Mike Smith – Head Greenkeeper since 1988

This is a transcription of a conversation Mike had with Graham Lawrence on 9 June 2008.

In the late seventies, my wife to be was the daughter of the person who looked after the horses for the Hambledon Hunt at Corhampton. I’d been working as a greenkeeper at Waterlooville. We married and bought a house in Bishops Waltham and I started working for Maurie Salter at Corhampton Golf Club. There were just two of us. We were allowed to do as many hours as we wanted to. There was no limit on the amount of overtime we could work. It would have been better had we had a third person but I earned the money that helped towards the house so I didn’t mind all the hours. In my early twenties, I didn’t mind working the extra twenty to forty hours a week. Standards were different in those days. We just had to cut the grass once a week. We had one tractor with trail gangs, one ride-on mower and a couple of hand mowers for the greens. We only cut the grass close for a couple of events a year, such as the club championship and captain’s day. We lacked the funds then but as we got more funds we have provided piped water to the greens. The lower the grass is cut the more maintenance it requires.

When I first joined the new nine holes had only been completed five years before. There used to be a lot of stone gathering by groups of members roaming the course and moving the stones. Wally Pinhorn was chair of the greens committee then. Stephen Shaw, known to Wally, joined the team to make three of us. He moved later to look after Wickham Park. He’s now gone into plumbing.

After Maurie Salter retired, Reg Varlow took over as head greenkeeper and we had two lads join us to make a team of five. Reg worked for about five or six years and then Andy Pearson took over for about three years. I was the deputy head greenkeeper to Maurie, Reg and Andy and when Andy left in about 1988 I took over as head greenkeeper.

The biggest change that has happened to the course since I started here is the standard of the course. It has improved immensely. The average everyday standard today is what it would have been like on special occasions, like Pro-Ams, ten years ago. We have five/six of us now and there are more funds available to maintain the standard of the course. This year the fuel bill has been rapidly rising but we still have to cut the grass to keep the standard up and, thanks to it being a members’ club, we manage to find the funds more easily than if it were a corporate club.

I have a good relationship with the club committee, because whilst committee members change I have been here for nearly thirty years and have a long term view of what is practical, for which I am respected. We are making steady improvements to the course. I decide when it is time for greens to be taken out of play but this is done after discussions with the management committee. Sometimes it’s not possible to accommodate the wishes of the captain because it would be disruptive to the long term steadiness of course improvements.

We tend to work the same hours each week of the year but during the summer we can start earlier and finish earlier. For special occasions we may put in some extra hours. The weather has a greater effect on my work than the committee now do. The committee agree the standard for the course and I work to that standard providing the weather permits it. We now manage the course for the 365 days of the year rather than towards special occasions as was done in the past.

Whereas in the distant past crops were grown on parts of the course none of the course is used for agricultural purposes today. The thirty acres of land to the south of the course is being cropped for silage today. That land is leased out. George Smith used to have it and grazed sheep on it but its now leased to someone else.

We are planting some trees in some areas. Some trees will be planted around the car park this winter. We manage the trees. Health and Safety regulations force us to ensure all the trees are kept in a safe condition. There’s a tree on the sixteenth which has some amount of decay in it and that will have to be cleaned up. There’s a health and safety inspection of the trees performed every six months. None of the trees on the course has a Tree Preservation Order. We’ve contacted the county tree people and were told that if we want hassle then we should get a Tree Preservation Order put on a tree. If a tree had a TPO then, just to trim it, we would have to get permission from the county council. All major tree work is only done after agreement with the committee. It would take a bad committee to have the lone tree in front of the eighteenth green chopped down. Some trees are having to be cut down because they have passed their “use by date” but replacements are being planted. The oldest trees on the course are probably the beech trees by the sixth but some of the yew trees that form the Droxford/Corhampton boundary are pretty old. All tree surgery is performed by certified professionals.

The only old artefact we have found is the spear head that is mounted and on display in the club house. That was found near the eleventh hole. There is a tumulus in the field to the south of the club. One day that may make a good raised tee. I don’t think we’ll ever have enough money to develop the thirty acres. The development cost per hole is going up all the time. It’s about £30,000/40,000 today. Of course if an extra nine holes were to be put in then we’d be after an extra 50 percent pay rise to manage the holes!

Bronze Age Spearhead found on course 1989

We have a bore hole situated in the green keepers’ area. We are licensed to take 1 million gallons between April and October. The seasons are definitely changing. In February we have had drought conditions. The greens get cold, frosty, dry and hard. The rest of the water comes in a four inch main from a mile away in Upper Swanmore. We are making more use of wetting agents. These are similar to washing up liquids and increase the ability of the soil to absorb the water. We used to use them as an after thought. If we had a dry patch we would apply a wetting agent. Now we add large pellets to the water tanks and it is spread over the course. The Environmental Officer loves it because it reduces our water usage by half. The Environmental Officer visits us twice a year to check the metre on the bore hole. Ten years ago the pump at the bottom of the 240 foot bore hole broke down and had to be replaced. It had been there for more than twenty years. I wanted to put in a more powerful one but there was no point as we are only allowed to draw off the million gallons over seven months. Two or three years ago the pump was sucking up rubbish as the level of water had dropped. We can store twenty thousand gallons of water which would give us two or three nights of watering. Unlike up in Yorkshire where they have reservoirs we don’t have any down here in Hampshire so when everyone draws water at the same time it can be a problem.

On one occasion one woman brought her baby and left it with its father who was going through a divorce with his wife. He was completely non-plussed and did not know what to do. On another occasion the same chap apologised for coming to work late and said he had all his tyres slashed. It turned out he’d been at a party the previous night with someone else’s girl and the someone didn’t take too kindly to his behaviour and damaged the tyres. It provided a bit of amusement to the rest of us.

One of the younger lads left and went to America and is now second in command at a Sussex club. That’s quite rewarding seeing one of your employees progressing through the system like that. Most of them start their golf course education at Sparsholt. I, myself, got my grounding here under Maurie Salter and then attended classes afterwards to catch up.

The biggest issue now is Health and Safety. It’s overtaken everything. Nobody can use a powered device like a chain saw on the golf course without a certificate of competence. It doesn’t matter if a member has been using a chain saw for twenty years they cannot use it on the golf course unless they have been certified. If anything were to happen the club would get very heavily penalised for insurance. If someone trips over on a path then they could make a claim against the club. We are going to try and eliminate all steps around the course to make it safer. All the machines have slope ratings so can only be used on slopes they are rated for. If an operator takes a machine up a 20% slope when it is only rated for 15% slopes then it is the operator’s fault if anything goes wrong. This year all my team have to have certificates saying they are competent to drive the machines even though they may already have been driving them for years. That all costs money. Club members helping out on the course such as the recent undergrowth clearance are only permitted to use hand tools.

Last year I went on a course about managing relationships. I thought I was going to learn how to find a new girlfriend. Next year I’m going on a stress management workshop. You might think that no job could be less stressful than maintaining a golf course. Deadlines are imposed either by request or are self-imposed. This gives rise to stress. I like all my team to care about their jobs and if they don’t they should not be working here. Being able to manage relationships and handle stress makes for a better team and a more efficiently run golf course. It’s easy teaching how to handle heavy loads but dealing with psychological situations is more difficult.

All the greens suffer from some form of disease. We are not allowed to kill worms any more. There are three types of casting worms amongst the sixteen types of indigenous worms. We are allowed to deter the worms by using chemicals that keep the worms below a certain level from the surface. We now trap moles. We used to gas them but that was not very effective. The superfluous rabbits are shot at night by John Parvin who’s very good at it. I love seeing all the bunny rabbits, owls and foxes but, for the good of the course, their numbers must be controlled. We never touch the hares but we can lose some to poachers. I haven’t seen any hares for some time. I’ve been lamping up here. It’s incredible to see it. You shine a torch on a rabbit and the dog runs straight down the beam to the rabbit. The partridges on the course have escaped naturally from the shoots across the road. The rooks and crows create a problem for us by digging up the fairways. We’ve got a chemical which we put down to kill the insects the crows and rooks like but that is a bit expensive so we do shoot some of them. There are quite a lot of chemicals we use but, apart from that used against leather-jackets in September, they are non-toxic to humans.

I don’t play golf. I tried to take it up in the early days. It might seem bizarre but I get so much satisfaction from doing what I do that I’m not fussed about taking it up. When people come up to me and congratulate me for the condition of the course it gives me a thrill.

We decide where the flag is positioned on the green so that the green does not get over used in parts.  Personally I’m not very good at cutting the holes so I leave that to someone else. The holes positions get changed about twice a week.

Players are hopeless at repairing pitch marks. The purchase of the divot tree was a godsend. It used to be that captains would have a divot repair evening but the number of attendees seemed to be dependent on the quality of the meal afterwards. By using the divot tree we get a better coverage.

I do meet with other local greenkeepers to compare our methods but all the courses are of different types. We’ve looked at sharing equipment between courses but that doesn’t seem to work. The borrowed equipment is returned the day before you want to use it and is broken. Not even corporate chains like Marriott at the Meon Valley have worked out how to share equipment amongst their own courses. The problem is that all the courses around here would be doing the same sort of work at the same time. One aspect of sharing is with the people. I think it would be beneficial to do that. Say, for example, Arlesford were doing a lot of work on trees and I had a couple of people certified to use chain saws then I might be able to swap them for a couple of grass cutters.

It would be nice to develop the southern field before I retire. How we do it I don’t know. We might have to for health and safety reasons. Say, for example, a person on the ninth tee was badly damaged by a ball from the eighth fairway, the ninth tee might be deemed to be unsafe so we’d have to spend money developing part of the field to replace the ninth hole.  Because some of the fairways are close together we get about six serious incidents per year of people when an ambulance is called out though sometimes the incident is caused by someone walking into a tree searching for their ball.