Hollinwell back to upper echelons of golf

Added on December 5th, 2019 by Lorne Smith
Posted in course design, Greenkeeping

Hollinwell’s return to fine grass and heathland

Over recent years Hollinwell has steadily climbed the rankings of courses in the Great Britain & Ireland, including a 5 Star FineGolf  ‘Joy to be Alive’ rating.   It held the Brabazon Trophy for the 5th time in 2015, is one of only four courses to have hosted the Final Open Qualifier in the last three years and will do so again in 2020 & 2021.

What is responsible for Hollinwell’s return to the upper echelons of golf?

The answer isn’t what you might expect as it involves the implementation of ideas based on conservation greenkeepingfine grass agronomy and the running game.

Perhaps we should start by asking why any golf club should decide to make an effort to:
1) increase its proportion of fine grasses,
2) remove trees and
3) limit gorse?

Looking down the 11th hole. CLICK TO ENLARGE

The objective for Notts Golf Club at Hollinwell  is to return to having a fast running heathland course and what we were previously dealing with was a course that had become almost parkland style.

As at many other courses, nobody realised that a slow invasion of self-set trees had occurred during the late twentieth century, which led to a reduction of light and air, creating poor growth to fairways and greens. It also caused an increase in the proportion of meadow grass with its susceptibility to disease and the requirement to regularly use expensive chemical fungicides.

The mistaken use of excessively fine top-dressing compounded this problem by reducing the drainage due to a silting up of the greens. This resulted in softer meadow grass greens, limiting the running game so characteristic of its heathland heritage.

Hollinwell is blessed by having a few inches of humus on top of sand even though it is inland and has contours that weave through the Mosely and Robin Hood hills.

aerial photo of the course

The aerial photo taken in 1949 before the planting of trees on the northern boundary shows the rippled undulations on the escarpment. It also shows the scarcity of trees except in the middle of the course and unfortunately this dense planting of predominantly oaks between the sixth, seventh and eighth holes happened between the two world wars.

Tree planting on golf courses at this time became fashionable, in part to separate fairways in close proximity on converted farmland, and in part to provide a sense of a barrier between each hole. However, on a spacious heathland course such as Hollinwell this is undesirable. Oaks, in particular, are damaging to heather and fine grasses because of the shadow they cast, and their leaves blow under the heather, decompose and fertilise the heather which it does not like.

Well-meaning members and staff during the earlier part of the last century, unaware of its consequence, spread manure on the greens and fairways. In addition, in the late 1980s peat was liberally used on the fairways. These measures altered the soil to again favour meadow grass over fine grass.

The heathland environment which had existed for over two millennia was under threat along with the flora and fauna species that depended on it. Consequently, a decision was made to reverse the changes that had occurred almost imperceptibly over many decades and to restore the course back to its original heathland state.

One driving force behind this was Dr Ian McLachlan, now deceased, and with the backing of the Club, steps were taken although it has not always been a smooth journey.

Fine grass growth

In 2010 Gordon Irvine, Master Greenkeeper, was retained to advise the Club. He produced a detailed programme of work for the green staff advocating a rigorous regime of aeration, monitoring humidity, overseeding with fine grasses and more top-dressing with 80/20 sand/fendress. This included some hollow coring, a lot of tining and a restriction in the use of inorganic salt-based fertilisers which were replaced with slow release organic products such as hoof and horn.

The parched 18th fairway in the summer of 2018

It may seem ironic that one of the first measures that Gordon Irvine insisted on was renewal of the greens irrigation system, as at the same time he asked for careful monitoring of moisture levels to keep humidity below 20%. The reason was that the old watering system was uneven and resulted in some areas being over-watered whilst other areas were omitted.

The fine grasses on the 18th fairway in 2019.

The course has not had an automatic fairway watering system for many years and so over that period the fine perennial grasses, that have an ability to put down deep roots, have been forced to do this to survive during spells of drought, unlike weed meadow grass that have shallow roots.

During the six weeks of 30 degrees in the summer of 2018 (an intensity of heat that had not been experienced since 1976) Hollinwell’s fairways went brown and when the rain eventually came, the fairway meadow grass (Poa annua) was dead but much of the perennial fescue/browntop bent grasses recovered back to their pale green colour as seen in the photo of june 2019.

The greens are cut at a minimum of 4mm (fine grasses will not survive when shaved low) and the height of cut has been reduced across the aprons and run-offs to 6 to 8mm whereas previously there was a significant parkland style step-up one triplex width from the green. The firmness of aprons and run-offs is as important as the firmness of the greens and is an integral part of setting up a course for the running game.

A course maintenance week was put in the diary and was not ‘bounced’ by bookings.

Alistair Beggs, the club’s agronomist, provided information about the composition of the greens including the soil structure and minerals as well as providing objective measures of green performance.

Getting the right technical advice is only one aspect of creating successful change. The other is gaining the agreement of the greenkeepers and then the members.

The new Phil Stain style of natural bunkering

Phil Stain, our course manager and his staff have diligently implemented the plan. They have embraced the move to fine grasses and heathland restoration. They have also done a tremendous job in improving the bunkering so that the bunkers sit more naturally within a heathland setting.

All of this has resulted in a well monitored and objectively measured, steady improvement in the course.

An added and incidental benefit has been the reduction in the use of high cost fertilizers, fungicides and the use of less water, thereby helping the Club to fit with the wider society’s wish to conserve the environment.

Membership communication

It is vital to develop an educated core group of members who understand what and why change is needed. Gordon Irvine gave talks to the membership in the evening with a clear vision for the future, allowing open questions with straight forward answers. From a somewhat sceptical beginning, with a high proportion of low handicap members (who often instinctively call for shaved greens to give more short-term putting speed), as the course improved with the greens becoming smoother and truer, the struggle to convince became easier. A putting speed of between 9′ and 9.5′ dependant on the weather is generally accepted as quite fast enough for keen ‘pace of play’ recreational golf.

Tree removal

All tree removal has been done under the direction of the Sherwood Forest Trust which actively promotes heathland restoration in North Nottinghamshire along with tree planting in other areas. Their research has shown that only 2% of heathland remains in the area compared to 1887.

A 1906 photo of the original 7th green now the 15th. One sentinel tree in the open heathland.

There are many misconceptions about the amount of ancient woodland that existed in the United Kingdom over the last two thousand years. This is particularly the case in relation to Nottinghamshire because of the renown of Sherwood Forest. Before 1919 the term ‘forest’ did not equate to densely packed trees.

The term ‘forest’ was purloined after the Forestry Commission started planting swathes of larch and fir which are incidentally poor for plant and animal diversity. Before then the term ‘forest’ meant open spaces between areas of woodland where hunting and grazing took place.

A 1912 treeless photo of the course.

The combination of deer, cattle, sheep, and rabbits maintained heathland where fine grasses and heather could survive. Even in the 1600s only twelve percent of the area known as Sherwood Forest was wooded. The main loss of ancient woodland nationally occurred since 1900. However, preserving or increasing heathland is important for preserving an environment found at relatively few remaining sites.

A 1959 photo of the 3rd green

These photographs of the course from the early 1900s show how few trees were present even up to the late 1950s.

It is easy to understand how some members find it difficult to reconcile recent talk of ’emergency climate change’ and the loss of rain forest in the Amazon and Indonesia to farming and biofuels, with tree removal on their golf course.

It is a significant task to explain the conservation reasons behind restoring more open heathland and even then, some opinions continue to differ, in spite of the knowledge that the work is supported by the Woodland Trust.

I recommend people read John Nicholson’s FineGolf  article on “trees on golf courses” for an expert view.

A separate issue is that in the 1950s the Forestry Commission planted 85 acres of Scots pines on the hills to the north of the course, which now provide an imposing backdrop. These will all die over the next two decades and their succession is being managed by Sherwood Forest Trust with a move toward a more diverse deciduous foliage that will support greater biodiversity.

Gorse control

Various varieties of gorse flower in early spring and autumn add glowing yellow hues to brighten up dull days. However, gorse is not only very invasive, but it binds nitrogen and enriches the soil so that even when it is removed the area that remains favours broad leaved grasses such as Yorkshire Fog over fine grasses. Have a look the next time you pass by an area where a gorse bush has been removed; you will probably see lush grass and new shoots of gorse as its seeds are very hardy.

Gorse completely out of control!

The topsoil where gorse grew, along with its roots, needs to be removed if there is any chance of controlling its expansion. It also recovers well when burnt as Tom Williamson, professional at Notts Golf Club for 54 years, found to his cost in the first half of the twentieth century.

Alistair Mackenzie, one of the most well-respected golf course architects, said “Gorse and water share the disadvantage that it is practically impossible to play out of them and they are a frequent cause of lost balls. It would appear, therefore, that they should not be used to any great extent as hazards.” However, gorse does support a lot of wildlife including many bird species, but it is best controlled, and its area restricted as its advance is inexorable.

Again, I recommend people read John Nicholson’s FineGolf  article on “Gorse: friend or foe?

Testimonials

In 2019 Sherwood Forest Trust said on its website: “Huge areas of semi-natural habitat – primarily heathland and acid grassland – have been lost over the last few centuries, ploughed up for farmland, planted with conifer trees or consumed by expanding towns. They (Hollinwell) are overseeing a return to heathland with the removal of trees and control of gorse”.

It should be acknowledged that when a tree has been felled on the course, another has been planted in neighbouring land to expand woodland elsewhere.

Looking back from the green up the hill to the 13th tee.

Recently Martin Ebert, the international golf course architect, has been asked to carry out a thorough review of the layout of the course in the light of advances in golf club equipment. In doing this he has meticulously gone over the Club’s archives and aerial photographs to see which bunkers and sand scrapes that used to exist warrant restoring today.

He too has recommended the removal of areas of self-set trees and gorse that have surreptitiously invaded areas of play. Martin Ebert has commended Phil Stain on the heathland style of his bunker work that fits naturally into the landscape.

In 2016 Bob Taylor, the highly respected ecologist (on behalf of The R&A) wrote, when he awarded Hollinwell the Golf Environment Organisation certification: “Notts Golf Club is one of the premier nature conservation sites within the UK, it is every bit as much a nature reserve as it is a golf course, and indeed it is well known for its nature conservation interests UK wide. The course lies within plantation woodland but is essentially heathland in character and this has been brought out by the ongoing management that is provided by the green staff on behalf of the club. Tree and scrub management and heath regeneration, all backed by grazing are key to retaining the conservation interests at Notts golf club and all are being undertaken on a routine basis. This course is a prime exemplar and ambassador for best conservation management practice, something that has evolved in line with experience and with regular close working with the local wildlife groups. The whole of the conservation management is overseen and monitored by the Sherwood Forest Trust and through regular and ongoing discussions with Natural England, The Wildlife Trusts and The Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.”

Summary

Yes, we are proud that Hollinwell, now as a fine running inland golf course with firm fairways and greens, is making its contribution to an environment that promotes biodiversity in a sustainable way. We have a conservation greenkeeping policy making minimum use of fertilisers, chemicals and water, which in turn helps our pockets.

Our Master Greenkeeper says that fine grasses need light and air as well as aeration to do well. Our agronomist has the same philosophy and most important of all so do our green staff who have made a sustained effort over the last few years.

We wouldn’t say that this is a speedy or easy journey, but most vitally we have communicated a vision and have taken most of our members with us and are well on our way.

We are starting to see the benefit of this style of course management in the extra enjoyment the running game gives to members and visitors.

Ian Tilson
Chairman of Greens Notts. Golf Club (Hollinwell)

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