Serving Up a Unique Tennis Experience

Architect overcomes odds to build natural grass tennis complex outside of Detroit

Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club Owner & Founder Bill Massie with his convertible Mercedes that serves as the marquee for his new tennis complex in Pontiac, Michigan.

Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club Owner & Founder Bill Massie with his convertible Mercedes that serves as the marquee for his new tennis complex in Pontiac, Michigan.

What started as an afternoon musing during a tennis tournament turned into an obsession for Bill Massie.

“In 2008, while watching my thirteen-year-old son play in a tennis tournament at the beautiful Longwood Cricket Club outside of Boston, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to go back and build something like this in Pontiac,” recalls Massie, an architect by trade.

The first thing Massie did upon his return was build a perennial rye test court. Other than mowing fairways on a golf course for one summer during his youth, Massie had no experience or training in growing grass.

“I leaned heavily on Joe Vargas, Professor of Turfgrass Science at Michigan State University,” said Massie. “We threw the traditional golf-centric, sand-based agronomics out the window because this is literally a whole different ball game. A sand-based grass surface would never hold up to the rigors of tennis.”

After mastering his ryegrass skills, Massie decided to take it to the next level. He purchased an abandoned recreation center and 50 acres of surrounding property in Pontiac, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.

One of Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club's 24 natural grass courts with the clubhouse in the background. The original building was constructed in 1919 and served as the Pontiac waterworks.

One of Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club’s 24 natural grass courts with the clubhouse in the background. The original building was constructed in 1919 and served as the Pontiac waterworks.

“It was an ideal site for what I wanted to do. There was an existing pool and clubhouse that we renovated extensively,” said Massie.

With his architecture background and experience, Massie was able to prepare the site for tennis courts himself, doing much of the laser leveling and drainage work.

“I built a 14 foot by 80 foot trench that’s about ten feet deep and filled it with crushed concrete from the old building foundations. When it rains, the water runs off these courts almost immediately,” said Massie. “I put a slight grade on the whole thing but it’s a perfect plane so you would never notice. From one side of the property to the other, the turf actually drops a total of 18 inches.”

Design details at Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club, like a bar inlaid with vintage tennis ball cans, make the facility truly unique.

Design details at Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club, like a bar inlaid with vintage tennis ball cans, make the facility truly unique.

The attention-to-detail can be seen all over the property. From the etched metal water fountain to the vintage tennis ball cans inlaid into the clubhouse bar, every inch of Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club has been meticulously and thoughtfully planned.

But as Massie will tell you, not all the Wessen plans went smoothly.

“It was the second week of September last year and we were sitting on $6,000 worth of grass seed,” says Massie. “Conditions were ideal and there was just a small rain shower in the forecast for that evening. We put all the seed down and almost on cue, it rained. And it never stopped. It rained an inch and a quarter in one hour and washed every last bit of seed into the river.”

Heartbroken but not defeated, Massie knew the window was closing on the chances for a 2014 opening. He had new seed shipped from Oregon in just three days and had full turf growing by October.

“We dodged one bullet but got hit with another as the worst winter in decades followed,” said Massie. “I thought we’d be able to do more to prepare for the cold but it came so quickly we couldn’t do much of anything. We had record snowfall and record cold but as you can see, the ryegrass survived quite nicely.”

“People tried to convince me to try other grass varieties but I knew ryegrass was the right choice, especially with the wear patterns and toughness,” said Massie. “You could use bentgrass, but it would get very stressed from the wear. Also, ryegrass has no thatch, so you really get a good ball bounce. And it’s no secret that these courts are really modeled after Wimbledon, which is also ryegrass.”

Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club uses a Jacobsen SLF-1880 large-area reel mower to maintain its 24 natural grass courts. Founder and owner Bill Massie calls his Jacobsen equipment "a dream."

Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club uses a Jacobsen SLF-1880 large-area reel mower to maintain its 24 natural grass courts. Founder and owner Bill Massie calls his Jacobsen equipment “a dream.”

To maintain the ryegrass on the 24 courts, Massie and his crew use a Jacobsen SLF-1880 large-area reel mower. They keep the grass at a height-of-cut of .375”, which would be considered fairway tournament height for a golf course.

“I took two years to choose the equipment for this facility and all that research pointed towards Jacobsen,” said Massie. “The quality-of-cut we get from our SLF-1880 is unreal. With that mower, we can cut all the courts in about two and a half hours. The equipment has just been a dream.”

Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club also uses a Cushman Turf-Truckster utility vehicle.

“I love to get out there and mow, but there’s a lot of pressure to finish the clubhouse and the pool, so I’ve been very busy with that,” says Massie. “But I do look forward to getting back to working on the turf side of things, that’s fun for me.”

Just like Wimbledon - Wessen's inspiration - players must wear all white.

Just like Wimbledon – Wessen’s inspiration – players must wear all white.

Massie already has 105 members with a goal of 150 founding members by the end of summer. Like Wimbledon, players must wear all white on the courts.

Massie’s plans for the future include bringing an ATP-level tournament to Wessen and have junior and pro players train for grass tournaments like Wimbledon.

“When people come out here and play, it’s something completely new for them,” said Massie. “And that was the vision all along of Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club: to give people a truly unique tennis experience on natural grass.”

“When people come out here and play, it’s something completely new for them. And that was the vision all along of Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club: to give people a truly unique tennis experience on natural grass.” ~Bill Massie, Owner of Wessen Lawn & Tennis Club

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Greenkeeping: Out of Africa

Silver Lakes 007Situated in the east of Pretoria in South Africa’s Gauteng province, The Silver Lakes Golf Estate features a stunning 18-hole Peter Matkowich-designed golf course.

Unique to the continent of Africa, the golf club has Silver Lakes 035introduced an educational programme for prospective young golf professionals, providing them with an opportunity to gain an internationally recognized greenkeeping qualification.

Our Public Relations Manager, Peter Driver, visited South Africa recently to see the programme in action.

Unique golf course management training in Africa

Silver Lakes 010A stunning facility for learning
The Silver Lakes course opened for play in 1993 and is the centrepiece of a secure residential community of some 1,700 properties. The championship course was designed by Peter Matkowich, the renowned Zimbabwean-born course architect and former professional golfer, and measures 6,700 metres from the back tees.

Silver Lakes 025Built on a former floodplain it features ponds, dams and streams created to manage the water around which the holes were created. A feature of the design is the double-greened island on the back nine and also an island fairway, the first I’ve seen in my career as a golf writer.

The inspiration behind the venture
This stunning facility is home to a unique academy, the brainchild of Derek Le Roux and Andrew McKenna. Derek Le Roux is an influential member at the club, who is the former chairman of the Silver Lakes Homeowners’ Association and CEO of Infussion Financial Services. He is also chairman of the Kungwini West Alliance (KWA), a collective representing the interests of 20 residential estates in the east of Pretoria. He has a law degree and has carved a successful career in the Financial Services industry since 1995.

Silver Lakes 074Andrew McKenna is a proud Scotsman who was born in Johannesburg and grew up at Powfoot Golf Club in Scotland. After joining the PGA in 1992, he played the Tartan Tour circuit for 10 years, gaining his European Tour card in 1997. He played on the Sunshine Tour from 1998 until 2002, his first contact with the land of his birth since his family’s move back to Scotland.

His coaching career began in London in 2002, where he worked with John Jacobs and Jim Farmer before moving to South Africa as Director of Golf at the Euphoria Golf Estate situated in the Waterberg mountain range in the Limpopo Province. He established the Silver Lakes Golf Academy in 2010 and became Director of Golf in 2011.

The concept – a first for Africa
Over dinner I had the opportunity to find out about the motivation behind the educational scheme and how it evolved.

“It is very much a passion at Silver Lakes to grow the game of golf and open the doors of our facility to the African continent and provide a platform from which golf development, in all its forms, can be taken forward through an educational programme,” Le Roux said.

“A number of Golf Academies exist in South Africa and their sole focus is the development and training of potential professional golfers and PGA professionals. However, in reality, not all of the young people aspiring to become professionals are going to make it; that’s the hard truth. So what do they do, if they don’t make it?

Silver Lakes 040“That’s where Andrew’s vision came into play. Instead of losing these youngsters from the wider golf industry, why don’t we offer them some formal training in the art of greenkeeping, providing them with a long-term career if they don’t make it as a Golf Pro? That’s the difference in what we are trying to achieve here; that’s where we differ from other golf academies.

“If we are to progress the game of golf across the whole continent of Africa, then we have to have courses managed by trained people from the various African nations. To sustain a proper golf course, trained staff are needed to manage, nurture and maintain it. This is essential for the development of golf in Africa.”

BIGGASupport and recognition
Andrew McKenna continued the conversation and explained how it came to fruition, “In 2010 I wrote to BIGGA, the R&A and Elmwood College, now SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), outlining what I had in mind; all were very receptive and Ian Butcher, who R&A logohas since left Elmwood to work in Germany, was particularly enthused. My proposal dovetailed with Elmwood’s ambitions in Africa, so we put an educational plan together, which we named the Elmwood St Andrews sruc-logoInternational Greenkeeping Qualification. Ian came to South Africa, visiting the great and the good in the golf industry and lobbying to get the programme off the ground. We realised we needed the endorsement of various influential bodies or else it was going nowhere.

SAGA-logo-large“Through a lot of hard work we eventually obtained support from the Golf Course Managers and Greenkeepers Association of Southern Africa (GCMGASA), the South African Golf Association (SAGA) and the West African Golf Association (WAGA).

“Meanwhile, I was having conversations with Carol Borthwick, the Director of International, Golf and Student Services at Elmwood College about integrating the R&A sustainability programme into the teaching module. We succeeded in our quest and we now had an educational programme that was endorsed by national and international bodies, so all we had to do was implement it!”

Derek Daly, Director of Education

Derek Daly, Director of Education

Quality teaching
Ian Butcher then introduced Derek Daly to the project. Derek previously worked at Kingsbarns Golf Links, which is part of the heritage of links golf in St Andrews and co-hosts the European Tour’s prestigious Alfred Dunhill Links Championship with the Old Course, St Andrews and Carnoustie Golf Links. He joined the programme as Director of Education in December 2011 and it is his responsibility to deliver the education to the students. The first students arrived January 2012 and the first course was underway.

Silver Lakes 046“I was obviously delighted when appointed as it gave me the chance to impart my knowledge to help improve greenkeeping skills across the continent. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the students here; a real first in the industry with the top students guaranteed of a job after graduation.

The course here is maintained by Servest Turf, part of a multi-national facilities management group and they have pledged to employ students at the end of their two-year study programme.”

Silver Lakes 019After a convivial dinner followed by a visit to Derek Le Roux’s amazing home on the estate, the next morning began with a tour of the course during which we came across some indigenous animals on an adjacent reserve.

How the programme works
Back at the clubhouse I had a another meeting with Andrew McKenna and Derek Daly and had the chance to gain a further understanding of the main elements of the programme and the opportunity to meet the students.

Derek explained that the St Andrews International Greenkeeping Qualification runs alongside Silver Lake’s Tour Player Development programme, a two-year study period involving playing skills development and greenkeeping theory and practice.

Silver Lakes 069In the first year of the greenkeeping module students concentrate on turf maintenance skills including setting mower cutting heights, cylinder to bottom blade adjustment, mowing, routine maintenance, course presentation and health and safety.

Year two looks at turf quality evaluation, pest and disease identification, calibration of spraying equipment, golf course hazards, turf nutrition and course design and construction methods.

Students successfully completing Year 1 are awarded an internationally recognised certificate in Golf Course Maintenance and those that graduate from Year 2 receive a Professional Qualification of Golf Course Management, accredited by Elmwood College in the UK.

Students from the initial cohort who graduated in 2013

Students from the initial cohort who graduated in 2013

Andrew then provided an overview of the Tour Player Development programme, which is designed to run concurrently with the greenkeeping module and provides an holistic approach to player development.

It features 200, 90-minute group coaching sessions a year, 120 Pilates sessions, monthly mental conditioning group work, nutritional assessments, course strategy, Academy clothing plus membership at Silver Lakes with unlimited rounds of golf and practice balls on the driving range, swing motion analysis, annual affiliation fee to Northern Gauteng Golf Union and other benefits.

Amman Shah (small)The students
Sitting on the paved patio outside the clubhouse, sipping a fresh orange juice in the glorious sunshine, I then had the chance to speak to some of the students. Amman Shah is a 21-year old student from Nairobi in Kenya. I asked how he came to be on the programme.

“I had a friend who was a second year student and he told me how valuable the course had been for him,” he said. “I applied and was accepted and arrived at Silver Lakes in November 2012, two months prior to the start of the 2013 programme. I really did not appreciate the number of machines it takes to maintain a golf course; there seems to be a different machine for every part of the course! I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here and I would recommend it to anyone.”

Richard-Dean Geyer, 24, is a second year student from nearby Pretoria.
“In the first year we concentrated on basic greenkeeping skills, but now in year two it’s much more intensive. I’m particularly interested in the turf nutrition side and I really enjoy getting out on the equipment and mowing. Sure, the initial attraction with this programme is the golf; improving our game and techniques. But, to be honest, not everyone is going to make it on to the Pro circuit, so the greenkeeping side would make a great alternative and I can see this as a really good career option. This is new to Africa and we’re lucky to be among the first to benefit from it.

Silver Lakes 009Funding and costs
After thanking the students for their time and apologising for delaying their early morning fitness training, I again spoke to Andrew McKenna and asked him how this programme was being funded.

“The complete package costs the students SAR 65,000 (£4,100) per annum, so it’s outside the range of some of the students from the poorer countries in Africa. Some are here after securing funding and sponsorship from their clubs, local education departments or other benefactors. We are desperate to ensure that this programme is open to all and definitely not elitist, so we looked for a headline sponsor.

2013 RJ master logo

More support
“I made some enquiries across my industry contacts and several times the same company kept being mentioned. I knew Ransomes Jacobsen, the UK turf equipment manufacturer, is very committed to education right across the industry, so we contacted their International Business Development Manager, Scott Forrest, and outlined what we were planning to do.

“He was suitably impressed and approached his management team to gauge their interest. We were obviously delighted when Scott called us and asked us to prepare and present a detailed proposal and even more delighted a couple of weeks later when Ransomes Jacobsen agreed to come onboard. We now had all elements we required to get the programme underway and we proceeded immediately.”

Scott Forrest was my host and he explained why his company agreed to be part of the education initiative.

UK Future Turf Managers' training initiative

UK Future Turf Managers’ training initiative

“I think it’s fair to say that we are known across the industry for our commitment to education, not just in the UK, but right across the globe. For example, in both the USA and UK we run the Jacobsen Future Turf Managers initiative, where top college students and young aspiring superintendents are invited to Charlotte and Ipswich for educational events.

“In Australia, the UK and USA we have sponsorship agreements with turf colleges and universities and in Asia we recently sponsored Dr Thom Nikolai, the eminent American turfgrass agronomist, on speaking tour to help with education in the Far East.

“So getting involved with the Silver Lakes education initiative, which encompasses the whole of Africa, was an extension of what we are doing in other parts of the world. It’s part of our business philosophy to support ventures such as this and we are delighted to be part of it.”

Three-pronged strategy
Ransomes Jacobsen’s commitment to this project is to provide the necessary funding to allow less affluent students to take part in the programme and the final words from Andrew McKenna sum up the importance of this to the success of the St Andrews International Greenkeeping initiative.

“Our goal at the outset was to grow the game in Africa with a three point strategy. First we wanted to educate African golfers to produce and manage golf courses on  the continent with the St Andrews International Greenkeeping Qualification and the R&A sustainability agenda as a premium focus.

Silver Lakes 064“Next, we wanted to establish Silver Lakes Golf Academy as the hub for golf course management training and education in Africa and with the assistance of a financial institution to aid in the distribution of funds for golf development in Africa as a whole.

“And finally, we wanted to secure funding to offer scholarships to Africa’s national golf unions (West, Central, East and Southern Africa) to provide their members with the opportunity to send their young players to the programme through the national unions and golf clubs. With the support from Ransomes Jacobsen, we’ve succeeded on all three counts!”

Latest update:
Since my visit the R&A have added their support and are offering scholarships at Silver Lakes. This can only help further the educational opportunities for aspiring greenkeepers across the continent of Africa.

Silver Lakes 080Also after graduating, Richard-Dean Geyer was given a four-month trial with Servest Turf, which he passed with distinction and is now assistance head greenkeeper at Silver Lakes.

Former student Christoph Penzhorn has just completed his second year of employment at Sun City, one of South Africa’s premier golfing destinations, where he is honing his skills on the Lost City and the Gary Player golf courses.

Alfred Dunhill logoFinally, Amman Shah from Nairobi will be part of the greenkeeping team in October at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at Kingsbarns in Scotland.

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Investing in Innovation

Superintendent Dean Piller uses innovative products to make a difference

Cordova Bay At-A-Glance

Year Opened: 1990
Location: Victoria, British Columbia
Superintendent: Dean Piller
Holes: 27
Turf: Annual bluegrass on the greens and tees; colonial bent on the fairways; mix of annual bluegrass and rye grass in the roughs
Equipment: Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding greens mowers (2)
Superintendent Dean Piller of Cordova Bay in Victoria, British Columbia

Superintendent Dean Piller of Cordova Bay in Victoria, British Columbia

For most superintendents, landing their dream job can take an entire career. For Dean Piller, Superintendent of Cordova Bay in Victoria, BC, he’s been lucky enough to work at his dream course since the initial seeding and growing of grass, 24 years ago.

“I’ve always known that I belonged on a golf course. After attending Old’s College in Alberta and then working at several courses in the area, I quickly realized that even a seven-month long golf season wasn’t enough to keep my boredom at bay,” said Piller.

After six years of working in Alberta, Piller landed his dream job out on the West coast with a climate much more conducive to golf. The temperature in Victoria is largely moderated by the Pacific Ocean, which changes only one degree Celsius between summer and winter. This creates a very mild climate in the region that provides Piller with a twelve month long golf season that keeps him far from bored.

With such a long golf season, Cordova Bay receives between 55,000 and 60,000 rounds of golf per year, with the majority of rounds occurring between June and September. To keep up with the overwhelming number of rounds being played, Piller has a crew of 25 at the peak of the season and 11 year-round staff including three assistants.

“Employee stability has been a key factor in the success of this course. The heads of all four departments including myself, the head chef, the golf pro and the club manager have all been here since we opened 24 years ago. Several members of my crew have also been here for over 20 years,” said Piller.

This stability has resulted in extremely loyal clientele at the course, which is impressively 40% female. Though Cordova Bay is a public, daily fee course, they do offer memberships that provide green fee discounts, access to loyalty programs and the ability to book tee times up to two weeks in advance. These optional memberships have given loyal customers the feel of a private club.

The 9-hole course at Cordova Bay overlooks the Pacific Ocean and Washington State

The 9-hole course at Cordova Bay overlooks the Pacific Ocean and Washington State.

Along with stability, the course itself plays a huge role in attracting frequent customers. The course, which was previously a daffodil and cauliflower farm, includes 27 holes and a 1-acre putting course with views of the Pacific Ocean. The design of the course appeals to a large variety of players as well. Piller says, “The course is as good of a test as it needs to be for really good players, but also is friendly to players who are just taking up the game.”

The mild climate in Victoria has also allowed Piller to expand upon one of his greatest passions, horticulture. The environment in the Pacific Northwest allows for a much larger variety of plant growth than in other regions. Piller is especially passionate about including a unique mix of species of trees on the course. He proudly grows two of the only Saw Tooth Oak trees in all of Victoria.

With this exceptional horticultural display at the course comes an equally diverse group of wildlife. The course is home to over 81 species of birds including eagles that nest there every year. In addition to birds, the course also receives frequent visits from deer and even sea otters from the ocean. Cordova Bay has been certified as an Audubon Sanctuary since 2006.

The 17th hole, Piller's personal favorite, is a great example of his horticulture skills at work on the course

The 17th hole, Piller’s personal favorite, is a great example of his horticulture skills at work on the course.

While there are many benefits associated with the region and climate, Piller is also faced with major challenges. Between the months of June and September, there is hardly any rainfall in the area. This, coupled with poor irrigation, causes many dry spots throughout the course. Cordova Bay receives about 30 inches of rain per year. The main water sources include a spring-fed lake, a well and also a municipal source that is utilized when water starts to run short.

Alternatively, during the winter months, the challenge comes from managing the wear and tear brought about from people playing on grass that’s not quite dormant, but also not quite growing. During these months, they can only cut the grass about once per week to tidy up debris, while trying to keep the grass tough enough to survive.

Piller has also discovered ways to use his greens mowers for more than just mowing.

“One of the more uncommon benefits that we are seeing from the Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding greens mowers is their ability to clean up debris on our greens almost like a vacuum. After a storm, the 322 will collect the majority of debris such as needles from fir trees,” explains Piller. “In addition, annual bluegrass tends to have a seeding period from April to July every year. The greens will usually turn all white with seed head, but we’re finding that with the ECLIPSE, it’s eliminating almost all of them and prevents the green from turning white.”

Investing money into the betterment of the course is always a priority of both Piller and the course owner. “Our owner always says that he wants to dispel the notion that a public golf course is maintained to a lesser caliber than a private club,” explains Piller. “We are constantly reinvesting money into the course and into our equipment.”

“We invest money into equipment when a machine is about to start costing money and its useful life is about over or if there’s new technology out that makes it worthwhile to switch,” says Piller. “I look forward to going to shows such as the Golf Industry Show every year to source out new technologies and innovations in the industry.”

The Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding greens mowers have been game-changers for Cordova Bay, saving the course fuel costs and man-hours while increasing the quality-of-cut on their greens

The Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding greens mowers have been game-changers for Cordova Bay, saving the course fuel costs and man-hours while increasing the quality-of-cut on their greens

“The Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 is a perfect example of a new, innovative product that has an incredibly positive impact on our course,” said Piller. “Since using the ECLIPSE 322, we have reduced the time it takes to cut our greens by one hour per day. We are cutting all 19 greens, 160,000 sq. feet, with two mowers in about 3 hours and 15 minutes. In addition, when we walk-mowed our greens using Toro mowers, we were using about 4.8 liters of diesel per day. We have reduced that amount to 3.8 liters per day even though we are tri-plexing.”

Piller also has found that the 322s allow for healthier turf by increasing the height-of-cut without sacrificing the quality of the green surface.

“I play with the frequency-of-clip (FOC) setting on the 322s almost daily. I usually keep it set between .120 and .130 and keep the height of cut at .125”. When we were using Toro walking greens mowers, we were mowing at .100”. With the Jacobsen mowers, we were able to increase our height-of-cut to .125” and are rolling much faster than before.”

“The ECLIPSE 322 has been a huge game changer for us in terms of savings, fuel and quality-of-cut,” says Piller. “We have plans to purchase a third unit this fall to help us mow all of the fringes and tees.”

“The ECLIPSE 322 has been a huge game changer for us in terms of savings, fuel and quality-of-cut. We have plans to purchase a third unit this fall to help us mow all of the fringes and tees.” ~Dean Piller, Superintendent of Cordova Bay, Victoria, British Columbia

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The most natural golf course in the world

golf course 6AIt’s sometimes wet; it’s sometimes wild, but it’s also stunningly beautiful … the ‘lost’ course of Askernish. Situated on the Outer Hebridean isle of South Uist, Askernish Golf Club has an amazing history. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1891, it fell into disrepair and was finally reclaimed by the shifting sands.

In 2005 a chance conversation led to a visit by golf course consultant Gordon Irvine and the restoration of the course began. It takes an effort to get there, but for any golfer who has an innate love of the game, a visit to Askernish, the most natural golf course in the world, is a must.

In the beginning
imagesIn June 1891 Old Tom Morris, accompanied by his companion Horace Hutchinson, travelled from St Andrews to South Uist at the request of the wealthy landowner, Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart, the widow of Captain John Gordon, to inspect the machair lands with a view to laying out a new course. He eventually laid out the eighteen holes on the rolling dunes of Askernish farm, although he declared at the time that the choice of links land in that particular area was staggering.

Askernish 426To the uninitiated, machair is a Gaelic word meaning a fertile low-lying grassy plain, which occurs primarily on the exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and in particular the Outer Hebrides. Here sand, largely made up of crushed shells, is regularly blown ashore by the fierce Atlantic gales. Over time the calcium rich shell sand and traditional Outer Hebrides crofting land practices have led to the development of a mosaic of fertile Scottish grassland habitats renowned for its outstanding wildflowers, birds and insect life.

The early years
During its early years the course would have been used as a vehicle to entice visitors to the island, to be enjoyed along with the traditional pursuits of fishing and shooting. Some of the island’s residents were regular players, but these would have been mostly confined to the local clergy, doctors and teachers. It was maintained by local farm workers in the traditional way back then, using scythes and other handheld implements.

In 1922, the Scottish Land Settlement Act ceded the grazing rights of Askernish farm to 11 crofters and a lack of consistent maintenance led to the course’s general decline, then in 1932 Lady Cathcart died and ownership of the South Uist estate passed into hands of absentee landlords. The course was gradually reclaimed by nature and eventually disappeared into the shifting sands of the dunes.

Northern & ScottishNorthern and Scottish Airways began a regular air service from Renfrew to Askernish in 1936. The manager of the Lochboisdale Hotel was in charge of the aircraft bookings and commissioned a resident of the hotel, Derek MacReadie, a notable amateur golfer and avid fisherman, to lay out a 12 hole course using a flatter area of the machair alongside the grass airstrip.

Second half of the 20th century
The next significant development was the arrival of Dr Kenneth Robertson to South Uist in 1956. He was an enthusiastic and excellent golfer who immediately saw the potential of the course and worked tirelessly in reviving the membership and encouraging the youth of the island to adopt the sport.

Rocket rangeA military rocket range had opened in the northern part of the island and this brought an abundance of army personnel and construction workers who had a passion for golf to the course, where a portacabin was being used for a clubhouse. In 1970 Dr Robertson designed a new layout which consisted of nine holes and eighteen tees. By this time, the Old Tom Morris course had been totally consumed by nature and virtually forgotten.

Dr Robertson left the island in 1982 to retire to Edinburgh and with the downsizing of the military base the nine-hole course once again fell into decline. The 1990s were a decade of mixed fortunes for the club. The course only remained playable due to the determination and endeavour of a few locals until the idea of building a new clubhouse sparked some life into the club, but that collapsed as no grant funding could be found. The situation was so bad that at one point a vote was taken on whether or not to disband the club, but a handful of diehards soldiered on, without flags, tee markers or a greenkeeper.

Gordon irvine.00

Course consultant Gordon Irvine

New millennium and new beginning
2005 was the remarkable turning point in the history of Askernish. Gordon Irvine, a golf course consultant and keen fisherman, contacted an estate in his native Ayrshire to enquire about fishing rights. The gentlemen he spoke to also happened to be the ex-Factor (estate manager) of South Uist Estates and mentioned during their conversation that there was an Old Tom Morris course on the island. Irvine was disbelieving and contacted the club’s Chairman Ralph Thompson for confirmation, who promptly confirmed that indeed there was a connection and invited Irvine over to inspect the links. At this time the nine-hole course had a few dozen members and the greens were mowed with rusting gang mowers and an old tractor.

Irvine visited the course in December 2005 and although the weather conditions were
atrocious, he immediately commented on the superb quality of the turf and when he saw the dune system from where the original course started, he exclaimed that he had found ‘The Holy Grail’. Now Irvine is something of a links specialist having worked at Turnberry throughout the 1980s, returning in 1994 to help prepare for the course for The Open. He has also undertaken consultancy work at Royal Cinque Ports in Kent, Hunstanton Golf Club and Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, both in Norfolk, UK.

Gordon Irvine's first view of of the links in December 2005

Gordon Irvine’s first view of of the links in December 2005

What he saw has now passed into folklore; at the top of the dune he gazed down on what was obviously a stretch of rolling links running alongside the beach. Although there was little or no sign of the position of the former greens it was obvious that the spectacular piece of land could have been the site of Old Tom’s creation.

Lost masterpiece
Convinced he had stumbled on a lost masterpiece he suggested that if the club could muster a group of volunteers he would donate his time and expertise to help resurrect Askernish. So in March 2006, he returned to the island having assembled a small group of like-minded enthusiasts – golf course architect Mike Ebert, a greenkeeping colleague Chris Haspall and Adam Lawrence, the editor of internationally acclaimed Golf Course Architecture magazine.

With no plans of the course in existence, their first task was to try and identify eighteen possible locations for the greens, so using their combined knowledge of Old Tom’s design principles they walked through the machair plotting possible options. That evening Ebert produced a plan on his laptop, and this provided the basis for the restoration work. This original plan has been slightly modified since, but the basic area and layout remains much the same as plotted that day.

All the necessary planning permissions were in place by December 2007, although not without some resistance from a few local crofters who believed the club were trying eliminate livestock from the machair. Over time this has been proved not to be true, as the course has remained as authentic to its 1891 principles as possible.

Askernish 413Cattle and sheep still graze the land during the winter months and the use of all artificial fertilisers and herbicides is prohibited. This has led to Askernish being known as ‘the most natural golf course in the world’.

By the end of winter 2007, all eighteen holes were laid out and seventeen fairways were in place; the remaining fairway, the 12th, was under construction and featured a spectacular double fairway. The course was completed by the end of May 2008 with the official opening scheduled for late August.

 

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Grand opening
kenny dalglishOn 22nd August over 100 competitors plus the local, national and international media, locals and well-wishers flocked to the club for the official opening, presided over by club Chairman Ralph Thompson, and Honorary President Kenny Dalglish. On the first tee dressed in a kilt, Club Captain Donald MacInnes hit the opening tee-shot on Old Tom’s restored Askernish course with a finely-struck hickory iron.

The ongoing development of the course continued in 2009, again with Martin Ebert and Course Consultant Gordon Irvine MG but now including fresh support from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keizer and American architect Tom Doak. The ‘fine-tuning’ included the re-siting of the 6th and 17th greens.

Course maintenance equipment
Maintenance facility signageObviously, a golf course requires a minimum of maintenance equipment to keep it playable and this is where Ransomes Jacobsen, the UK-based manufacturer of commercial mowing equipment, became involved in the project. Then Managing Director David Withers, now President of Jacobsen, is a golf enthusiast and through his industry contacts he became aware of the Askernish story. Realising they would need mowing equipment he contacted the club and offered to support them with a donation of equipment.

Askernish 369And so it was that in June 2007, the first delivery of equipment was transhipped from the local ferry port to the club; although not new, it had been refurbished at the Ipswich manufacturing plant and was gratefully received by head greenkeeper Allan MacDonald.

The small fleet of Jacobsen equipment consisted of a Greens King IV triplex greens mower, an AR250 contour rotary mower, a Fairway 250 and a Cushman Turf Truckster; enough equipment to maintain the course in its ‘natural’ state.

The greenkeeper
Askernish 432Allan MacDonald has been the full time head greenkeeper since 2006, although he has over 20 years association with the club. Research into his family history has revealed he is a descendant of Flora MacDonald, the Jacobean heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the Scots’ defeat at the Battle of Culloden.

The owner of a general store on the island until 2004, he gained a limited knowledge of greenkeeping through his volunteer work, which also included spells as secretary and captain. To further his education he undertook web-based courses on the Elmwood College turf management programme attaining Level 2 and recently completed the HNC module in Golf Course Management.  He is assisted by Nollie Mackinnon from May to October, when the cattle and sheep are prohibited from the machair and the course enters high season.

The course
Askernish 389In glorious weather, Allan was the host for my course tour and it was fascinating to see how the course had been restored. The first six holes form a loop which includes two par 5s and provide a gentle start with undulating greens and reasonable changes in elevation. But nothing prepares you for the sight when you reach the 7th tee, where you are greeted by the Atlantic Ocean with views of Barra and some of the most stunning dune systems in golf.

Walking the course it is difficult to see if by some chance the combined efforts of Irvine, Ebert, Haspall and latterly Malcolm Peake, have placed a green or tee in a location out of character with Old Tom’s original layout. No-one will ever know, but as you walk each hole, if they have been unfaithful, it has only enhanced the golfing experience.

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An enhanced natural bunker guarding the 8th green

A typical example is short par 4, 8th hole. For big hitters it is comfortably reached in one, but is guarded by fearsome drop offs to the right of the hole and back of the green, so you need to be extremely brave to try for an eagle or birdie.

We arrive back at the clubhouse and sit down to some welcome refreshments prepared by the clubhouse manager, Mary Flora MacDonald who just happens to be Allan’s wife! Askernish 429Her homemade cakes and biscuits are superb and the clubhouse has a really homely feel; there’s even a small Pro Shop to the side, also managed by Mary Flora.

Over tea and cake I have the chance to interview Allan and get more background for the piece I intend to write. He obviously loves his job and is hugely appreciative about the support he has received from many sources, especially Ransomes Jacobsen.

Malcolm Peake

“We are extremely grateful to Malcolm Peake, who introduced David Withers to us in 2007; David’s enthusiasm for this project cannot be underestimated,” he said. “The equipment we received from Ransomes Jacobsen has enabled us to keep the course maintained throughout the year. We have over 200 acres of grass and it takes one and half days to cut the fairways. We keep it as natural as possible, overseeding the greens every year with a 50/50 mix of creeping red and chewings fescues from our seed supplier Johnsons.

Askernish 368“In the initial reconstruction phase we used the AR250 rotary mower to take down the indigenous grasses to recreate the fairways, which we now manage in the summer with a Fairway 305. Although a basic greens mower, the Greens King IV has been superb and the quality of cut is second to none.

“We cut at 6mm in the summer and increase the height to 7mm in the winter. We rope off the greens in the winter months to stop the animals grazing and they look after the fairways for us!”

Former Chairman and Liar-in-chief
Ralph & KennyWe we’re soon joined by Ralph Thompson, who recently relinquished the job as club chairman, but who is still heavily involved as a board member. Ralph, who was once light heartedly described in the US magazine Sports Illustrated as “chairman and liar-in-chief,” is, without doubt, the main reason why the unearthing of Askernish has happened. A native of South Uist, he lived in Aberdeen from the age of 16 to 32, returning to the island in 1988 upon the death of his father.

“We now have over 200 members and 34 Life members”, he says with obvious pride. “We have around a 1,000 rounds a year and at the end of August we host the Askernish Open. This is the highlight of our year and over three days we enjoy a great golf course, friendship, hospitality and one of the best golf experiences available, but I’m biased. We entertain visitors from as far afield as the mainland Europe, Scandinavia, the Americas and Africa; our Half-way house has quickly made its way into Askernish folklore!

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A group of Life Members gather at the start of the inaugural competition

“This year we hosted the first Life Members competition with over 20 members attending from all over the globe. For some of the members it was their first trip to Askernish, even though they had made a monetary contribution to the restoration work years earlier.

“The weekend was a fantastic success and is now going to become a bi-annual event. Tom Doak, the world renowned golf course architect and his associate Eric Iverson were in attendance and Tom told me that he mentions Askernish in the latest edition of his ‘Confidential Guide to UK Golf Courses’ as one of the three best courses in Scotland. That is some accolade for our humble course!”

Reflection
My time on the island was coming to a close as I needed to get to the airport at Benbecula for the return flights to Glasgow via Stornaway. I bade my farewells and on the drive through the majestic landscape of South Uist had time to reflect on my visit.

That chance conversation between Gordon Irvine and Ralph Thompson was the beginning of a remarkable restoration project, probably one that will never again be experienced in the world of golf. Martin Ebert said that hole 8 at Askernish was the “most natural par 4 in the world” and it would take a brave man to disagree.

 Askernish – the most natural golf course anywhere in the world!

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Environmental protection remains a top priority at Vale do Lobo

Vale do Lobo is the largest luxury resort development in Portugal and features twoVale do Lobo 412
18-hole championship golf courses. The resort owners are conscious of their impact on their surroundings and are committed to maintaining the environmental equilibrium; and that’s one of the drivers behind their recent purchases of turf maintenance equipment with zero emissions at the point of use.

Year Opened: 1968 (first nine holes)
Location: Almancil, Portugal
Resort Technical Director: Eng. Luis Matos
Golf Courses Superintendent: Ignacio Coelho
Equipment: Jacobsen Eclipse 322 electric greens mowers (3);
Smithco  Super Star 48 volt electric bunker rakes (3)

HistoryCostain logo
Sir Richard Costain, managing director of the international construction company Costain, was a regular visitor to the Algarve in the early 1960s and being a scratch golfer decided he would like to build a course in the area. While visiting several sites he came across the Vale do Lobo (Valley of the Wolf), a dramatic area of land some 15 miles west of Faro.

Having purchased the land he now required an architect, so he chose his old school friend, Sir Henry Cotton, and together they drew up the first plans for the course, which were unveiled in 1962. At that time, the Algarve was mainly inhabited by farmers and fishermen but with the first nine holes opening in 1965 followed by a second nine holes and the construction of the five star Dona Filipa Hotel in 1968, that soon changed, especially when Faro International Airport opened that same year.

In 1971 the first ‘aldeamento’ (housing complex) was completed and the following yearVale do Lobo 371 the third nine hole course opened. Sander van Gelder, a Dutch entrepreneur, discovered Vale do Lobo while on holiday in the mid 1970s, and recognising its potential, bought the resort and moved to Portugal in 1977.

The Roger Taylor tennis centre opened in 1980 and in 1997, the construction of an additional nine holes saw the creation of the Royal and Ocean courses. Vale do Lobo celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2002, staging the Algarve Open de Portugal for the first time and the same year hosted its first ATP Seniors Tour event,  won by John McEnroe. The Algarve Open de Portugal returned for a second consecutive year in 2003.

Towards the end of 2006, the resort was sold to a group of Portuguese and international investors, including Portugal’s largest national bank, Caixa Geral de Depósitos.

The courses
Both courses at Vale do Lobo feature umbrella pine and fig tree-lined fairways that Vale do Lobo 434sweep down to the Atlantic; the par 72, 6,059 metre Royal course, designed by American golf architect Rocky Roquemore, based on the original drawings of Sir Henry Cotton, sits dramatically along the cliff’s edge. The 9th green is virtually an island and the famous 16th, with clifftop carry is one of the most photographed holes in Europe.

The Ocean Course, composed of the two original 9-hole golf courses designed by Sir
Vale do Lobo 426Henry Cotton, is a combination of links and parkland golf that provides enjoyable and alternative options for golfers of all standards. At 6,137 metres with a par of 73 it features gently undulating fairways which run alongside the nature reserve before leading gently down to the shores of the Atlantic. The 11th and 14th are challenging and spectacular par 4s and the par 3 15th runs alongside the beach.

The Resort’s ethos
One of the first people I met on my visit was Eng. Luis Matos, the Resort and Technical Director who has been associated with Vale do Lobo for over 41 years. During the short walk to the location of the photoshoot he explained the ethos of the resort.

“We are situated in an amazing area of 400 hectares bordering the Atlantic Ocean,” heVale do Lobo 411 said, “of which 75 hectares are dedicated to the golf courses. The courses are based on original concepts by the legendary Sir Henry Cotton and were re-developed by the respected American golf architect Rocky Roquemore.

“We are an ideal destination for golfers, second home owners and holiday makers, thanks to an exceptional climate, dramatic coastline, golden beaches, acclaimed restaurants, the golf courses and an impressive property portfolio. We are delighted to have hosted to the Portuguese Open on two occasions.

“The importance of the natural environment in Vale do Lobo has been a priority at the resort from the outset, with continuous innovation, infrastructure and services remaining essential in preserving the unique natural environment of the area. The overall aim of the resort is to balance the needs and desires of the residents and visitors, while also maintaining a philosophy of sustainable development.

“To ensure the successful environmental management of the Vale do Lobo golf courses, we are always looking to find new and innovative solutions to course maintenance and in keeping with this philosophy, we have recently acquired new equipment from the renowned Jacobsen brand, to allow the latest technology to be used to create harmony between the courses and the environment.”

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Golf Courses Superintendent Ignacio Coelho sitting on the Eclipse 322

New course maintenance equipment
Ignacio Coelho is the Golf Courses Superintendent at Vale do Lobo and has worked at the resort for the past 24 years and leads a team of 32 greenkeeping staff. With over 110,000 rounds of golf every year, the courses demand an impressive and dedicated team to keep them in pristine condition.

Speaking during the delivery of the three Jacobsen Eclipse 322s he said,Vale do Lobo 359
“We had a demonstration of the mowers just over a year ago and I was very impressed with the thinking behind their design. The battery packs which store the electricity have an automatic watering system, which makes them easy to maintain and the quality of cut on the greens is impressive. Obviously they are virtually silent when in operation and create no
emissions when being used around the resort.

“The other obvious benefit is that there is absolutely no chance of an hydraulic oil spill on the greens, because they are totally powered by electricity and have no hydraulic system. I made a serious business case for purchasing the equipment, presented it to our Finance Director, Luisa Salazar and to Luis Matos, and my recommendations were approved.

“Jacobsen sent one of their service engineers from the UK to install the Vale do Lobo 439machines, which was excellent as he could fully explain to my assistant, Luis Rebelo and our mechanic, some of the more detailed functions of the mowers.

“We have also taken delivery of three all-electric bunker rakes from the Smithco brand. These Super Star 48 volt rakes, together with the new Jacobsen machines, combine efficiency with minimal noise pollution to allow for a greater quality of life for the residents, while equally respecting the environment. Everyone at Vale do Lobo is proud to be once again working towards a cleaner and more environmentally friendly future.”

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A Canadian Calling

Superintendent Ian McQueen living his dream at Toronto-area course

Islington Golf Club At-A-Glance

Year Opened: 1926
Location: Toronto, Canada
Superintendent: Ian McQueen
Turf: Poa annua on the greens, Providence & 007 bentgrasses in the fairways and mix of bluegrass, fescue, rye and poa in the rough
Equipment: Jacobsen ECLIPSE2 122F walking greens mowers (6); Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding greens mowers (2); Jacobsen SLF-1880 fairway mowers (3) and Cushman Turf-Trucksters (3)
Ian McQueen, Superintendent of Islington Golf Club in Toronto, Canada. Of being a superintendent, McQueen says, "It's all I've ever done and all I ever will do."

Ian McQueen, Superintendent of Islington Golf Club in Toronto, Canada. Of being a superintendent, McQueen says, “It’s all I’ve ever done and all I ever will do.”

Some superintendents end up in the business by chance. Others take a side door through a related business or industry. And there are the guys for whom the profession is a calling. Ian McQueen, Superintendent of Islington Golf Club in Toronto, Canada, is one of those guys.

“I fell in love with this industry at 14 years of age,” said McQueen. “It’s all I’ve ever done and all I ever wanted to do.”

After receiving a turfgrass degree from Penn State and completing an internship in the Baltimore area, McQueen became superintendent at a private club with a single owner. Fast forward to now, McQueen answers to 500 members at Islington – a job that can be just as challenging as managing bentgrass in tundra-like conditions.

“Working for a board was a learning curve for me because you have so many different opinions,” said McQueen. “Sharing information with our board and members has been a great way for them to really understand what we do and our unique needs.”

McQueen frequently posts on his turf blog and Twitter (@IanMcQueenIGC) to keep members aware of course updates. He says social media has been instrumental in fostering a great relationship between the members and turf staff.

“We had a flood in early July of last year and then an incredibly challenging winter,” said McQueen. “We lost a green to the flood and the rest were decimated by an ice storm in December. But our members knew about it from our constant flow of communications. They could see with their own eyes from the pictures just how bad things were. Because they were well informed on what we were facing, the board voted to completely rebuild our 90-year-old push-up greens at a $1.1 million price tag.”

Islington's push-up greens are currently being rebuilt to USGA specs. The drainage and gravel layer of green no. 2 (seen above) were recently installed.

Islington’s push-up greens are currently being rebuilt to USGA specs. The drainage and gravel layer of green no. 2 (seen above) were recently installed.

The renovations have already begun at Islington, which is getting all-new USGA greens. It will be a huge upgrade for the course, which competes for members with several other Toronto-area courses. Islington currently has 550 members.

Islington’s membership will get in around 30,000 rounds of golf a year, which is down from 36,000 a few years ago. It’s an impressive number considering the course is only open six months out of the year.

“We’re changing some of the sloping of the greens to keep up certain green speeds,” says McQueen. “Now that the height-of-cut is much lower than twenty years ago, the slopes that are about six degrees need to be changed to two or three while maintaining the general shape of the green as a whole.”

One of three Jacobsen SLF-1880 fairway mowers used at Islington. McQueen likes the machine's lighter weight and ability to cut right up to the approaches.

One of three Jacobsen SLF-1880 fairway mowers used at Islington. McQueen likes the machine’s lighter weight and ability to cut right up to the approaches.

McQueen uses a fleet of Jacobsen ECLIPSE2 122F greens mowers to maintain his greens.

“I’ve had Jacobsen walkers for about a decade because I think they’re the best on the market,” said McQueen. “I love that you can control the frequency-of-clip. During peak season, we set the FOC and HOC the same, about .110. This gets us a pretty consistent roll of 10-10.5’, which is ideal for members.”

“We use the Jacobsen SLF-1880 fairway units to mow the traditional half-moon style,” said McQueen. “I really like the light weight of the SLF-1880, they can mow right up to the approaches without a problem. I have three but plan to get two more.”

“I think the keys to success here at Islington are consistency and communication,” said McQueen. “If you can present consistently good conditions and communicate everything you’re doing to your members, you create a winning environment.”

“I think the keys to success here at Islington are consistency and communication,” said McQueen. “If you can present consistently good conditions and communicate everything you’re doing to your members, you create a winning environment” ~Ian McQueen, Superintendent of Islington Golf Club, Toronto, Canada

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