walton heath Golf Club finalist: Championship Greenkeeping Performance sponsored by Bernhard and Company

Walton Heath is one of the world’s most highly regarded golf clubs, famous for its rich golfing and political history and the quality of its two exceptionally challenging heathland layouts, described by Jack Nicklaus as “wonderfully pure.” Both courses feature in the UK and Ireland’s Top 50 rankings. The Old has earned its place in the World’s Top 100 every year since the inception of the rankings in 1938.

In 2023 walton heath hosted:

aig women's open

US open qualifying

The Walton Heath team consists of:

  • Michael Mann, course manager

New Course team

  • Wesley Lenihan, head greenkeeper
  • Edoardo Fauro, deputy head greenkeeper
  • Kevin Butcher, first assistant
  • Devyn Pohar, senior assistant
  • Jacob Roome, greenkeeper
  • Daniel Hammond, greenkeeper
  • Evan Jones, greenkeeper
  • Tom Fretwell, greenkeeper

Old Course team

  • James Bruder, head greenkeeper
  • Andrew Gill, deputy head greenkeeper
  • Simon Torkington, first assistant
  • Danny Wristen, senior assistant
  • Daniel Shaw, senior assistant
  • Kevin Samson, senior assistant
  • John Atkinson, greenkeeper
  • Richard Byard, greenkeeper

Others

  • David Bruce, construction and projects supervisor
  • Alexandru Lungu, irrigation technician
  • Alex Steen, part-time gardener
  • Gary McKeown, part-time gardener
  • Seb Paul, part-time greenkeeper
  • Graham Goldup, course mechanic
  • Michael Williams, course mechanic
  • Robert Crosbie, assistant course mechanic

The AIG Women’s Open is one of two Majors hosted in the UK annually and the highest level female golfers can play. The championship has seen significant growth over the past few years with the 2023 event being the biggest in terms of staging and crowds to date.

The club also returned to hosting US Open Qualifier for the first time since the pandemic. The event is an opportunity for players ranked outside the top 60 in the OWG Rankings to qualify for the 3rd Men’s Major of 2023.

In mid-2020, Walton Heath was officially confirmed as the 2023 AIG Women's Open host venue, during an incredibly challenging period for the club.

During the pandemic and the uncertainty that brought everyone, a sequence of climatic events combined with a significant leatherjacket infestation saw turf quality suffer significantly.

In spring 2020, unusually warm daytime temperatures and morning frosts were not uncommon, giving the most challenging conditions to grow turf. Cumulative ET in May 2020 was 119mm vs 2.5mm of rain recorded.

Available man-hours on the courses were significantly reduced. Mainly due to restrictions around essential maintenance and to accommodate a rota designed to minimise contact within the team. Despite this, The R&A demonstrated tremendous faith in the team to turn it around.

Due to the combined detrimental effect of leatherjackets and drought on the turf, the club decided to invest in a new irrigation system. A design was drawn up, irrigation product selected and contractor appointed. Ground was broken in October 2021, everything seemingly going to plan.

Drought put a halt to irrigation installation

However, the irrigation project soon hit challenges, slowing progress considerably. The completion date of April 2022 passed and we entered the drought of spring/summer 2022 with a partially complete system. At this point the installation project was paused as ground conditions were unsuitable.

Submersible pumps in IBC containers

Despite this, the team produced good surfaces. We irrigated playing areas with a combination of a partially finished system, submersible pumps in IBC containers and sprayers converted to water bowsers. This exemplified the high levels of resilience and resourcefulness within the team.

Installation resumed in autumn 2022 and it was clear much work was still required to achieve completion.

The team worked under floodlights to repair vandalism

However, a devasting vandalism attack on the 10th green occurred in December 2022. The team, determined not to slow progress, worked additional hours under floodlights to repair the damage.

All of this happened with the forthcoming 2023 U.S. Open Qualifier due to be held over both courses in mid-May.
Wet weather in the lead up to May was helpful for establishment of all seed and turf. Dry weather arrived, just in time and a successful event was delivered.
Drip lines set up on mole plough scarring

The team devised a plan to re-seed the mole plough lines, including laying out drip lines keeping the areas damp, encouraging, seed germination and establishment. Grass cover was re-established in time for the AIGWO.

Mole plough lines were plugged

As well as the drip lines, the team used plugs to repair the irrigation lines and make an instant improvement to the surface. Plugs were taken from the turf nursery and 1st New tee which is scheduled to be improved this winter.

Examples of turfing work carried out by the team

The total greenkeeping head count at Walton, excluding the workshop team and gardeners, is 20. This gives 0.56 greenkeepers per hole – in my view, less than other hosts of majors this year.

In autumn 2021 we undertook a full review of the greenkeeping department and identified several opportunities to improve operational efficiencies. A full restructure of the department was implemented, most notably splitting into two teams and the creation of several supervisory roles. A recruitment drive saw the recruitment of two head greenkeepers, two deputy head greenkeepers and two first assistants who shaped the new look team.

Mole plough in action in 2021

With regards the irrigation installation, the team took on the responsibility from the contractor for turf reinstatement on top of daily maintenance and project work planned for that winter. The team demonstrated remarkable professionalism and expertise while undertaking this commitment, laying around 2,500m2 of turf around valve assemblies and plough lines to complete the installation to the agreed standard. Installation was completed end April 2023, 12 months after the contractual end date.

The chance to be involved in the preparation for a global major was fully embraced by the greenkeeping team. While Walton Heath has a long history of hosting elite amateur and professional events, the club is mindful of the impact on members, so they are limited to once every 5-10 years. In a regular year the team would be preparing the courses for the various members competitions throughout the season. With is in mind, the team committed fully to doing everything we possible to deliver a successful event.

From three weeks out the team started to work extra shifts to get on top of all the attention to detail tasks on the championship holes. Everyone very aware the eyes of the golfing world would be upon us. Early starts, late finishes and split shifts were a change from the norm. During the event, people who lived more than a 30-minute commute away stayed on-site in camper vans to maximise downtime.

Greenkeeping team alongside AIG Women's Open champion Lilia Vu
"the effort shown by the team during this period was exceptional. the team's professionalism, skill and enthusiasm shone through in the conditions produced for the world's best female players. the team deserve all the praise they received for delivering a successful championship."

GOOD LUCK TO walton heath GOLF CLUB, FINALISTS IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP GREENKEEPING PERFORMANCE AWARD SPONSORED BY BERNHARD AND COMPANY