Following a spate of adverse weather conditions, Royal Troon is gearing up to host the world’s greatest golfing tournament…
Wouldn’t we all love to have a superpower? What would be yours? Time travel? Invisibility? Superhuman strength? Ability to fly? For me, it would be the ability to get inside the head of all referees in charge of Scotland matches – in all sports – and ensure even handed fairness.
Now I have no trouble in working out what superpower golf greenkeepers would wish for. One hundred percent it would be the ability to control the weather.
I also have no doubt that the first volunteer to be the controller of the weather gods would be Billy McLachlan, Course Manager at Royal Troon which hosts The Open in mid-July, because he has seen weather on his little patch of west of Scotland coast which he has never experienced during his 35 years at Troon.
Let Billy explain just why those weather controlling powers would have been such a valuable part of his tool kit over the last nine months or so.
“The rain started in November and just kept falling. We had flooding on about a dozen areas around the course, as a result of the water table being so high and it just wouldn’t go away,” explained Billy, for whom the 2016 Open will be the third time he has been in charge of preparing a course for the greatest golf championship in the world.
But while King Canute had suffered from similar well documented issues in the past, the Troon team knew that they had to make every effort with preparation time for July’s Open being reduced all the time.
“We had to be seen to be doing something so that we couldn’t be accused of just sitting back, but every course in the area was suffering just the same – it was nature at work – and we just hoped there would be a turnaround in the weather.”
When it got to February with no improvement Billy and his team decided that drastic times required drastic measures and they started pumping.
“I’m not exaggerating. We must have pumped millions of gallons off the course, sending it onto the beach about 200 yards out, but we weren’t making any headway. The guys really were getting frustrated. They would pump out an area and make a bit of a difference and then go back the next day and it was almost as bad as before,” said Billy.
“I’d never seen anything like it in all my time here at Troon. My other two Opens enjoyed good weather in the run up and it was a straight forward case of not doing anything silly and we enjoyed excellent Opens. This was different.”
One thing he has learned over the last 20 years was above all to keep up a calm exterior at all times.
“I was telling people not to worry, we’ll be fine, but deep down I was concerned. It was very unusual, puddles were sitting for weeks, if not months, and in all honesty we just didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember a weekend at the beginning of April at a time when I thought we were finally getting on top of it, when we had some really heavy rain on a Friday night.
“I went out to look at the 11th fairway, where we had lost quite a bit of grass. We’d had to sit on our hands because it wasn’t ready to re-seed, but the boys had finally got in and done a really good job.
“I remember creeping round the corner, scared to look in case the rain had caused us more problems, thinking please don’t be puddled. But there it was – a huge puddle. I won’t tell you what I muttered under my breath, but I was thinking, ‘Here it is back to haunt us again’,” revealed Billy.
Fortunately a dry spell followed and the team were able to get their preparations back on schedule and the contractors, who build what can now rightly be described as a massive temporary city, were able to get on site.
“It wasn’t ideal as it was still soft and we had to put tracking down to enable them to build up the stands around the 18th.”
In the 12 years since Billy and his team last prepared for an Open much has changed. The tents – temporary buildings would be a better name for them – are much bigger. Everything is much bigger while the R&A has also changed. Even at the top, and Martin Slumbers, who took over the reins from Peter Dawson as Chief Executive, will be in charge for his first Championship.
“He has been here on a number of occasions and has gone on the official course walks to see how preparations are progressing.”
Billy has also seen a change in the management structure within the R&A when it comes to running The Open.
“Since the 2004 Open I have found that the R&A now have individuals dealing with individual areas of responsibility. Last time I dealt with one person on a number of different areas.”
Since his first Open in charge – Justin Leonard’s win in 1997 – Billy has also evolved as a Course Manager.
“When we started taking scientific readings around the course to identify bounce levels, hydraulic conductivity etc, I’m not sure if I liked the idea. I felt that I was putting my neck on the line. Now I test for everything, even if it is just to reassure myself that my instincts are correct. It’s a little like when mobile phones came out. I didn’t like them as they often meant dropping what I was doing at the time whenever the phone goes off. Now, if I leave my mobile in the house I panic.”
Other changes to course maintenance have been helped by the improvement in machinery over the last 20 years which has enabled more procedures to be carried out quicker and more efficiently.
“We do a lot more sanding now than before. Richard Windows, of the STRI, is a massive help to me and he suggested that we put much more sand on the fairways and that has raised the quality to the extent that they are now very good links fairways. It has a made a real difference.”
Another change that he has introduced has seen the winter months utilised for top dressing.
“I used to top dress in the summer or the spring but now I do 90% of our top dressing from October to March – greens, fairways, tees, everything.”
Speaking six weeks before the first tee shot is hit in the Open, Billy was deep in preparation mode and keen to ensure every base was covered.
“I’m living and breathing it every minute of every day. I wake up thinking of things I need to get done and those which I should have done the previous day. There is apprehension. I know there are many greenkeepers out there who would love to do The Open but it does take over your life. So I will be relieved when we get to the end of the week – although the Monday after it finishes is as hectic as the rest of the days.”
He does see himself very much part of a team and knows that every cog in the wheel is as important as the next.
“Richard (Windows) has been absolutely brilliant. He is a huge help, while the guys – there’s a team of 17 including himself and seasonal workers for the 45 holes at Royal Troon – have done a fantastic job. They really have been putting every last bit of effort into their work for months now.”
So it is fair to suggest that Billy would make sure he was at the front of the queue when those superhero powers were being allocated and that, given his first choice, life might be that much less stressful for the next Royal Troon Open Championship.
Ordering up an extended spell of sunny warm weather with occasional overnight rain from his mobile phone would be just the job.