Making St Mellion a Mecca...
Total dedication to the job is one of the elements helping course manager Mike Bush create a golfing Mecca at St Mellion International Resort, following a £20 million redevelopment programme. Tom James travelled to Cornwall to find out more
St Mellion International Resort is poised to rival the world’s leading golf destinations thanks to a recent £20 million investment by owners Crown Golf. Europe’s leading golf club owner and operator has redeveloped the resort with an emphasis on community links, local suppliers, a mission to employ around 375 people by 2010 and to generate a spend of more than £2 million annually from overnight stays.
Sited near Saltash, 20 miles from Plymouth, St Mellion has raised the bar of excellence at the 450-acre estate, with major refurbishment completed on the 18-hole Kernow Resort Course (the previous Old Course) and work on the Nicklaus Signature Course, which this year celebrates its 21st birthday.
The Nicklaus was the first course designed in the UK by the golfing legend and proof of its prowess lies in St Mellion’s intention to host the Open Championship when the European Tour returns to the UK in 2011.
One of the team responsible for redesigning, co-ordinating and actioning the new designs is course manager Mike Bush, who at 33 has already amassed 14 years experience in the industry, mostly with American Golf and Crown and under the venerable tutelage of Laurence Pithie.
Mike was charged with the task of refashioning areas in need of upgrading as well as managing the £2.5 million outlay on bunker redevelopment, greens remodelling, new tees, a new cart path network and a high specification full fairway irrigation system.
“I was given the opportunity to redesign all aspects of the course, and am very grateful for it,” declares Mike who, fair to say, lives and breathes St Mellion’s lush, rolling golf acreage. “I came up with several ideas for the layout and it was down to me to manage the budget – and to keep to it,” he adds. On the Kernow (Cornish for Cornwall), ten new holes were built, nine new greens created, its overall length increased and large-scale bunker re-modelling undertaken.
“We increased it to a par 69 to bring the difficulty level closer to the Nicklaus standard,” he explains, “while also raising the speed of play throughout to make for a more challenging game. On both courses we changed some of the tees – notably, both18th holes are now located by the clubhouse,” he adds – a most appropriate solution, given the scale of the development of the 19th hole, which has a new 80-bed, environmentally green, four-star hotel linked to it as part of the site development project.
Bush’s devotion to St Mellion is evident in his office where statistics of the local rainfall, as well as those of every other Crown Golf site, are available for immediate perusal.
With an average of 58 to 60 inches of rain a year, St Mellion comes top “by a mile”, he reports, so drainage is clearly a concern, not only for him but also for other clubs in the South West – one he takes very seriously. “It is something that will always be a problem for us. We have more rain in our driest period than most other courses in England have in their wettest, so we’ve made it one of our priorities to improve.”
He applies some 450 tonnes of sand to the fairways annually to help improve surface drainage, as the material makes it easier for particularly wet courses to be in play for more of the year, he believes. “We want to be a 365 days-a-year course, not one that’s unplayable through the wettest months,” he states. “Playability though is becoming much easier with the onset of milder seasons - we haven’t had any hard frost here for some years and are witnessing grass growth throughout the 12 months.”
The new irrigation system was one of St Mellion’s biggest single purchases, with about half the £1 million plus outlay spent on labour costs alone, due to the rigours of excavating the clay soil and rock. Installation took seven months and involved laying 27 miles of medium density polyethylene piping, which deliver a peak flow of 135 m3 per hour to the 1,100 individual sprinklers.
“I can control everything from my office, and the system includes weather sensors so I can apply the exact amount of water to each part of the course. Water control is vital; the site is extremely undulating and conventional irrigation systems, which routinely turn on and saturate the course, are unsuitable as the water ends up draining off into the valleys, leaving the higher ground drier and more exposed to drought. Close control offers potential for huge water savings as well.” St Mellions also plans to treat its wash water using a new processing plant that will create 98 per cent clean, recycled, outflow.
Water conservation and management is important to Mike, who tries to collect as much for St Mellion’s five million gallon on-site reservoir as he can. “I collect all the water that comes off the buildings and channel it back on to the course to help reduce our bills and to become as sustainable as possible.”
The £2.5 million ploughed into the courses was split between £2 million course construction and the remainder on a buggy path network. “Before the network, buggies were driven over the fairways, causing damage, especially during heat waves, and not used during the wet months. That’s no longer the case. The electric buggies are proving far more cost-effective and environmentally green than petrol driven models. Although initial outlay for gearing up for operation can be as much as £30,000-£40,000, in the long run he believes it pays to go electric, as more courses are discovering.
Bunkering was an aspect of course provision that he sorely wanted to bring up to speed. On the Nicklaus course, the bunkers were “gutted, reshaped, re-contoured, and refaced”, he explains. “I used a new product, Sportscrete, which I discovered on a trip to Orlando, to improve the drainage and to reduce washouts. ”The material is sprayed on to stone laid throughout the bunker bottom and it creates a porous base that sets to concrete strength. It can cope with up to 25 mm of rainfall an hour, while also preventing contamination from bunker subsoils. The Nicklaus course includes 47 bunkers and this will really help to keep them in top condition.”
The Nicklaus course stages some 35,000 rounds a year and the Kernow a further 55,000, so maintaining a hardwearing sward is as essential.“We use a rye fescue mix on the tees; I find a well balanced mix produces the best results from each species. Rye tends to be much finer now and gives a good wear tolerance to the turf.”
Pesticides management is well in hand across both courses: “We have a good weed control programme and have managed to reduce our annual fungicide application by half due to our improved cultural practices. “For a long time we have applied an organic granular base feed on the greens with a liquid feed throughout the summer months to reduce the sulphur content and raise the pH level. On our fairways we are now moving away from granular products to solely liquid fertilisers.
With the list of banned pesticides growing dramatically, clubs are being forced to find alternative ways to keep fungi and weeds at bay. “In an ideal world, I would use no pesticides at all but that just isn’t possible and to keep our standards high, at least one or two are essential,” he argues. “Some types of course, links for example, should cope better when or if a full ban is in place but for a typical inland parkland course like ours, built on heavy clay with a mild and wetter climate with heavy dews, pest and disease management without chemicals is far harder. Dew dispersing products like Dewcure do help and I try to maintain high iron and potassium levels throughout the winter to keep the plant heavier and stronger so that it is less affected by fusarium and other diseases.”
A premium putting surface is the benchmark of any top-flight course, with stimp readings used regularly to promote faster, more challenging surfaces. But speed is everything says Mike, and he believes passionately in providing a course that as many players as possible can enjoy.
“We keep our stimp at around 9 to10 but with good rolling and verti-cutting coupled with with regular top-dressing you can get it as high or as low as you like, but too high a stimp means the golf becomes overly hard for the average player. What’s the sense in that? Clubs need to attract members and casual players alike, not risk turning them away by making a course that only the few can master and takes hours to complete,” he comments.
“Some clubs use high stimp readings to score points with rival sites – but to me that defeats the object. I aim to create a good playing surface that is challenging and consistent on all 18 greens, but one that all standards of golfers could feel they could have a go at. Cutting too short also damages the sward and stresses the plant making it more susceptible to disease, which in the long term is counter productive to prolonging a good greens quality. I will often roll the greens instead of cutting them so intensely and also use vibrating rollers to limit possible adverse effects.”
St Mellion’s team of 16 full-time groundstaff is well equipped to deal with the maintenance rigours of keeping two courses in prime condition. Popular sentiment among many clubs is the need for a full-time mechanic on site to deal with running repairs and other machinery issue.
On the staff is Roger Plackett, a man that Mike and his team respect highly. “Roger’s worth his weight in gold. He carries out most of our maintenance, including all the grinding. Having him here is not only cost effective but more beneficial as far as the machines are concerned. An in-house mechanic really gets to know the machines and their quirks.”
St Mellion runs a full line of Toro machinery and the Bernhard hydraulic lift in the maintenance shed was a golf UK first, designed to tackle repairs to larger equipment. The Anglemaster 3000 grinder and impact model are also proving their worth, Mike explains. “The new Anglemaster machines are a godsend. The older relief grinders were slower and required monitoring throughout the grinding process. Now, the team can be preparing other machines in the meantime.” Mike Bush is clearly passionate about his role at St Mellion,and his success there may in part be due his lifelong link with the estate, playing the course since his youth.
“St Mellion has always been special to me,” he concludes. “I want to achieve as much as I possibly can here and I feel I am well on my way. The job of redesigning the course would have been far more difficult if it wasn’t for the supportive membership; we have 1,300 members and some will always believe something should be done differently but the vast majority are pleased with the result of what has been a significant investment in the club.”