, and giving them as much individual responsibility as possible for specific projects. The standards expected on the courses are set by me and the managing director, Adam Frontal, who is a scratch golfer and past Yorkshire amateur county champion. Any further training that is required is provided. We all attend relevant training courses whenever they are available along with more informal discussions with various industry specialists and regular team meetings.

You’ve had problems with drainage at Cookridge as it’s built on a clay base, can you tell us what have you done to remedy these issues?

John Watts: During the construction of the Cookridge golf course a huge amount of earth was moved in the reshaping process. In places this damaged the soil structures. Many miles of pipe drains have been laid to transport water to our four lakes via a network of open ditches. Through experience we have found quite shallow drainage pipes give us the best results as they move water quickly away from the surface, not allowing the clay soils to become saturated. We also back up the pipe network with sand bands through low lying areas and areas of high wear. This is still an ongoing process, but we are seeing good results.

You and the team at Cookridge Hall have worked on the pathways in particular this winter. Can you tell us more about what you have done?

John Watts: During the winter we spent a lot of time renovating paths around the course because many had become quite badly warn and, in some cases, overgrown. The vast majority of this work has been done by hand to reduce the impact to surrounding areas. Most of the existing path material has been recycled and relaid to form the new base. In some areas the paths have been reshaped and widened to reduce wear and prevent rain water wash out. The paths have then been finished with a topping of new material.

Better quality and 12 month-a-year golf is what you strive toward. In terms of your greens, you are looking for better wear tolerance and drought resistance. Can you talk us through the cultivars you are using and the management challenges you face with them?

John Watts: At Cookridge I have initiated a programme of overseeding in spring with fescues to promote quick recovery from any winter damage. During the summer / autumn we have begun overseeding with velvet bents to improve the sward density and consistency throughout the year. I do not expect the fescues to survive in our environment due to the amount of play and wear. However, we use them as a quick recovery and nursery crop. I am mindful of the potential pitfalls of thatch accumulation associated with velvet bent but the advantage of its ability to out-compete other less desirable grasses, such as poa annua, is worth the extra work required to control it. At the moment we are not experiencing any negative issues. At Waterfront the greens were sown with a blend of fescue, bent and dwarf rye, which has established very well. We continue to overseed with a blend of fescue and dwarf rye. It does present some conflict with nutrient input as the dwarf rye is comparatively a hungrier grass. We do not over-feed as we are attempting, successfully at the moment, to discourage poa annua from taking hold on the greens. The advantages of the dwarf rye are exceptional wear tolerance and ease of maintenance.

You’ve undertaken quite a good deal of tree work. What were the questions you asked before commencing and how has it benefited the course and members?

John Watts: The tree work has been carried out at Waterfront as the initial planting in certain areas of the course was too tight to the lines of play. We identified the areas to be moved and the areas to be thinned based on feedback received from members and visitors along with our own experience and understanding of the course designer and ecologist’s original intent.

This was done to make the course more playable and less penal to the novice and higher handicap golfers, while also speeding up the round of golf. We have also allowed more light and air movement onto certain areas of the course, helping with grass coverage.

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

John Watts: We feed our greens with a mixture of granular and liquid feeds on a monthly, little-and-often basis. We use some organics, some conventional and some bio stimulants. The first feed normally goes on in March (weather depending) followed monthly until mid-October after hollow coring. I do not use any one manufacturer of products because I prefer to cherry-pick products dependent on our specific needs at the time. However, I do have a clear aim as to the nutrient inputs for the year. At Cookridge we look to apply 120kg of nitrogen and double that of potassium with a small amount of phosphorous. At Waterfront we apply around 100kg of nitrogen, 200kg of potassium and approximately 20kg of phosphorous.

What height of cut do you use across the courses? 

John Watts: At Cookridge in summer the greens are cut at 3.5mm and 5mm in winter. Tees are cut at 11mm in the summer and 15mm in the winter. Fairways are cut at 16mm all year round and semi-rough is 45mm all year round.

At Waterfront the greens are cut at 5mm all year round. Tees are cut at 12mm all year round. The fairways are cut at 15mm all year round and semi-rough is cut at 45mm all year round. Greens are cut or rolled every day in the summer and once a week in the winter. Fairways are cut twice a week in summer and when needed in winter. Tees are cut three times a week in summer and when needed in winter and semi-rough is cut all day, nearly every day in summer and when needed in winter. At Cookridge we spend approximately 100 man hours a week cutting or rolling and at Waterfront half that time.

What aeration programme and methods do you prefer to use for the courses, when and how often do you undertake this and what equipment do you use?

John Watts: During the summer months we aim to sarel roll, using Greensward’s Sarel Rollers, monthly, and micro-tine monthly using a Charterhouse Verti-Corer. In October we hollow core at Cookridge using 13mm hollow tines and during the winter we aim to verti-drain, using a Charterhouse 1.6m Verti-Drainer, two or three times using 13mm solid tines. The tees are all verti-drained twice during the winter and at Cookridge hollow cored to a depth of six inches using 19mm hollow tines. At Waterfront we slit the greens monthly using a Sisis Greens Slitter. We do not verti-drain the fairways at Cookridge through winter as we have learned through experience that it isn’t effective in our soil conditions. We prefer to leave the sward intact, which gives us cleaner playing surfaces. We do verti-drain selected areas at Waterfront.

In terms or soil conditioner, you prefer to use precisely targeted products for specific issues. You have suffered water retention in the winter and thatch in the greens. Who have you worked with and what products have you used to alleviate the problems? 

John Watts: I currently work with David Snowden from Agronomic Services. I have known David and his family socially for many years as we share an interest in game shooting and have on more than one occasion over-indulged in our shared love of red wine. I have found Pervade is a great product for moving water through a soil profile. We have also used a combination of Oxy-Rush and Thatchbuster, in conjunction with our aeration programme, to reduce thatch and release tied up nutrients. After two growing seasons, soil analysis has shown a huge improvement in the nutrient balance and we have seen a big reduction in thatch levels. We also use Retain to deal with localised dry patch in the summer. As well as being able to discuss issues with David personally I also find the Agronomic Services website very useful.

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

John Watts: At Cookridge we have a Rainbird system installed, which has been overlaid with a Hunter system to water the tees and greens. We have four interconnected lakes from which to draw water and a borehole to fill the main lake if required. Last year we only used the borehole on a couple of occasions as most of our irrigation water is recycled. Waterfront uses a Rainbird system, which pumps directly from a large lake and waters tees and greens. Both systems are on service contracts with Full Circle Irrigation, who we have found to be very reliable.

What are your views on sustainability?

John Watts: Sustainability is a very old idea, originally driven by necessity, which has recently come to the fore again. It has always been a great plan. However, as our industry has evolved, we have generally become more reliant on relatively inexpensive chemicals and quick fixes. Consequently, sustainability can be become an expensive path to follow whilst making it very difficult to meet the needs and expectations of the modern golf course during the transition period. As it gains momentum and popularity, costs should reduce and methods and techniques will improve to smooth the transition.

You’ve had a few outbreaks of fusarium. What products have you found most beneficial in dealing with these challenges?

John Watts: The tried and tested ‘go to’ product is Chipco Green. However, we have had very good results from Syngenta’s Medallion TL. We also have had a great deal of success using Sherriff Amenity’s recommended fungicide tank mixes, which we use to kill two birds with one stone (controlling fusarium and encouraging re-growth).

What investments / projects will you be undertaking for the coming year for each of the courses?

John Watts: At Cookridge we hope to continue rolling out our drainage plans, chasing water from the course, and we would like to rebuild some of the poorer constructed tees. We are currently replacing our ride-on tees’ mower and we are investigating purchasing a turf iron. At Waterfront the tree programme and gorse rejuvenation plans will continue along with developing the sward density on the fairways and greens’ approaches.

What machinery fleet are you currently using?

John Watts: I don’t use any one particular brand of machinery. I prefer to choose specific machines for a given purpose. We have machines from Toro, John Deere and Ransom Jacobsen as our main cutting fleet. However, we also use Saxon hand mowers. Our aeration equipment is Charterhouse and Sisis. Powered hand tools are mainly Sthil and our tractors are John Deere or Kubota. We also use several pieces of Green Tech’s Thatch Away System with our greens’ mowers.

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

John Watts: All manufacturers are now producing excellent machines, which are much more user-friendly and productive than before. I think irrigation systems in particular have made great strides forward in the last few years, giving much more control to the greenkeeper. Probably the single best innovation I have come across for a while is Greentek’s new ‘Dyna-Seeder’ system. It is particularly impressive as they are a very accurate and fast way to overseed greens.

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

John Watts: In my view the number one hot topic is the survival of golf clubs in the current economic climate and the safety of greenkeepers’ jobs. It is sometimes the choice of clubs to save money by laying greenkeeping staff off. I feel this is a false economy because the course will inevitably suffer, which will then put membership numbers and consequently income in jeopardy. Clubs need to become more business-like and efficient to survive and thrive.

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

John Watts: I think in many cases more credit needs to be given to the greenkeepers for what they achieve and under what circumstances. However, greenkeepers need to make sure they are hardworking, efficient and cost conscious in their daily jobs. I also feel many clubs’ policy of reducing or abandoning joining fees has been detrimental because in many circumstances it has created a very mobile membership, who are not prepared to support a club during difficult periods. Therefore, courses cannot effectively plan for the future as income is not stable or predictable.

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

John Watts: Work hard, take every opportunity to learn both formally through approved training providers and informally through colleagues, document your achievements and meet with as many other greenkeepers as possible to pick up new ideas. Make an effort to learn how other courses operate.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 21, 2012 13:09
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