Golspie Golf Club is situated ten miles north of the world famous Royal Dornoch, and just five miles south of Brora, the home of the James Braid Society. With other courses within a short car journey, such as Tain, Carnegie Club at Skibo, Fortrose and Rosemarkie and also Castle Stuart, you could say that this is a golfing paradise.
But paradise was not what Alexander MacDonald discovered when he became Head Greenkeeper in 2007.
Yet, just six and a half years later, the course is somewhere near where Alexander wants it to be. Here, he explains how he got there
I took over at Golspie after I became aware of the vacancy not long after competing in the County Championship there in June 2007. I had previously been at Royal Dornoch and also fortunate enough to have been at Wentworth on the East course working under my uncle, Kevin McGrath. During the prizegiving for the County Cup, I got speaking to the Greens Convenor who was giving a bit of information as to what they were looking for.
Now, make no mistake about it, Golspie was in very poor condition. The greens were very spongy due to excessive thatch and were full of poa and other undesirables. Tees were very uneven, fairways were cut with tractor mounted gangs and bunkers were in need of serious work. There was no definition and, all in all, it was a mammoth task for someone to take on.
After thinking it over and doing a couple of course walks armed with a notepad, taking notes on potential improvements to be made, I decided to apply for the job, submitting my letter of application along with references from Royal Dornoch and Wentworth. I was interviewed the following week and, armed with my notepad, I proceeded to give a presentation on where I saw the club at that point and where I thought it needed improvement.
How I ever got the job I will never know as, in front of the three person interview panel, I told them that their course was terrible. It had potential but, without some serious investment with the right person leading it, they would forever be in the wake of the other clubs in the area. I told them of the need for serious work on the greens, every bunker on the course had to be redesigned and the course was needing some definition.
Despite slating their course, I was offered the job and, after being told that I would never have a budget - they spent whatever they had coming in - I decided it was a challenge that I wanted, so started on July 9th, 2007
I wouldn't recommend anybody starting a managerial job in the peak of the season but, as golfers were scarce anyway, we could get stuck in to the job in hand. The first thing any golfer remembers of any course after playing it is its greens, so I went out with the holecutter to ascertain where they were at. They were thick, long and very coarse in appearance. Below the surface there was two inches of thatch, and that was on top of compacted soil, with some greens having a heavy black layer.
If ever there was a time I wished I'd never touched the job, it was then. Not so much the problems with the greens, just the magnitude of the task in hand - and with only one labourer and a fifteen year old local, Craig Mackay, to call on! Add to that there was no machinery to deal with the problems, except a Sisis Technicore and a tractor mounted slitter, and it was going to be a monumental task.
We got through that playing season, verti-cutting and just trying to make the surfaces playable. We came to the autumn where we could finally get some work done to address the thatch problem. I ordered tines for the Sisis and cored the greens to four inches We then dressed and seeded the greens and, six weeks later, I managed to beg a verti-drain from Royal Dornoch. The greens were done to a depth of ten inches with a ten degree heave. You could almost hear the turf breathing a sigh of relief. I heavy dressed again with a coarse sand and they were then sprayed with T-Thatch and left for the winter.
In the meantime, I had started to implement a huge winter programme of remedial work on twenty-two bunkers and three tees, plus also clearing bushes and trees. We started well, but the work took its toll and, in December, my labourer left. We hired a couple of local lads who never stayed long and, although the work got done, I really needed someone who was qualified that I could rely on.
I managed to persuade a good friend who I worked with at Royal Dornoch and who had moved to Royal Aberdeen, to return home and join me at Golspie. That season, with two 'Craig Mackays' on the staff, the compliments were flooding in as we got everything shaped and a couple of good early dressings on the greens. We were pencil tining greens and getting sand in, and the surfaces were firming up by the day and rolling truer than they ever had done. We also managed to buy a brand new fairway mower and the difference that made was huge, the quality of cut being superb.
With the coarse grasses that were in the greens, we were verti-cutting fortnightly and dressing as and when we could. We had the greens down to 3.5mm and they were being starved of the cocktails of fertiliser they had been given previously. We used seaweed and iron, with only a little invigorator now and again, and the poa was not liking it. That autumn, we cored, dressed and overseeded with a bent/fescue mix. The greens were really starting to improve and thatch levels were decreasing and were well diluted with dressings.
In October 2008, I had to attend an interview at the Old Course hotel for an award by Golf Tourism Scotland for the Young Industry Person of the Year. The award ceremony was at the Cameron House Hotel at Loch Lomond and a big awards ceremony it was. I took my deputy, Craig Mackay, with me to the ceremony and never thought I would be in the running for it, but the award came up and my name was announced as the winner. I don't think there is a better feeling than getting an award for doing a job that you love. It gave us both a boost that we were going in the right direction at Golspie and that we should push on and keep improving the course.
As the seasons went by, our course was improving a lot. We were getting the odd magazine column and local press were saying how much the course was improving.
Then, in 2011, we entered the Scottish Top 100 Courses; the highest new entry at 69. The committee were trusting us to get on with the job, making any alterations that we felt were needed, whilst anything major would go in front of an EGM.
One major alteration I proposed was to turn the 1st in to a par 5, the original being a 458 yard dog leg left to an elevated green. We moved the tee back to in front of the clubhouse and it is now a 493 yard par 5 that is much more friendly than the previous hole.
In 2012, National Club Golfer had rated us as the 54th best Links course in Britain. We found this out in December, just before we were about to get off on a month long holiday over the Christmas period. On Friday 14th December, we were hit by the biggest storm in living memory. Winds of over 70mph got up instantly and, coupled with a big tide and very low air pressure, the sea engulfed the course. We had over 200,000 tonnes of rock, rubble, sand and debris on the course, along with twelve feet of landlocked saltwater on some parts. Our 7th tee was washed away and we lost almost half a hectare of land. Holidays were cancelled!
I went over on the Saturday during the peak of the storm and seriously felt like six years of hard work had literally been washed away; the course was devastated. I walked about the course seeing jobs that were completed just a few days earlier, ruined and being washed out. The sea was 160 yards beyond the sea defences, waves were throwing rocks - weighing nearly a tonne - around like sweetie papers. It was an incredible force to witness.
The next day I went over at 8.00am to survey the damage. I grabbed the tractor with the loader and a shovel and headed to the 3rd green to start clearing. The greens were obviously the priority, get them cleared first and deal with the rest later. As I plodded away, a couple of members came and joined me and, before we knew it, there was a dozen people clearing tonnes of debris off the 3rd green. We then moved on to the 18th and got the 4th done too, shovelling tonnes of sand off that one.
The next day, we had over forty people turn up; some were not even golfers, just villagers. I had put an appeal out on the club's Facebook page and they came armed with shovels and barrows. We set off and cleared the worst green - the 5th - where some 5,000 tonnes of sand and stone was lying. It was cleared in a little over four hours.
The rest of the week, with help coming from Skibo, Royal Dornoch, Tain and Bonar Bridge Golf Clubs, the areas that had no water could be cleared. In just four days, it was done.
After our break, we had a visit from the insurers who were suggesting that the only action to take was to strip all the submerged areas. In consultation with the STRI, I pushed to work with what we had by saving the existing turf and keeping the greens as uniform throughout the course as possible.
Thankfully, the insurers relented, also giving myself and Craig a bit of help by taking on a skilled labourer to help with the restoration works. By mid January, we set about flushing salt from the soil. We had the irrigation primed and pencil tined the greens, applied Rocastem, then hit them with thousands of gallons of water. We applied potash and iron and kept flushing the soil. It had the desired effect by April.
In the meantime, we had to rebuild our 7th tee in order to get the course playable. We had to reclaim some 25 yards of land that had been washed away in parts, hand filling hundreds of Gabion baskets to give a structure in which to build the tee inside. In just three weeks, in snow and hard frost, we had the tee completed to a standard that far outweighed the previous tee.
We had several bunkers to rebuild, 3,500m2 of turf to strip, paths to re-do and 1600m of coastal defence to rebuild. In April, the club hired Jack, a local lad of sixteen who was with us helping out the previous summer. His wages were to be paid by the insurance and he was getting an apprenticeship out of it. Now we were up to four staff and that gave us a big boost.
Our greens were showing some serious signs of die back due to the salt contamination. I was in touch with David Greenshields of Barenbrug, our seed supplier of choice here at Golspie. He suggested some seed mixes that were more tolerant to salt areas and, in April, I ran the overseeder and covered the greens with grow sheets. Two weeks later, in conditions really not favourable, the seed was up and it was the first chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
We then had the impetus to push on again; seeing that it was possible really gave us a boost and, by May 1st, the full course was opened again. With the insurance paying for a Dakota topdresser, Charterhouse Verti-Drain and Charterhouse seeder, we had the tools to push on this year.
We were dressing greens more than ever - there were nine passes with the overseeder on the affected greens, with around 45kg/green. Affected fairways were seeded, verti-drained and turfed.
We were still on reduced rates due to the fact we still had large areas of GUR, and throw into the mix that it was the driest, coldest spring we'd had in years.
By June, the course was playing far better, The County Championship was played over the Golspie links and the feedback was excellent. The course that gave me such a headache this year also gave me my first County Championship win, with a 36 hole total of -3.
In July, the course was back to its full rate and was looking very good. With the summer being one of the best ever, it was all hands to the hoses to keep our huge areas of bought in turf alive. Although some shrinkage occurred, it was minimal, and we just had to divot up any cracks that appeared.
In August, we held a warm up competition for the Carnegie Shield at Royal Dornoch. One of the competitors was a writer for Golf Monthly and he came off the course tweeting that the greens were the best he had putted on all year. It was a great compliment for the hard work that the boys had put in to restoring the course. We also found out that we are in another top 100; this time the National Club Golfer Top 100 Courses in Britain Under £100 - in at number 69 again!
This year has been a steep learning curve for us here at Golspie. We are a young squad and I think that this helped in the resilience shown.
We are determined for this course to be remembered for being a quality place to come and play golf, to relax in beautiful surroundings and to breathe in the sea air, so long as the sea stays on its own side of the wall!