Profile: Matthew Towler, course manager at Letchworth Golf Club10th May, 2012 by Tania Longmire
Letchworth Golf Club’s main course was originally constructed over nine holes in 1905 and was extended to 18 in 1911 by Harry Vardon. Always picturesque, well maintained and a good challenge, the course was rather short on length by today’s standards. So, in 1999, the club acquired some new land and embarked on a major course extension; this was completed in 2003 and has enabled Letchworth to maintain its place as one of Hertfordshire’s leading golf courses.
“The golf club is probably the oldest sporting organisation in Letchworth Garden City. It is a major town asset in terms of its contribution to the sporting and social life of its residents,” said a spokesman for the club. “With a total membership at over 900, it has the largest sporting membership in the town. The club is predominantly a local resource, the majority of its members being drawn from Letchworth or its immediate surrounds.
“Today the course and practice area stands on 129 acres of outstanding countryside. It is widely acknowledged as one of the best-maintained and presented courses in the county and in addition to its golfing quality, care is taken to preserve and enhance its ecological and environmental features. There are three calcareous areas, specifically for the benefit of flora and fauna, and many nesting boxes have been installed to protect the indigenous bird population.”
We caught up with the club’s course manager, Matthew Towler, to discuss working at such an interesting venue, which includes a main 18-hole course and a par three pitch and putt facility.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?
Matthew Towler: Maintaining our course to the highest possible standard during the current economic climate.
Given the recession and the challenges this poses on staffing levels, what are you doing to protect the team and work practices that you employ?
Matthew Towler: Staffing levels is a very emotive subject however I have recently helped secure a position for a newly-qualified member of our staff on a one-year training programme in the USA. We are therefore taking this opportunity to trial operating with a six-man team and monitoring how this affects the course. We will have to reduce some tasks and proactively manage some areas of the course, such a woodland copses, to minimise the weekly maintenance programmes. This is only within the first month – so it is too early to see if the trial will be a success.
We understand you are still buying equipment even though, generally, committees are reluctant to release funds. How do you manage to keep purchasing?
Matthew Towler: With careful management and a good maintenance programme, run by our in-house mechanic, I am able to run a six-year replacement plan for cutting equipment and eight years for tractor machinery. In order to do this we keep a detailed record of each machine (running costs, breakdowns and hours). When the time comes for replacement a capital request form is produced, this details purchase price against total hours of useful life of the machines and the cost of maintenance against the new purchase price. Just because it has reached its six-to-eight year cycle this doesn’t mean we automatically replace, if the maintenance costs and breakdowns do not balance against the new purchase we will look to extend the life of the older machine as this proves to be more cost effective.
Who are your staff and how do you keep them motivated?
Matthew Towler: My staff are my deputy Rob Groves, mechanic Paul Huffer, greenkeepers, Brian Allonby (irrigation), Steve Milligan and Troy Miller, and a part-time gardener (Judy).
We rotate all jobs across the team. This ensures that everyone can perform all tasks, however some jobs need a certificated member of staff, for example spraying and using the chain saw. I believe this variety keeps the team engaged and fresh.
Performing a quality job first time every time is essential in our roles and to maintain our course. I actively encourage open and regular communications within the team. We do this with regular team meetings where they raise ideas and give me input and feedback that will benefit the course. I also ensure each staff member has an up-to-date training manual and actively encourage them to attend any appropriate courses.
Strong communication is clearly a key to your success. Can you explain the ways you keep close relations with the committee and members?
Matthew Towler: We have a course liaison committee (CLC) which meets monthly to look at the day-to-day issues and challenges in the course. A cross-section of our total membership is represented. I also have a course development committee (CDC) which looks at the longer term strategic development of the course and any projects that will be undertaken. Again this is a cross-section of the membership and consists of mainly CLC members and a few other club members. This committee meets four to five times a year or as necessary. I also produce a monthly newsletter and course report which is placed on the website for members to read which outlines what we have been doing and what our intentions are on the course. We hold yearly course evenings and invite all members to attend. I give a presentation on detailing works for the coming year and discuss any relevant issues.
Water is high on the agenda at present. What are your sources, how are you governed by them and how are you going to manage under the current circumstances?
Matthew Towler: We are fortunate to have a borehole with an abstraction licence which details a daily amount of water we can use during the playing season – April to October. I instigated a simple water management plan several years ago. We hold electronic records of our water usage on greens and tees. Through this system we can now demonstrate our very efficient use of water.
In 2009 you commenced a greens’ renovation programme to change the soil profile. Can you explain the reason for undertaking the project, the processes and seed cultivars you used and the benefits you have seen for the course and members?
Matthew Towler: Our goal is to achieve true, firm greens all year round; we are achieving this through soil exchange and extensive thatch reduction over the coming years. I have introduced an extensive renovation programme of hollow-coring scarifying, tining and top-dressing. We over-seed with browntop bent and the Egmont, Greenspeed and Manor cultivars. All these are in the British Society of Plant Breeders’, and the STRI’s, top 10.
You are looking at a development project. Can you tell us a little more about the ideas you have?
Matthew Towler: The club is investigating a major redesign of its par three course and driving range. There are several contractors who specialise in the area of remodeling such facilities. The club has a fantastic opportunity to create a long-term legacy for the membership, however we have yet to decide if such a project is viable but we are actively investigating this exciting opportunity.
You’ve recently had a course architect visit with a view to look at moving bunkers and reshaping. Why, and what will happen next?
Matthew Towler: Under the guidance of the CDC, Jonathan Gaunt, course architect, created a course vision for each hole. This included bunker positioning on the course. The recommendation is to implement this plan over several years. This will, ultimately, improve the strategic layout of the course and generally create a more satisfying playing experience for our golfers.
What other investments or projects will you be undertaking for the coming year for each of the courses?
Matthew Towler: Even in such austere economic times we do have some projects that will be happening during 2012. Our main focus will be on bunker renovation along with drainage work on the main course.
What height of cut do you use across the course?
Matthew Towler: We cut our greens 4 to 4 ½ mm for general play; we raise the height in the winter. We also have a regime for rolling the greens. I have found that by raising the cutting heights and rolling the greens regularly this keeps greens’ speed up and keeps them rolling true. Tees and approaches, 12mm, fairways, 18mm, semi-rough, 30mm, and rough, 64mm.
What aeration programme and methods do you prefer to use for the course?
Matthew Towler: We use a Kubota 5240 with the Redexim Charterhouse 2220 Vertidrain. This machine is very versatile and we aerate once a month in the growing season with a variety of tines. I schedule two course renovation weeks during the year where we undertake hollow-coring in the spring and use the Graden Sand Injector to hollow-core in August. The Graden is an excellent piece of kit to help us achieve our goal of thatch reduction.
You’ve had a problem with nematodes the last few years and outbreaks of fusarium. What products have you used to deal with these and what results have you had?
Matthew Towler: We have a close relationship with Headland Amenity and regularly take soil samples and in the past have used mustard power and we have just applied Calleanti (chilli) to four greens to combat the nematodes and we will take samples over next few weeks to see if the number has dropped. For disease management we rotate our active ingredients to achieve the best results.
What are your views on sustainability?
Matthew Towler: We currently find ourselves balancing the use of pesticides and herbicides to use only on areas in play and we have conservation areas out of play; I see this as a trade off with nature to balance our use of chemicals on the environment around us.
What machinery fleet are you currently using?
Matthew Towler: All cutting equipment is Toro and all tractors are Kubota supplied by Browns. We believe the product support and back up we receive from Lely (Toro) and Browns (Kubota) is second to none. Also we have a Graden Sand Injector, a Redexim Charterhouse Core Collector and a Gambetti Turf Iron and Gambetti Sprayer.
Has there been any particular machinery manufacturer innovations or solutions that have grabbed your eye or impressed you recently?
Matthew Towler: The Redexim 2220 Verti-Drain is a versatile piece of kit and be can be used on all areas of the course. This is a new two metre high-speed Verti-Drain and is quiet and has increased productivity through its versatility; in my opinion this is the best spiker on the market.
What do you see as the hot topics of the moment in greenkeeping?
Matthew Towler: Water management and usage on golf courses. Will we ever return to normal usage without restrictions?
What changes do you think need to be made to benefit the industry sector and profession of the greenkeeper?
Matthew Towler: Greenkeeping is now a recognised career with an excellent training and career path with numerous opportunities. Gone are the days when we were just grass cutters, we need an in-depth knowledge of chemical usage, planting programmes, soil reactions, building bunkers and tees, health and safety programmes and regulations, to name but a few disciplines.
Few members appreciate that this can be a highly technical and demanding role. I get a huge amount of satisfaction in presenting the course at its best and to the best of mine and my team’s ability.
I am also delighted that there is now a possible career progression into management. The British and International Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) and Golf Club Managers’ Association (GCMA) alliances can only help, in the long-run, to improve our training and recognition.
What advice would you give to young greenkeepers wanting to advance?
Matthew Towler: Gain as many qualifications as you can and make yourself an invaluable member of the team. Remember that you have to start at the bottom if you wish to get to the top!
What is your vision for Letchworth Golf Club?
Matthew Towler: To raise the profile of Letchworth Golf Club and hold prestigious tournaments.