Royal Worlington update review

Added on March 29th, 2016 by Lorne Smith
Posted in Greenkeeping, New courses reviewed

I was invited recently to play a foursomes ‘British Golf Collectors Society’ match at the nine-hole Royal Worlington & Newmarket golf club. I stepped on to the course with some trepidation as six years previously when I had last played there the fairways and greens, dominated by annual meadow grass (Poa annua), were soft and thatchy.

A short chat with course manager Jonathan Kitchen enlightened me that he had previously had little relevant course experience in the development of fine grasses.

It was a revelation to him that, rather than as with the previous agronomist who had  recommended, two days a year, tinkering with the Poa, when consultant Gordon Irvine (some call him Jim Arthur’s heir) was brought in by the Secretary Scott Ballentine, he organised a full, long-term programme of grass species change, covering every aspect of the course and equipment, for Jonathan and his small team to implement, via austere, commonsense natural greenkeeping, within agreed priorities and as per budgetary needs.

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The ninth green with clubhouse behind. Click to enlarge

The Club’s brilliant appointment of this young, passionate, enthusiastic course manager, who whole-heartedly welcomed consultant Gordon Irvine’s advice over the last five years, has gloriously returned Worlington to the ‘Running-Golf ’ course for which it historically was known, particularly offering some of the best inland winter greens anywhere.

Certain greens have been widened to take in the whole complex of the movement in the ground and with the aprons and run-offs also firm and fine-grassed, the bump-and-run percentage shot can now be confidently played relying on a consistency of bounce.

For example my partner played the shot of the round, laying the ball dead with a bump-and-run from beside the bunker by the fourth green, pitching half way up the slope to run over the crest and down to the pin. It was amazing in judgement and skill and made possible by the quality of the fine grassed surfaces.

90% of modern players would have used a wedge, likely sculling, dunking or over-hitting the shot to the firm green. The pity on the one hand is that the tour pros playing on ‘Target-Golf ‘ courses 95% of the time use wedges for all their chip shots and amateurs copy them even when playing on tight-turfed ‘Running-Golf ‘ courses. The wonderful thing on the other hand is that this type of bump-and-run percentage shot can be played by all golfers, rather than having to emulate the magician-like qualities of a Michelson with his wedges.

The pin placements were predominantly in the most challenging positions, exemplified by the ‘back-left’ pin on Worlington’s most famous hole, the hump-backed par three fifth, perhaps also something to do with the Club having another match the next day against the Cambridge University Stymies.

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The devilish fifth green

My partner and I, both playing with pre-1935 hickory clubs, were pleased to give each other a putt on the fifth hole, even if from the front to the back it is a terrifying one and so easy to get the wrong side of ridges and putt off the green altogether! It was nevertheless the play of our opponents, though thoughtful and almost well-conceived, which revealed what a devil that green is.

Their chip from the left hollow ran to the flat semi-rough on the back-right near the tree line. A 60-degree wedge (our opponents were playing with modern clubs) flopped exquisitely on to the green did not take the bite that a soft green would have given and the ball travelled steadily past the pin and back down into the left-hand hollow. A second well-judged chip left their ball just on the green back-right, after which the player stayed down in the hollow, for sure enough, he was required to make a third chip slightly closer to the hole after his partner had very carefully rolled the ball again that then gathered pace after it had passed the hole.

My story is in no way to embarrass our opponents since, as I have said, they almost played the hole well with every stroke. However, the above does help show a golfing picture of the fun to be had, not only from the design of this course ‘in a field’ but also from the greens which, after almost one inch of rain in the previous week and cut at winter levels of 5.5mm, were not fast but incredibly true and firm. The greens are nowadays grassed with some 70% fescue with also some browntop bent.

This agronomy has raised the golfing challenge to new heights and exemplified why fine grasses provide the most enjoyment.

Even on the ninth green, somewhat shaded and low-lying near a stream, the grass is predominantly fine and I was able to make two distinguished putts from opposite directions, with both of these moving some three feet sideways as the ball slowed to the hole and to my delight the second putt dropping from fifteen foot.

Fine grass builds putting confidence!

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The sixth green

Once one has got one’s mind away from the idea of having to have ‘close shaved for speed’ greens and had some experience of stroking putts across these decidedly speckled-looking greens (at least they would seem so to any player used to lush parkland Poa greens) one realises they still run smoothly and consistently even in the winter. As a result, one’s confidence grows, which is really what putting is all about.

The greens and surroundings are continuously aerated; verti-drained at the end of summer; slit throughout autumn/winter and solid tined and Sarrel rolled weekly through the spring/summer. Topdressed with 80/100 tons of 80/20 sand/’Banks Fendress’, (rather than pure inert sand) with some SSD, lawnsand, maxicrop and chilated iron used at different times. The use of water management product ‘Revolution’ and hand watering helps keep the water moisture content now down to around 13% (which of course helps keep out the weed grasses that love over-dampness).  Very little pesticide needs to be used and leather jackets, those lovers of damp, are not presently a problem. The summer greens are hand-mowed at 4.5mm or higher in dry conditions if they get too fast.

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The third green

Having achieved this remarkable turn-round in grass species and greens performance Jonathan’s small team have now started to upgrade the tees and clear out the roughs using ‘Rescue’ to kill the broad-leafed Ryegrass and Yorkshire Fog. With scarifying and autumn baling-off, the tall wispy fescues give an attractive definition in the summer, particularly to the first and eight holes, while still making one’s ball easy to find even among the cowslips and wild orchids.

The Club has also invested in its clubhouse and opened up the reception areas with oak and stone floors using beautiful quality reclaimed materials.

The steak and kidney pie was delicious but the bread-and-butter pudding was to die for. Plenty of sultanas among the eggy under-dish with a crunchy, chewy layer of triangular bread sweetened with sugar and cinnamon on top. The best since my mother’s of many moons ago!

Royal Worlington & Newmarket must certainly be historically the finest nine hole course in the world and now with Gordon Irvine’s help it has been restored to fine ‘Running-Golf ‘ after a period of unfortunate, verging on the boring, ‘Target-Golf ‘.

It really is worth a visit and will not cost you that much, while giving you a high star-rating ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ feeling. It is a special place in so many ways and a great hickories course too!

CLICK HERE to read FineGolf’s full review of Royal Worlington & Newmarket.




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