Course manager profile: The Belfry’s Angus Macleod
Nestled within 550 acres of beautiful Warwickshire countryside, The Belfry is renowned as one of the world’s most prestigious golfing destinations; its Brabazon course having hosted the Ryder Cup on four occasions. The venue, headquarters of the PGA, has two additional golf courses, making it one of the premier golfing venues in the world.
We caught up with Angus Macleod, The Belfry’s director of golf courses and estates, to find out about what it is like to be the head greenkeeper at such a prestigious venue.
You started your greenkeeping career at the tender age of 15. How, when and where did it happen? Where did you study formally and what’s the path you’ve travelled to get to your current position at The Belfry?
I started as an apprentice at 15 years of age at Inverness Golf Club. I studied at Elmwood College in Cuper Fife and Pencoed College in South Wales. I left Inverness, aged 23, and went to Newport Golf Club, stayed as course manager for 12 years. My career path was to be a deputy by 23, course manager at 30 and a new career path at 40. Resort golf was something I was interested in. I was fortunate to be offered a course managers position at De Vere Belton Woods, in Lincolnshire, a wonderful 45-hole golf resort, with 475 acres and 32 five-star luxury lodges. I managed Belton for six years and then saw an advert for the iconic Belfry. I applied and was selected to the last two candidates – and the job was pulled due to new owners coming in. Then De Vere was awarded the management contract and they knew I was interested and I was invited to meet the new owners and was offered the position of director of golf courses and estates. That was in August 2012.
How many staff do you have under you at The Belfry?
We currently have 35 permanent team members, including gardeners, mechanics, irrigation, project team and a PA administrator to assist all office duties and training. Jamie Brooks is deputy course manager, Kevin Ball is deputy on the PGA course, Neil Pilsbury is deputy on the Derby, Dan Clarke is deputy on the Brabazon, Chris Minton is the workshop manager, Duncan Brooks works on projects and irrigation, Terry Jeseph is our head gardener and Clare Clarke is PA to the director.
You’ve been at The Belfry for just over 18 months now. How did you evaluate what needed to be done when you arrived? What were your findings, what action plan did you put in place and what results have you seen to date?
I sat back for the first month and evaluated the team and their programme of works. It was a well-oiled machine due to Kenny MacKay’s previous management structure, so it only took a little tweaking to add your personal stamp on the courses. It is very difficult to operate a venue like The Belfry to carry out routine maintenance without impacting on The Belfry experience. So we started to look at alternatives to carry out cultural renovation programmes around guests, working different shift patterns to complete works. It seems to work and we get very little comments when undertaking disruptive measures to turf quality.
The rainfall has been very heavy of late, have you experienced any drainage issues over the courses? Will you be undertaking any remedial work?
Sure, we all have, it’s been a tough season to start 2014 – record rainfalls, closures and so on. The courses have taken the persistent rainfall well. The areas we need to work on are the roughs; we have added secondary drainage using a Sheldon Gravel bander, injecting 10mm clean gravel to a large area that will tie into our existing drainage system. It’s a case of verti-draining, slit deep tining, sand dressings to firm and dilute heavy soils and thatch reduction that will all help bring about fewer closures at golf courses.
Aeration is a high priority to you. Can you outline the programmes that you run across the courses, the frequency and results you’ve seen?
All aspects of works relating to aeration involve 8mm solid tines in the summer months, and larger verti-draining in autumn and winter. We hollow–core with a number of tine depths to reduce panning and width, really depending on the percentage of organic material in the surface. So we manage different areas depending on results back from lab.
You’ve invested in the SISIS tractor mounted Megaslit and Multislit equipment. What appealed to you about these products and what have they each brought to the table by way of delivering results for the soil health and playability of the course?
They’re both wonderful pieces of equipment, due to speed of operation. The Megaslit’s 2.5 metre width can cover large areas and it has great tine depth; I like the action of slicing the fibre and root pruning. Similar to greens, it’s a different operation to regular tining and the depth is greater. Any form of aeration is going to improve turf health and vitality. The tining always shows me new white adventitious roots.
What have been the biggest challenges for you more recently, how have they impacted on your management of the courses and what measures have you taken to deal with them?
It has been a challenge to carry out agronomic, aerations, topdressing, nutrition and so on to tie in with the levels of play and expectations. We have a little and often approach to dressings and light dustings, so it is not visual, with smaller tines’ holes’ diameters, also to minimise disruption.
Have you or will you be putting any environmental programmes in place?
We are looking at adding wild flower areas on the PGA. We have our own bees on site that Terry Jeseph, our gardener, looks after. We have around 30kg of honey produced from the two hives. We have taken the steps to reduce nitrate inputs and applying mostly liquids tonics on the majority of the areas to foliar feed the turf and minimise leaching. We have also undertaken to restrict our pesticide usage across all sites.
You are passionate about soil biology and its health and are currently using a compost brew on the greens. What made you pursue this path, how long have you been using compost brew and what results have you seen?
It’s hard to measure biology, the concept of adding fungi and bacteria makes sense as it’s all about biology, however, whether you are adding or enhancing what the soil has already in abundance has to make sense. It’s when you start to experiment and read up on the subject it gives you a greater understanding of soils and the balance of nutrients to turf health and the complex cycles that is undertaken is fascinating. It has to be combined with a solid aeration and cultural programme for it to work in cohesion. It’s too early to add claims.
How many lakes across the three courses do you have and what methods are you using to maintain water quality?
We have 17 lakes on the three courses. Water quality is laboratory tested monthly. The lakes have either Otterbine aerators or fountains to maintain water quality.
The courses use a Rainbird irrigation system. As you are not using mains supply for irrigation, can you talk us through your water supply and water management programme for the courses?
We have a waste treatment plant from the hotel which feeds our lakes and reservoirs. We rely on precipitation during winter months to top up the wet wells, reservoirs and lakes. We have a number of large pumps where we can move water around the site, as our lakes are features as well as functioning irrigation sites.
What seed cultivars are you currently using across the course and are there any you are particularly impressed with?
Ryegrass blends for tees, fairways and fore-greens. Bent grass for greens. I like the new creeping ryegrass. We need quick establishment and wear hardiness and vigour.
The current economic drivers are sending the price of some products soaring. This combined with possible cut backs in budgets for clubs could lead to tough decisions being made. Do you think you will experience cut backs and if so, how will you manage these to limit impact on the course?
We have had to manage the teams across the departments to suit business needs and demands. So our whole department is combined into one and we utilise their skills across all aspects of greenkeeping. We have had to reduce staff numbers so it was imperative the team worked together so the guests did not notice any detriment to the quality of the works.
How many bunkers do you have across the three courses? What renovation work have you currently undertaken in this area and what maintenance programme do you run annually for bunkers?
There are 199 bunkers across the three courses plus four more at the PGA academy. We have completely dug out bunkers right back to the base, re-drained and sanded.
How often are you currently top-dressing your greens and tees?
Greens, weekly, with a light dusting. Tees, twice a year and divotted daily.
What height of cut do you use across the course?
Greens are mowed between 2.5mm and 4mm, tees at 12mm, fairways at 14mm and rough at 76mm. Semi-rough at 25mm.
What machinery fleet are you currently using and what criteria are you using to select machinery needed?
We use a Toro fleet for mowing and John Deere for tractors and utility vehicles. All Toro machines are supplied by Lely and delivered by Redtech.
How do you ensure your staff are continually improving their skill sets and personally developing for the benefit of themselves and the needs of the three courses?
We currently have quite an extensive training programme, in-house training and external guest speakers. We communicate all works and business. There is a Gant chart of programme of works associated with all timings and planned schedules throughout the year.
Throughout your career in your profession, how have you seen golfers’ expectations change and what do you think has driven these expectations?
Faster greens, less closures, no off-season. Golf is a game that does not have an off-season, which means our sports‘ turf is played in all weather conditions.
You have a good looking big dog who works with you around the course, what’s his name and how long has he been at your side?
He is large German shepherd called Alba (Gaelic for Scotland), five years old. I am in a really fortunate position where every day is a take your dog to work day, he is a great companion and he is my third German shepherd, extremely loyal. Fantastic breed.
What do you see as the hot topics of the moment in greenkeeping?
Biology is the hot topic, which can only be good for the industry.
What changes do you think need to be made to benefit the industry sector and profession of the greenkeeper?
The industry, with the backing of professional bodies, has really raised the profile of greenkeeping. It’s a proud profession, we don’t just cut grass anymore, it’s evolved and in the 33 years I have been a greenkeeper, it has advanced beyond recognition, the level of training and courses available now, degrees and so on is fantastic and can be tied in with your work commitment.
Too many people get into greenkeeping by accident, I did, and we need to be shouting from rooftops about how good this industry is. BIGGA have been fantastic with raising the profile and the education they deliver throughout the year. The potential now for a fledging greenkeeper is exciting.