By George! The British Open returns to Turnberry
When the British Open Golf Championship returns this month to Turnberry for the first time since 1994, it will be something of a swan song for Turnberry’s Golf Courses & Estates Manager George Brown who, at 70 years of age, has spent 24 years at what is widely regarded as one of the finest links venues on the Open rota. Will Collins reports
As he celebrates his 71st birthday just after the Open and assumes a new ambassadorial position for the world famous course, George can justly reflect on a long and illustrious career peppered with many highlights both on and off the greens – including, he says, during the past 20 or so years visiting many parts of the world representing Turnberry and BIGGA making presentations about greenkeeping management and, this year being awarded with a BIGGA ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.
With a greenkeeping CV that started just after World War II at the Princes Golf Club in Sandwich, Kent – “I joined as a boy and left nine years later still as the ‘boy’ of the team!” – George readily admits that he has had no formal training in the art.
“I like to look back at those days and call them the decades of the 3 Ps – push mowers, pushbikes and poverty (and if this recession doesn’t end soon a lot more people might see a return of those times!). There was no formal training – everyone learned the trade hands-on - it’s how it was. Of course, formal training is never a bad thing, especially with the ‘science’ of turf care as it is today, but there will never be any substitute for experience.”
A lot of what George asks his team to do today continues to be based on his extensive knowledge and ‘feel’ for the job: “As the Open approaches, for example, we’ll judge the weather conditions (temperature, rain and wind) and then decide how high to set the mowers. We may, perhaps, lightly roll the greens and fairways.”
Based on the West coast of Scotland, Turnberry has two other courses (Arran and Kintyre) that complement the Ailsa Open venue, which is a par 69, 7,204-yarder featuring a coastal stretch of holes, intermingling turbulent dunes and rocky crags. The greenkeeping team of 33 (soon to be increased to 47) follow George’s remit “for everything outside the hotel that’s green”, and the site’s geographically-challenging location means that his skills and expertise will certainly come into play for the Open.
“Modern players obviously like the greens at a certain speed,” he suggests, “and we are of course determined to produce a playing surface to meet their needs (and those of the R & A and our owners). So, with one eye on the weather – and long-range forecasts for rain – and because we are a seaside course, we often have to veer slightly from having the fairways at 9 mm and greens at 4-5 mm. Rain and wind, which can change by the hour, dictates the actual cut heights and frequency of cuts.”
Reflecting on how the industry has changed over the years, George is adamant that the technology in place for modern greenkeeping “probably makes it easier for most clubs to find a head greenkeeper than a mechanic” due to our dependence on such high-value capital machinery investments. “In much the same way, most greenkeepers at least now have computers in their offices - that’s a measure of the way things have changed and not necessarily for the worst, he counters, at fear of being accused of Ludditism!
“Similarly, the impact of fertilisers and up-to-date irrigation techniques means it would be easy for us to ‘lose track’ of the course and change the character of our native grasses, which make Turnberry exactly what it is – a unique challenge. It is my personal quest to maintain what we have here – a mixture of 100-year-old native grasses.
“The players want firm and fast-running greens. And come rain or shine, that’s what they’ll have.”
Turnberry – an Open book
Beginning life as the property of a railway company almost 100 years ago Turnberry, having been used as a wartime airfield, was on the verge of extinction by 1946. Then course architect Mackenzie Ross transformed the property and the venue’s graduation to the envied ranks of host to the British Open came in 1977, when Watson and Nicklaus went head to head in what became known as the ‘Duel in the Sun’. Watson won by a stroke and Hubert Green, who finished 3rd some ten strokes behind Nicklaus, said: “I won the Open — those guys were playing a different tournament”.