Course manager Paul Larsen and his team have worked around the clock since Sandwich’s 2018 drought to restore Royal St George’s to Open standard.
We caught up with him to find out how they've got the iconic links ready to stage the world's oldest professional golf event.
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How busy have you been over the past few years getting the prep done for the Open?
We’ve been hugely busy since 2018 when we had the summer drought and lost all of our grass, which absolutely killed us. Before that, in 2017, the course was exactly where I wanted it. We had a few things to improve here and there to keep it ticking over but we wanted the Open to roll round as soon as possible. You can never get complacent in this job but we thought we were there and ready. Then, in 2018, we lost half of the fairways and all of the semi rough. Ever since that drought, we have been constantly hand dressing, full-on seeding and it’s been an absolute battle. We are still doing the frantic work now and we are racing against time.
Reading between the lines, was it a blessing in disguise that the championship was pushed back by a year?
We had an Open week for the members last year as well as the Rose Ladies Series the week after. We pretty much nailed it for that, so we were looking in really good shape. However, straight after that we had another mini drought, so in all the areas where we had got good, they started dying off again. A year has definitely given us the opportunity to make it better but it would actually have been good to go last year. It was the exact same high spots that seem to die off when the drought hits. We just can’t seem to keep them wet enough. It should be better this year.
What’s the pressure been like as you try to get the course looking as good as possible in a certain timescale?
It’s a funny type of pressure. If we didn’t have the Open, we would still be carrying out all of this maintenance but the fact it has to be done to a certain timescale has certainly made all of us a bit more edgy. In a job such as this, I don’t think you ever relax and there’s always a pressure to have the course looking as good as it can, so I feel like I have been kind of used to the pressure. What I have found difficult is working with the support staff for the week as they need to work in bubbles, come and go at different times, and stay in accommodation. Getting that running smoothly has been difficult.
The course itself. What differences will we see compared to 2011?
We’ve made so many changes that I wouldn’t know where to start. The biggest thing we have done is change the composition of grasses. All the grass is more fescue dominant now, which was the hardest job of the lot. We did that while we had a few years to get that right as it can take a while to perfect. In terms of noticeable changes, we have put a lot more natural bunkers in. The Himalayas bunker has been completely widened so it looks more natural now and carved into the dune. I’ve added five natural bunkers that sit across the course, which look like they’ve been there for years. They were all either pot bunkers or grass that we have dug into the face to make new bunkers and create a more aesthetically pleasing course. The biggest changes have been to the greens. Half of them are now about a third bigger than they were and we have made a few more run-offs as well. We haven’t done too much strategically. None of the tees have been lengthened or anything like that. I suppose the other big thing is that, on the eighth hole, we used to have two bunkers sitting in the middle of the fairway. We have moved one forward and one back so that players have something to think about off the tee.
Are you able to look forward to the week?
If I can get all of the work done and all of the grass that I want to get through completed in the month before, then we will hopefully look forward to not just the week but the month before. I really want my team to enjoy it. We want to have a good tournament. The course is in such better condition than it was ten years ago and I think both us and the players will enjoy the tournament a lot more this time round.
How involved have you been with the R&A?
Everything we do goes through them. The closer you get to tournament year, the more conversations you start to have. We have been meeting up at least once a week. Fortunately, it’s a team game, so we have to be comfortable with one another. Everything I do, they have to be comfortable with. It’s been quite good having that. I do a plan at the beginning of the year and they’ve been supportive.
What will it be like seeing the players playing your course?
For my team, it’s great. I don’t get excited over famous people. My lads are all looking forward to tournament week as you see the big names coming in and playing a course that you’ve been working on for a while. In the back of my mind, I don’t want any criticism, so there might be a bit of relief at the end of it all if it is a success. If you want flat lies, for it to be calm and for everything to go your way on this course, then you are not going to enjoy it. If you want a proper links, this is the place.
Would you rank this as one of the biggest weeks of your career?
Definitely. With what we’ve been through since 2018 and the drought, if we can get through this tournament, it will be the greatest achievement of my career. What we’ve done in such a short space of time to revive this place is nothing short of miraculous.
How long would it usually take a golf course to get back to its ‘normal’ condition following such a serious drought?
I’d never experienced a drought like that in my life. I know for a fact the course is still suffering but I haven’t cheated and switched to ryegrass. I’ve still carried on with fescue. I think two-and-a-half years is the quickest we could have got the course back to a reasonable condition. Without working our socks off like we have done, I would say it would have taken about four years for the course to regenerate to a level that it was before the drought. Because of that, getting this course fit for an Open from where we were, that will my biggest achievement.
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This interview first appeared in issue 186 of bunkered (June 2021). To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.