0 Much more than a walk in the park

Henry VIII probably, and the Beatles definitely, 'walked the course' or at least part of what is regarded as one of England's best golf course settings. Neville Johnson discovers that history and celebrity are not all that sets it apart in this part of rural Kent

Knole Park Golf Club is a private members club that opened in 1924. Its course is a joy to behold, but actually difficult to describe specifically. Mainly overlaying sand and free-draining, it has parkland, heathland, links, even moorland, characteristics.

It extends across the 1000-acre grounds of Knole House, built in the late 15th century and soon coveted by Henry VIII, it is one of the country's most visited stately homes. Not a quiet, traffic-free place to play golf, or manage the playing surfaces, but a joy nevertheless.

I'm at the course to meet head greenkeeper Gavin Kyle.

"We have acid grassland, mainly fescue bent make-up with just a little moss over winter," he says.

"The surroundings here and proximity to one of the country's prime historic houses makes it an outstanding golfing experience, for play and for greenkeeping."

Gavin came to this country from South Africa in 1980 and, in 1984, he began his greenkeeping career as an apprentice at Foxhills Golf Club. Ten years later, after a spell as deputy head at Ashford Manor, he took on the head greenkeeping role at the newly built Sutton Green course, between

Woking and Guildford, where he was involved in its construction and grow in. After five years there, he switched from new to old by taking over the 1903-built Hendon Golf Club, where he oversaw a 3-year revamping programme.

"The contrasts of new and old courses - from scratch start to a £350,000 budget - was such a valuable experience. It was like moving from a one-bedroom flat to a mansion," he says.

He hadn't been looking for a move away from Hendon but, as a golfer himself, he had played the Knole course as a student and placed it in his memory bank as one of the two or three courses he would relish working at if a post ever became available. It did, and his application was successful.

He's now in his sixteenth year as Knole's head greenkeeper.

He'd worked on clay: he'd worked on gravel. Knole with its sand make-up and very undulating terrain presented him with a whole new area of challenges. It continues to do so, and he clearly loves it.

The Knole Park Estate is an ancient deer park, and there's been a herd here for over 600 years. These days it numbers between 600 and 700. When Gavin first came to Knole it was about 2000, but the Estate was unable to sustain a herd of that size and there was a need to regenerate the park, so culling was implemented.

"They are delightful and a huge attraction, but they do present us with problems, the most troublesome being running through bunkers" says Gavin.

"Generally they are more of a difficulty in winter months because the more succulent, more nutritional grass is on the course, not in the open parkland areas, and they tend to group together on playing areas. Picking at fairways and greens is a perpetual annoyance, as of course are their droppings."

"It's not a good idea to shoo them away, however much of a nuisance they are. They are a herd animal and will bolt, leaving hoof prints on approaches and greens. They are quite shy creatures and the presence of golfers and busy greenkeepers tends to keep them away from business areas of the course during daylight. When it's the rutting season in September, aggressive stags especially can have a damaging effect."

Knole Park has been enjoyed since Tudor times and golf is a relative newcomer to activities there, although it is close to notching up a century.

The course was designed by J F Abercromby, at the behest of the then Lord Sackville, whose family home Knole House has been since it was gifted to them by Elizabeth I. The architect was not perhaps the most prolific, but he made his mark with Knole, as he did for the Addington, Worplesdon and Coombe Hill courses, by using natural land undulation to great effect. The 'ups and downs' are undeniably both challenging and beautiful.

It is an 18-hole par-70 course, now some 6,700 yards in length. When Gavin came to Knole it was just 6,200 yards, but over the last four or five years his team have lengthened play over a number of holes to match changes in the game of golf, members' expectations and abilities, and attract more sizeable events like the Tillman Trophy, already staged there. The club's ambition, with justification, is to attract and host more prestigious events.

Fortunately, there is plenty of room for Gavin to make changes.

"Being part of the Knole Estate is a privilege that the club enjoys, and respects," he says. "We share this magnificent open space with the many thousands of year round visitors that come to experience Knole House and the Park. We have a superb working relationship with Knole Estate. Communication is crucial to that and we make sure we keep it advised of proposed alterations, in fact anything beyond routine presentation work, well in advance."

Gavin and the club's Green Committee meet on a monthly basis to discuss development of the course.

"We like to keep improving the course if we can to make it more challenging to the scratch golfer, and there is a sizeable group of category one players among the membership," he says.

"We are mindful, however, that we have to take the many regulars who are unable to achieve big distances into consideration. We make sure the course is not so challenging it drives away the less able golfer. Knole is a delight, whatever your score, I venture to say."

Gavin has five full-time assistants, plus a couple of regular part-time helpers. When he joined the club, he was the youngest. Now he's the oldest.
"It's a great course to learn the profession, enjoy the pressures, and get huge satisfaction," he says.

Single starting point from the clubhouse means Gavin and his team can always work ahead of the golf. He says they are able to get the course presented in a three and a half hour period without the disrupting and time consuming need to jump backwards and forwards.

There is a lot of development work in progress right now, a bunker revamping programme in particular, which started this winter with specialist contractor Profusion.

Consultant architect Jonathan Gaunt was called in about eighteen months ago to give an appraisal of how changes could be made to improve playing conditions.

"He made proposals and we are now putting some of these into action," says Gavin.

The club has itself taken in-house short-term action regarding bunker drainage. Although the course is free-draining, the highly undulating nature of the terrain has caused drainage issues with some of them and Gavin decided to re-drain those most affected to nearby soakaways.

The idea has been to intercept run-off water before it reaches a bunker by doing some re-shaping of surrounds and adding soil to lift levels where necessary. This does seem to be working satisfactorily.

Jonathan Gaunt's ideas were mainly aimed at longer-term improvements.

The decision was taken to start implementation of the bunker revamping programme at the 10th green. There are few images of how the course first looked, but the internet provided Gavin with a valuable blueprint for restoring how Abercromby had laid out the traps around this particular green. It was an aerial shot from 1940 on the Google Earth site that revealed the position of the bunkers then, and so give Profusion the opportunity to re-shape the bunkers as they were first designed.

The hole had to be put 'out of play' for most of this winter, until late March or April, Gavin reckons, and a temporary green set-up. In mid-January, when we were there, turf close to the bunkers had yet to be laid.

Gavin described fresh turf as being like a restaurant to the deer, so the whole of the 10th green and surrounds was securely fenced off. It would remain so until the turf was well and truly settled in. Right now, the Tillers fescue turf looked immaculate, safely out of the reach of the deer herd.

The bunker liner, Blinder, already in place and extending to the revetted edging, prevents contamination from below. Once turfing is completed, the bunkers would be filled with Buckbricks double-wash sand.

The recreation of the 10th green complex will be pretty much as Abercromby designed it. Gavin says that the contractor has done a fantastic job and he and club members were looking forward to the rejuvenated green being part of the course again this spring.

Some of the spoil from the excavation and reshaping of the 10th hole bunkers is being put to good use in building three new ladies/blue marker tees aimed at reducing the length of holes 2, 3 and 9 for those with a shorter game. This is part of the overall improvement project.

Gavin says he had been at Knole ten years before he had to cut any rough. Previously, at Hendon, it was a twice-weekly necessity. The growing characteristics could not be more different at Knole, where the deer indulge themselves on the grasses, ground conditions are fast-drying, and it's a fescue-bent make-up as opposed to clay, ryegrass and meadow grass.

The high terrain also means Knole can be 4-6 weeks behind a lot of courses, even in the south, in grass growth. You see it in the deer, too. "They get their summer coats a month later than, say, at Bushey Park or Hampton Court," says Gavin.

"As the herd has shrunk, so the rough has prospered and we do now have to cut from time to time. Your rough is the picture frame of what you're trying to achieve on a course, so it's good that it is now thriving and we are controlling it!."

As for fairways, some reseeding is necessary in small areas, notably the 17th, where the topsoil is very sandy and thin and tends to dry especially quickly. Gavin is endeavouring to thicken up by introducing straight fescue from time to time.

Knole is a unique environment and that itself offers greenkeeping challenges. Nature really does play a big hand.

There are micro-climates across the course, caused principally by marked differences in elevation. The higher south end can be in snow or frost laden and the clubhouse end, fifty metres lower, much milder. Gavin is philosophical about it:

"We regularly go from minus one or two to plus ten from day to day in winter, so the grass doesn't know where it is. We just have to live with that. Growth and dormancy interlock."

The park was much affected by the devastating storm of 1987 and there is still plenty of evidence of the effect it had on the park's trees. There is a rule on the Knole Estate that any fallen tree not cleared away within eight weeks, must stay put. There are a number of beetles and bugs virtually unique to the park and it is a way of preserving their habitat.

You can see plenty of oak and beech stumps - some as much as twenty feet high - where the substantial tree tops, often a further 100 feet, had been ripped off by the hurricane force winds on that October night thirty years ago. They are reminders around the course of Mother Nature's wrath.

Knole House, since 1946 largely in the hands of the National Trust, has over 100,000 visitors each year, many of them enjoying the ancient deer parkland too. When Gavin first came to Knole, the House was closed during winter months, but these days it is open all year round to maximise income and help pay for a near completed £8 million restoration programme.

Visitor traffic, of course, has to be borne in mind by the golf club, and it's very much acccepted as part of playing golf and looking after the course here.

The park is a place for everyone to enjoy and that is very much the mantra of Lord Sackville and the Knole Estate. You only have to walk through it, with or without clubs, to see that.

And the Beatles? In case you were wondering, it was the filming of Strawberry Fields Forever in 1967.

Check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UQK-UcRezE


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