Q&A with Cowglen Golf Club Course Manager

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Q&A with Cowglen Golf Club Course Manager

Michael Slack talks about his role as Course Manager at Cowglen Golf Club and handling golfers expectations during the pandemic.

Q: Please can you give a brief description of your background and how long have you now been at Cowglen Golf Club?

A: I left school a passionate golfer but realised I wasn’t making a career out of it so turned to greenkeeping, my first job was at my local course (Silverdale GC) for the summer and at the same time enrolled at Myerscough College for the national diploma. My second summer was seasonal work at another local course (Morecambe GC) before returning to college in the autumn. Part of my course entailed going on work placements and many of the big clubs who hosted European Tour events recruited via colleges. This led me to Loch Lomond GC as a seasonal greenkeeper, that year Loch Lomond hosted two events. The Loch Lomond Invitational and the Solhiem Cup.

After a second season at Loch Lomond GC I became a full time greenkeeper there and for the next seven years. This is where I learnt the basics from how to mow a green to calibrate a sprayer and tournament preparation, then in the winter install drainage systems, reconstruct greens, irrigation maintenance, the list is endless. Loch Lomond definitely created a great foundation for my career and without doubt has been the main reason I became a course manager aged 26.

After my stint at Loch Lomond I left and became the deputy estate manager at Gledoch House Hotel and within 11 months I had secured the course manager’s job at Cowglen Golf Club where I am at present and have been for 13 years.
During my time at Gledoch I studied online at Myerscough and completed my foundation degree in sportsturf science.

Q: What growth in new membership has the club experienced throughout the pandemic and how have you and the team coped to maintain the course?

A: 2020 was a bizarre year. We had a decent winter in regards to how the course had coped with winter play and most surfaces were in decent shape, we were looking forward to a straight forward spring then… lockdown! Everything was put on hold. We were gearing up for some spring renovations and all of a sudden our hands were held, for the right reasons of course and essential maintenance was all we could do. On the return to golf we were in for a shock. Most working members were furloughed and those who would normally play were all desperate to get out for a game. The amount of play was overwhelming and our normal working plan was ripped to shreds, there was no such thing as an afternoon dry cut anymore as all of our work had to be done before play. Along with that we had to limit staff interaction, making jobs more difficult and this also affects the welfare of staff as their job became even more antisocial. Team morale suffered, so keeping everyone’s spirits up was vital.

Managing golfers’ expectations was one of the more difficult parts, as we were very limited as to what we could do before play and quiet afternoons divoting fairways was impossible, all in all something had to give and the course suffered, we didn’t want to take away one of the few pleasures – freedoms – the members had. We had also missed spring renovations so greens were beginning to deteriorate due to excess play and a change for the worse in the weather. Despite all this we still managed to fit in most of the club’s major events with the exception of the open competitions.

The restrictions on most other sports / sporting events led to an influx of members which led the club in a more comfortable position than we thought we would be. This opened the door for us to invest in equipment that would make course maintenance more efficient, adding a tractor to our fleet was also a priority as we lose a lot of time swapping equipment around to maintain the course. This year we were also at a stage to replace most of our mowing equipment, on course transport and two older tractors.  So far we have invested in Kubota tractors, JD Gators, Baroness mowers, a new sprayer, topdresser, wood chipper, box rake, Graden CSI, Buffalo turbine PTO blower, Tru Turf greens iron and a Lastec XR700 rough mower (our third in 21 years).

Q: You’ve had a few Lastecs and have recently invested in an XR700. What appeals to you about this brand and piece of kit?

We have just invested in our third set of Lastec Articulators, the newest model the XR700. This is the third set of Articulators the club has bought in the last 21 years. The last set lasted 14 years. Our course is a challenge to maintain. Most holes have rig and furrow topography, some are really severe and finding equipment that reaches to the bottom of the furrows and doesn’t scalp the rigs is difficult to find. I inherited the first set and the second set had just arrived at the club a week or two before me. It was tried and tested for over seven years before and the fact that the second set lasted as long as they did made my decision to invest again very easy. The machine itself is quite simple with very little that can go wrong. Belts, blades and bushes are the main parts that wear and need replacing and can be done fairly easily. The other main appeal is that it is powered by a tractor and isn’t a complete mowing unit. This for me means that I have a tractor that I can use all year round and a rough mower implement that sits idle rather than having a complete rough unit sitting in the shed for several months a year.

Q: What are the things that you enjoy most about your job, what are you most proud of and how does this make feel?

The thing I enjoy the most is leaving work at the end of the day knowing that we have done our best to produce a great golfing product for our members, their guests and visitors for as much of the year as possible. This is obviously difficult at times but knowing we have done all we can at that particular moment is satisfying. Sometimes we have difficult decisions to make, no one likes rocking the boat and members hate it when we have to renovate but as greenkeepers in an average private members club we have to focus on the long term as well as keeping our eye on the short term. One other thing I feel proud about is being as sustainable as we possibly can. Our use of fungicide is kept to a minimum, use of fertiliser and chemicals is almost a necessity in our industry due to the nature of the job but it’s not just as simple as chucking it down. Everything needs to be considered from carbon footprint to any environmental impact that our products may have before we even consider the effects on thatch and surface performance.

Other aspects of the job I enjoy is that it’s almost two jobs in one. Summer/playing season is all about being a greenkeeper and in winter our focus turns to course improvements such as green and tee construction as well as drainage and tree maintenance.

Q: More recently the course has experienced circa eight weeks of drought with temperatures reaching 27 degrees, what challenges has this presented and how have you worked to overcome this?

A: We aren’t built for this, our average yearly rainfall is in the region of 1500-2000mm, and nearly as much of that rain falls in the summer as well as the winter. This is a challenge in itself so when we have a dry period we very quickly go from being wet to dry and then too dry. Most of our time and money is invested in the removal of water due to the amount that we receive from Mother Nature, so you can imagine sand based drain lines surrounded by clay based natural soil very quickly stands out. Our irrigation system is limited to greens and tees and our attention during a drought is focused on the greens. We have to let the rest of the course cope on its own.

We have recently upgraded our irrigation system adding a Bailoy Irrigation Controller allowing me to control the system from anywhere in world where I can get mobile data, this working in sync with our Pogo allows me and the staff to monitor and map moisture much better.

Enjoyed this Q&A?
Read our previous Q&A with Allan Duncan, Course Manager at Broomieknowe

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