There are few things worse than a 3.30am alarm call.
It’s bad enough when it’s to make sure you catch that early flight to start your holiday. But when it’s to start your working day? That’s no fun at all.
On any other day, I’d be inclined to whack the ‘snooze’ button a good few times. Today, though, I’m up and out of bed at the first time of asking. That’s because I’m due to report to St Andrews Links’ Jubilee Greenkeeping Centre at 5.20am, ready for a day’s work as an honorary member of the team.
I’ve been invited to join the course manager of the Old Course, Gordon McKie, and his unit to, (a) help prepare arguably the most famous arena in all of golf for the coming day’s play, and (b) get a better understanding of what a typical day’s work entails for a modern greenkeeping team. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up.
Having stayed in St Andrews overnight, I make the short journey down to the Greenkeeping Centre, which sits between the Old and New Courses. It is packed with all the latest machinery - or ‘greenkeeping porn’, as one chap describes it - and it’s there that Gordon meets me. “I hope you don’t mind getting stuck in,” he laughs as he prepares me for the day ahead. I assure him I’m well up for the challenge. Deep down, though, the only thing I want to get stuck into is a strong coffee. Two preferably.
Luckily, it’s a pleasant morning. The sun isn’t quite up yet and there are a few dark clouds hovering ominously but there’s not a breath of wind in the air. As Gordon explains what we’re going to do, his 18-man fleet is already heading out onto the course to go about their various tasks of cutting, rolling, raking and the like.
My first duty? Change the pin positions... on all the greens. We shoot straight off to the 18th - arguably the most famous green in golf - and, as we hop off the buggy, I realise I’m suddenly nervous. Cutting holes into the greens of one of the world’s most instantly-recognisable and fondly revered golf courses is a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. People come from far and wide to play this course. For many, it’s a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience; for others, it’s a pilgrimage. The last thing I want to do is ruin their day by making a meal of preparing the course.
Luckily, Gordon is there to show me how it’s done - and it’s very easy. Armed with a pin-sheet, he paces out the new pin position. Using a specialist hole-cutter, he hammers down into the ground to make room for the cup, which is lifted from its current position on the green using a basic metal hook. Meanwhile, the area removed from the new hole (called a ‘plug’) fits perfectly into the old hole. All that’s left is to give the grass around the new hole a quick trim with a pair of scissors and, voila, the job is done. It takes barely two minutes. Which is just as well because time is of the essence.
“We’re always up against the clock,” explains Gordon. “The first tee time here in summer is usually around 6.30am. We can’t do everything we need to do and be off the course by then, so the best we can do is to stay ahead of the golfers and not hold them up.” The furthest point on the course is where the seventh, eighth, tenth and 11th greens all meet. So, assuming that a fourball goes out first, Gordon and his team have about an hour-and-a-half before they reach them. “Sometimes it can be quite tight but the guys know the deal and we’re used to it by now,” he says.
Sure enough, by the time we change the holes at the furthest point of the course, the first group is on the seventh tee. We’ve made it with little time to spare. It’s a ‘beat the clock’ operation and incredible to see in action.
As Gordon and I change the pin positions, other guys are busy hand-cutting the greens to ensure they are running at a reasonable speed (more of which later). And, as those of you who have seen the size of the greens on the Old Course will appreciate, that’s not exactly a quick job. “If you were to hand-cut the larger greens on your own, it would take around 90 minutes,” says Gordon. “It’s pain-staking work but people expect the best and that’s what we aim to give them.”
I ask how big an impact the Open has on both the course and his team. Appointed Course Manager in 2007, he has already overseen one Open - in 2010 - and is gearing up for his second next year. “It undoubtedly brings a bit of pressure,” he says. “But it’s part of the reason I got into this field in the first place. Preparing a course to host the biggest golf tournament in the world? It’s the pinnacle, isn’t it?”
Pointing at a divot, he says: “These things won’t be here. There will be a huge grandstand going in down the right of the first fairway. Rather than lose all the good turf there, though, we’ll take out plugs - like the ones we took when we were changing the holes on the green - and they’ll go in place of any areas where there is a divot.” “How many plugs will that require?” I ask. Gordon replies: “Around 40,000.”
When we’re done with changing the pins, I muck in with a bit of bunker raking before joining Gordon’s deputy Simon Connah to learn more about the science of preparing the greens.
Speed, though, is what the majority of golfers are most concerned about when it comes to their greens. And that’s where a Stimpmeter comes in.
We head to the 17th where we’re going to test the Road Hole’s putting surface for two things: firmness and speed.
The firmness is assessed using a ‘Clegg Impact Hammer’. A bright yellow device, about a foot tall, it is designed to measure the shock absorption properties of a surface. It records the deceleration of a mass (in this case, a golf ball-shaped metal hammer) dropped from a standard height and gives readings in units called ‘gravities’. If it produces too small a number of gravities, the surface is too soft. Too many, it’s too firm.
“It’s a fantastic piece of kit,” says Simon. “The readings we get help to support what we are able to either see with our own eyes or feel underfoot. They are tremendous reinforcement tools.”
Speed, though, is what the majority of golfers are most concerned about when it comes to their greens. And that’s where a Stimpmeter comes in. Everyone’s heard of it but few really know how a Stimp works. I didn’t until Simon showed me.
Again, it’s beauty lies in its simplicity. A 36-inch long piece of aluminium, with a golf ball at the end nearest you is raised. The ball automatically releases and rolls out when it reaches an angle of roughly 20 degrees to horizontal. This happens three times with the distances the balls travel measured and averaged. From the average stopping point, the process is repeated in the opposite direction. The distances from steps one and two are averaged to determine the Stimpeter reading. So, if the average the ball rolls in each direction is eight feet, your greens are ‘running at eight’. Easy.
“It’s not an exact science,” adds Simon, “but it gives us something to work with to ensure our greens run at a consistent speed.”
My day ends where it started, on the 18th green, where we repeat the checks we did on 17. By this point, the first few groups of the day have gone through and Simon notices a couple of unrepaired pitchmarks. “That’s frustrating,” he notes. “What people don’t realise is how quickly these marks become long-lasting damage. A properly repaired pitchmark can heal within 24 hours. Leave them unrepaired and they’ll take up to a fortnight.”
With that, it’s time to head back to Greenkeeping Centre where the machinery is being hosed down, oiled and cleaned ahead of the whole process starting again tomorrow. I won’t be there, though. My work is done.
“You did well,” says Gordon. “We’ll make a greenkeeper of you yet.” I can certainly see the appeal. It’s a rewarding job and it’s nice to see the difference that you can make, even in such a short space of time.
I thank Gordon and Simon for their time and wish them all the best. As I get in my car, I glance at the clock. My working day is over and it’s not even 11am.
Greenkeeper for a Day in bunkered
This feature on greenkeeping at St Andrews first appeared in issue 133 of bunkered (published: July 2014)