I’m pleased to report that the golf course remains is excellent condition, with the recent rainfall helping to improve playing conditions.
The greens have been playing consistently well this year, with firm, true and quick surfaces being maintained almost daily. However, there have been exceptions when trying to address other issues, such as recently when treating clover required us to miss an occasional cut on the greens in order to make the most of a good spraying window.
Overall though, June has been a relatively quiet month with the team keeping things ticking over and with plenty of golf being played in mostly good weather. With things mostly routine on the course at the moment, I thought I’d take time to discuss our overall approach to managing the facilities here, especially for the many new members that have joined in the last couple of years, who may be less familiar with our methods.
Hopefully this should then lead nicely into an update from Gavin, which will be available in the next few days.
We began our journey by focusing on sustainability. We are committed to reducing our environmental impact and promoting sustainable practices and we believe that taking a holistic approach to course management is the best way to ensure that our golfers have the best possible playing experience while also being responsible towards the environment.
You’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at this point, thinking this is just another case of modern day virtue signalling. However, it’s important to take a look at what we actually mean and to how we make sustainability work practically.
The Hunley Journey
Running any business is difficult, with leisure especially so as you wouldn’t class leisure as an ‘essential’ human need (although you could certainly argue to the contrary). It has become even more difficult, as the cost of all the things we have no choice over paying for, such as electricity and fuel, have risen astronomically. In the last couple of years hospitality has become even more challenging, so it has been crucially important for us to remain focused as a collective group, to firstly ensure the economic sustainability of our business.
Many of our members will know this only too well, as the golf club under its old name ‘Hunley Hall’, went into administration in 2008 after falling into substantial debt.
The new ownership had a lot to deal with to turn things around, however there was never any question of the site’s potential.
With a long term vision for Hunley, CEO Elliot Hamilton began to put in place many changes and I was very fortunate to be chosen as the new Course Manager in 2013, largely due to having a vision for the course that aligned with that of the business.
Taking a holistic approach isn’t easy, but we have all felt strongly that this is the right path and our collective belief has helped us remain focused and motivated to make it work.
The Golf Course
The world renowned golf architect Dr Alister Mackenzie once said:
‘The chief objective of every golf architect or greenkeeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself’
This statement is particularly relevant to our work at Hunley and we have certainly turned that into somewhat of a reality.
Whilst focussing on improving playing conditions on greens, fairways, bunkers etc, our approach has provided multiple other benefits. I’ll outline a little more on how below, with some examples to expand on this.
The slow and difficult process of transitioning grass species on the greens from annual meadow grass to fine perennial grasses of Bent and Fescue, would be lost on almost anyone outside of the greenkeeping profession.
However, this has enabled us to offer excellent playing surfaces all year round, within budgets available to us.
Not only that, but it has eliminated the need for fungicide applications, fertiliser requirements are next to nothing and water usage has reduced by around 50% since 2012.
Regular thatch removal through hollow coring or scarifying has become less necessary with such operations only being undertaken every 3-4 years instead of multiple times per year.
The benefits then pass on to the local and wider environment, with our work having minimal impact on both nature and the climate.
In fact, when achieving GEO Certification in 2021 our carbon balance at that time was -87, meaning we sequester 87 tons more CO2 than we emit (the equivalent to adding 104 acres of mature natural woodland). If you think of net zero, we’re already way ahead of the game.
Reducing the number of bunkers from 92 to 56 and also the size of the sand area, while repositioning many, has also had similar effects as that of the management of the greens.
A more manageable workload has enabled the greenkeepers to produce far greater quality hazards, both strategically and visually as well as the significant improvement in their overall condition.
This has also reduced the amount of sand we need to import (a resource becoming more and more scarce), from 60 tons annually back in 2011 to 12 tons used annually now.
The shape and design of the bunkers has reduced maintenance requirements too, allowing 18 holes to be mown, edged, weeded and raked by 2 staff in a single day. For comparison this task took an entire week for 3 staff to complete back in 2013.
Again this benefits not only the course condition but also the wider environment with less road haulage needed to transport sand as well as less fuel used by our own machinery for example.
In 2012 more than 80% of our 104 hectares were mown continuously, which was made up of greens, tees, fairways and semi rough/rough. This has been reduced to approximately 40% today, with an extra 10% of ‘managed’ fringing rough, and has been the single largest contributor to the improvement of the golf courses here and also benefitted nature and the environment in the process.
As you can imagine (and some will remember), trying to maintain such a large area resulted in very low quality conditions across the courses. It also wasn’t visually appealing and had no real definition, so changes have resulted in an array of improvements.
Leaving large areas of grass unmown had an immediate effect on playing conditions from tee to green as more time was spent improving those areas. It wasn’t all roses however as the nature of the grasslands made it particularly difficult for locating shots hit offline. These areas of ‘fringing rough’ have had to be managed by cutting and removing the arisings so as to slowly thin out and reduce the vigour of growth. As areas became a problem we would cut and collect and at first this was regular work, but each year things have improved. Now fringing rough is cut 3 times a year at most.
It has been a long process, but the benefits are there for all to see now.
The grasslands offer superb definition to the holes and provide a variety of colours throughout the year, which has transformed the landscape.
The time saved on weekly mowing has resulted in huge improvements to turf condition from tee to green, with more time and resources spent on the most important areas of the golf course.
Wildlife on site has grown exponentially and the grasslands have played a significant role in that. 11 notable species reside on the course with the Brown Hare, Hedgehog, Great Crested Newt and Grey Partridge all utilising the grasslands.
Even though we have prioritised our efforts towards the quality of the golf courses, we have also been able to improve other areas along the way that not only enhance the enjoyment for golfers, but also for members of the local community as well as for nature itself.
Working in partnerships
Working with other groups and individuals has resulted in many projects being completed and more will continue to be explored going forwards.
Tees Valley Wildlife Trust have been working with us for many years and together we have both developed and monitored nature onsite. With many bird boxes added, we have seen an increase in bird species on the course, with one highlight being Barn Owls nesting in our boxes on the course. Over the last 5 years more than 20 Barn Owl chicks have fledged at Hunley and watching these stunning creatures hunt on the course is a wonderful sight.
Funding has also been secured to construct a series of ponds on the course. This funding was possible due to the presence of Great Crested Newts onsite, with funding made available to increase suitable habitat for these protected amphibians. The ponds have enhanced the course too, as new features with real visual appeal, but also as catchments for rain water which has helped keep playing areas drier in the winter.
Open grasslands away from playing areas have been managed to increase the variety of species. In recent years we have developed a relationship with a local pastoral farmer who cuts and bales these grasslands in the autumn, once the nesting season is over. He is able to use the hay for winter feed for his cattle and by working with us we get far more grassland managed than we ever could do ourselves.
Ian Kendal is a local wildlife enthusiast and knowledgeable bird watcher. Working for The Land Trust, he brings significant expertise and has had a great deal of impact helping us. Recording species over many years, Ian has seen more than 150 species of birds alone on the course at Hunley. He is regularly at Hunley and has also helped us reduce Poplar tree encroachment, donated bird boxes as well as making bug hotels, eco piles and more.
Other Hunley Initiatives
Hunley looks to prioritize sustainability and energy efficiency across the business too. Despite this blog focusing on the golf course operation, the whole business operates in this manner.
We use a biomass boiler to produce heating and hot water from sustainable wood chip, we use paper bags for retail and stock bamboo tees instead of plastic. LED lights have been installed with motion sensors in the building as well as waterless urinals.
These aren’t just of benefit environmentally but also economically, saving the business money at the same time.
Although this article gives an insight into behind the scenes management of the facility, it would all be worthless without our golfers and customers.
Hunley has a very active, very friendly membership. Many members offer their time to help the club, be it running teams, competitions, social events or assisting with the running the junior section. One thing that has always struck me is the efforts put in to support charities. Annual events supporting MND, Cancer Research and now The British Heart Foundation are all incredibly well supported, raising thousands of pounds each year.
As employees of Hunley, this is why we are here and our members do a great job of keeping us honest in our endeavours.
Is Golf The Ideal Recreation?
Golf is a fantastic game that encompasses various aspects that contribute to our health and wellbeing. The opportunity to be outdoors, surrounded by nature, the physical exercise it provides, and the social interactions it fosters all contribute to a well-rounded and fulfilling experience. Whether one is seeking relaxation, exercise, or social engagement, golf offers it all, making it a truly remarkable game.
Another Dr Alister Mackenzie quote reiterates this:
One of the reasons why I, ‘a medical man’ decided to give up medicine was a firm conviction of the extraordinary influence on health of pleasurable excitement, especially when combined with fresh air and exercise
Add to that the benefits the land use brings to nature and the positive impact golf brings on the the climate front, it really is an ideal form of recreation.
There are always challenges and room for improvement though and despite this, the club is growing and making regular commitments to improve its facilities. Improved offerings on golf equipment and the addition of trackman technology have been popular and the upgrades to the irrigation system will resume this autumn along with further course improvements to ensure that we strengthen the club into the long term future.
Thank you for reading and for your continued support.