A matter of trust: Scott MacCallum visits John O’Gaunt, one of the best golf clubs in England, and talks with Course Manager Nigel Broadwith about achieving results by working with like-minded professionals in pursuit of the same aim…
You know you’ve made it when you get something named after you. Think of Halley’s Comet; Nelson’s Column; the Bosman Ruling or Duckworth-Lewis. All act as everlasting memorials to Edmond; Horatio; Jean-Marc; Frank and Tony, respectively.
I have no real insight into the leisure interests of John of Gaunt, the 14th century English Prince, military leader, and statesman, but my guess would be that he wasn’t a golfer. The truth is that the game was very much in its infancy around that time, and while slow play wasn’t the issue then as it is now, the lack of courses, particularly inland, not to mention poor quality clubs and balls, had it down the sporting pecking order behind the more popular pursuits of archery and jousting.
So, the likelihood is that John would have been extremely surprised and delighted to know that he has lent his name to one of the best golf clubs in England.
John O’Gaunt Golf Club boasts two superb 18 hole courses – John O’Gaunt itself, and the newer, Carthagena – which are kept extremely busy by the club’s 1,500 members and guests. The man whose job it is to keep those members happy and produce high quality playing conditions over the two courses is Course Manager Nigel Broadwith, a quietly spoken Yorkshireman who leaves no stone unturned in his desire to achieve the best for his courses.
With 15 years at the club Nigel has seen his challenges change over his time at the helm, starting out with a need to improve greens.
“For the first three or four years it was just a case of aeration, aeration, aeration, to remove thatch from the greens,” recalled Nigel, as we sat on the clubhouse veranda looking out over the 18th green of the John O’Gaunt course.
“My first reaction had been that we were going to have to rebuild up to 12 of the greens, which would obviously have been expensive, but through our aeration programme the greens began to drain much better which was fantastic news,” he explained, adding that he restricted it to needle tining, to give himself the opportunity to carry it out more extensively without the disruption to play hollow coring would have caused.
“It became such a regular thing that members would come up to me and ask if I was micro-coring again, but after a year they started to see the improvements it brought.”
With the greens showing steady improvement, Nigel and his team turned their attention to the bunkers, another of the areas where there had been member concern, particularly about the type of sand used and the drainage. “We did a full bunker refurb on John O’Gaunt in-house and got contractors in for Carthegina,” explained Nigel, who also oversaw the levelling of all but five of the tees, putting in irrigation at the same time.
“We now only have one or two left to finish.”
But if you harboured thoughts that with improved greens, bunkers and tees meant that the work was done, you would be sadly mistaken.
The more regular weather extremes we are now all experiencing cause problems at John O’Gaunt.
“Last year drought meant that the only part of the course that was green were the greens. The rest was brown.”
The simplistic solution would be to install wall-to-wall irrigation, but nothing in life is straightforward.
“We are trialling fairway irrigation on the 12th fairway at the moment, and it is going very well. However, we are very limited in the amount of water to which we have access. Our summer licence allows us just 9,090 cubic litres, while over the last three years we’ve probably taken 3,000 to 4,000 cubic litres off the mains.
That is obviously expensive and is one of the reasons that we don’t have fairway irrigation,” said Nigel, who has been spending £10,000 per annum overseeding fairways for the last eight years, the effectiveness of which is obviously enhanced with natural and/or artificial watering.
Not to be denied, however, there is a John O’Gaunt masterplan.
“The trial was intended to show what we could achieve if we were able to get enough water for a full irrigation system. Since the start of the trial, we have moved on and installed a new ring main into the John O’Gaunt course so that irrigation can be added. The plan is to bolt on another 12 fairways in January.”
So, how are they going to get over the water limitations?
“We’ve just applied to increase our mains water limit and are getting a new meter installed. However, we also have a water treatment plant next door to us, so we are examining the option of being able to use the effluent water from there.”
Our clubhouse veranda meeting wasn’t a two-person affair. There were two other guests around the table, and while they are pertinent to the latest of Nigel’s John O’Gaunt improvement phases, to be discussed anon, their contributions stretch further than that.
David Snowden, of Agronomic Services, and Matt Corbould, of MR Amenity, have worked with Nigel for a number of years covering an increasing number of course-related issues.
“We analysed the water from the treatment plant to assess its quality and impact on the turf. The upside was obviously the quantity, the quality was the downside. While not perfect it was still usable,” explained David, who uses a world-renowned testing laboratory, Harris Labs, in Nebraska, who operate in conjunction with Ana-Lync. Ana-Lync provides a precise soil and water analysis giving an in-depth look at turf soil, comparing data from over 30,000 samples. This can reveal nutrient deficiencies and is exclusive to Floratine products.
The estimate for fairway irrigation is that they would require just short of 300 cubic litres per day and with 500 cubic litres of effluent water, of which 200 to 300 could be available to the club, a solution would be within touching distance.
So, with the irrigation piece soon to be placed into Nigel’s John O’Gaunt jigsaw, you would have imagined that he was delighted with progress during his time at the club.
“About four years ago I was playing a bit of golf at other courses, some close to here and some further afield, and, while people had been saying that our greens were great, I was looking at those I was playing on and thinking I want my greens like these,” revealed Nigel, who was Deputy at Fulford, In York, before moving south.
Density, grass variety, evenness and the growing habits in winter and spring his main niggles.
At that point he chatted with Matt, who had been both a supplier and a trusted friend for some years, who in turn put Nigel in touch with David, a man with over 35 years industry experience.
When Nigel approached his committee and explained his thoughts, they agreed with his assertion about the benefits of moving up a level, the budgetary increase was signed off.
“We got a lot of support from the General Manager, Gordon MacLeod, who had recently joined the club and who was very proactive in his desire to make improvements wherever possible,” revealed David.
“His view was that if Nigel wanted to do it, let’s push on and do it.”
So, with the green light given, Nigel, David and Matt began to implement the required changes.
The word most used between Nigel, David and Matt is trust and you get the feeling from the three of them that the excellent professional relationship they have has spilled over into personal friendships.
“It was a process like that of gently turning around an oil tanker, slowly. That started with improving the quality of the growing medium – the root zone. Nigel had taken the plant as far as he realistically could, given the tools he had at his disposal at the time. He’d done a phenomenal job,” said David.
David has been a consultant for Floratine for over 30 years and has been a huge advocate for the company, the only one in the world that has developed and manufactures products specifically for turf.
“The concept behind true foliar feeding, using high quality raw materials, means that we would enter into a programme of regular feeding at small rates, which will get the plants growing at the same height with the same nutrition,” David explained.
Matt, whose previous career as a Course Manager has given him a certain empathy with his customers. MR Amenity is now an established distributor for Agronomic Service’s products, and they work together alongside the Course Managers and Greenkeeping Teams, bringing their combined expertise.
“There are not many brands in the world, other that Floratine, which can give you specific solutions for specific problems. To my mind, no other brand out there gives you such control,” explained Matt.
The Floratine scientists have pulled cool and warm season plants apart and looked at the DNA to identify the ratios of elements, then they source raw material from around the world to build the products which work most sympathetically with the plant.
In layman’s terms Nigel was provided with a toolbox containing 40 different “tools”, in the form of soil conditioners, foliar feeding and thatch busters, among a host of others.
That toolbox has given Nigel exactly what he has needed to make the improvements he was looking for.
“This year has probably been the best because I’ve done something every week for the last 10 weeks.
It’s a case of rather than thinking they look fantastic, but I’ll leave it a week before the next application, I’ve given them a little feed the next day,” said Nigel, who relies on his own increasingly informed judgement as well as advice from David. David’s heritage is from five generations of family farmers, so understanding plants and crops, is a way of life. He was fortunate to have worked for Lindum Turf for ten years, prior to his move to Floratine.
“We are working with a crop that grows 365 days a year, but from which you don’t want a yield. In farming terms you’d want to generate five tonnes to an acre by filling the plant full of nitrogen and other goodies but in our case the grass is growing all the time, but we don’t want a yield. We just want consistent new growth and it’s a never-ending process – a case of constant tweaking and riding the crest of the wave,” said David.
Nigel has also experimented in dropping the height of cut to 2.9mil something that has only been possible thanks to a healthier plant and well performing root zone.
“If you want to have a grass that can be cut lower you have to have a whole raft of things in place and take so much into consideration,” said David
“Are you going to hand mow or mow with a triple? Is your thatch level able to cope with the lower height of cut as you can’t cut low on spongy greens? How do you manage a cool season grass in 25 to 30 degrees”? David uses the analogy using the IV drip, replenishing the sport’s turf to avoid stress.
Nigel has trust in his processes and his products and has achieved his aims. He has received incredible feedback from members and guests, saying how fantastic his greens are – he thinks they are pretty good now too!
So, while John of Gaunt knows nothing of the golf club which carries his name, you can be sure that if he did, he would be more than delighted with the improvements Nigel and his team have implemented in recent years.