Dean Bailey meets Whitley Bay Golf Club’s course manager, Simon Olver, to learn about the art of modern greenkeeping

While we’ve all seen greenkeepers mow greens and rake bunkers, few golfers understand the intricacies of agronomy, the science that goes into preparing a golf course and the passion with which greenkeepers carry out their work. While we don’t see much of the work, greenkeeping is far more than just riding a mower and wielding a rake.

Simon Olver, course manager at Whitley Bay Golf Club, is one of the region’s most respected greenkeepers. Having trained at Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Club on the Northumbrian coast, he headed the team that transformed Percy Wood in the early 2000s before moving to Whitley Bay in 2014 to oversee the course’s development into one of the finest conditioned courses in the region.

Having trained on the coastal links from the age of 16, Simon has seen a huge shift in the industry. Gone are the days of working on intuition alone. Instead, Simon and his team of five at Whitley Bay collect huge amounts of data daily on green speeds, smoothness, moisture, growth rates and more.

“I was a passionate golfer growing up and I fell into an opportunity to train under Ken Day at Dunstanburgh just after turning 16, which was a fantastic experience,” Simon explains.

“I was head greenkeeper by the time I was 19 and if I’m honest, I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing. It was a great experience, learning as I went on a great piece of land. From there, I learned a lot about the business of managing golf courses while at Percy Wood, something which greenkeepers have had to become more and more involved in as their roles have expanded.

“The industry is very different from when I started. The job has become far more professional, we now have a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses along with hundreds of training opportunities. There is a lot more communication too, from national and international bodies like BIGGA and The R&A as well as between clubs, which is improving practices all around the world.”

The passion of the team at Whitley Bay has been a huge part of the course’s improvement. The team arrives at 4.30am each morning in the summer, carrying out the main tasks on the course before golfers have even reached the car park. Lunch is around 10am before a mixture of machine maintenance, office work and on-course projects are carried out until 2pm. At Whitley Bay, all this work is documented on management software as well as the team’s Facebook page and Twitter accounts – platforms which the team has embraced to communicate with their members and share practices with greenkeepers around the world.

“Teamwork has always been really important in the industry and we have a tremendous team,” Simon adds. “You see it in the way they complete a task together so they can take their breaks at the same time, or how they’ll pick up on areas where they can improve. That’s an essential part of our success.

“Greenkeeping is a customer-facing industry and we have to play a part in helping to educate golfers on our work and manage their expectations. No golf course will be at its absolute best 365 days of the year, but greenkeepers need to have the knowledge and data available to inform golfers, and the skills to get that message out.

“Building understanding together is the only way to improve the golfing experience for everyone. Mental heath is a growing issue in the sports turf industry due to increased levels of pressure, and more golfers need to be educated on what goes into preparing courses and understanding that no greenkeeper wants to present the course in sub-standard condition; sometimes those things are simply outside our control.”

Since arriving at Whitley Bay, Simon has overseen a number of major projects. The biggest was the remodelling of holes six to nine. That work started with the design and reconstruction of the ninth green within five weeks of his arrival. The green complexes on holes seven and eight followed. In his third year, the sixth hole was remodelled along with 10,000m2 of fairways, tees and rough to improve the design aesthetic of the four holes. The team has also completed a project to reshape the crossing point between the 15th and 16th holes, including work around the Briar Dene which runs between the two holes.

While those projects are clear to see, the team has also improved the course away from the areas we see. The course no longer requires winter greens – a process which has involved four years of extensive work on the greens’ sub-surfaces. Improvements have also been made to the sustainability of the course to reduce the use of chemicals and invasive practices, along with better management of the site to improve the playing conditions – through increasing the areas of managed rough – and better managing the course’s overall environmental impact. This work has led to the club finishing runner-up two years in a row at The Golf Environment Awards.

“When I moved here, the possibilities were very exciting. The level of investment in the pipeline was always going to give us the opportunity to create something very special.

“We’re just reaching the position where we can focus on consolidation and making marginal gains in detailing standards and performance. It took a lot of nerve to hold our own when we were carrying out major works, but the club is now benefiting from that work and the feedback has been great. There were a lot of challenges around the major work; it caused a lot of disruption and gave me a few headaches as we had to micro-manage each new green differently. However, the improvement on what was there before makes it all worth it.”

While he acknowledges more golfers are taking the time to learn about the challenges of greenkeeping, Simon says many golfers still set their expectations for golf courses too high and this can have a damaging effect.

Among the biggest challenges the industry faces, Simon lists rising expectations from golfers based on what they see on television. He explains that what we see on television is created by team of 50-plus greenkeepers working in peak conditions for that part of the world, all with the goal of presenting a course for just four days. For club greenkeepers, having data and a library of images and reports will be key to managing expectations going forward, ultimately improving the experience of members at each individual club, he adds.

Climate change has also brought a number of challenges, including last summer’s drought and this year’s cold, dry spring. These periods, combined with a mild winter which allowed more golf to be played, have caused a great deal of stress on golf courses. Simon predicts conditions will continue to become more extreme, meaning greenkeepers will have to continue to adapt. They will have to do so without access to many of the chemicals which are key to the industry, as legislation limits how the sports turf industry controls disease and pests.

A talented golfer, Simon holds a handicap of four, and he admits he’d love to spend more time playing, but a young family and devotion to his work leave little time to practise and play.

“Choosing greenkeeping over accounting was definitely the right decision; I love what I do every day. I spend roughly 20 hours a week at home on top of my work at the golf course, doing research, gaining more qualifications like the R&A scholarship and my degree in Sports Turf Science and Management, and investing time in the job. Greenkeeping is more research and science-driven than ever before and we need to stay at the cutting edge to continue to improve.”

The next time you head out onto the course, take a moment to look around and take in the work the greenkeepers have put into preparing the course for your round. It’s far more than just cutting the grass.