In 2019, Royal Portrush Golf Club, regarded as one of the finest links courses in the world, will host Northern Ireland's first Open Championship since 1951.
Situated on the rugged Atlantic coast, its stunning location provides something of a greenkeeping challenge, but one that new Course Manager Graeme Beatt is more than adequately qualified for, as he tells Chris McCullough
Nestled right on the edge of the fierce Atlantic Ocean, the Royal Portrush Golf Club really needs no introduction. Its famous courses hosted the Open Championship in 1951, the Irish Open in 2012 and is currently preparing for the return of the Open in 2019.
The club is home to one of the best and most challenging links golf courses in the world, the Dunluce Links, plus the 'hidden gem', the Valley Links.
Back in December, the long standing course manager, Joe Findlay, retired after twenty-six years with the club. He was replaced by Graeme Beatt who originally comes from St Andrews.
In preparation for the Open, the course will undergo a few changes, including moving the 16th, 17th and 18th holes.
The existing machinery shed is being demolished, making way for a new one in a different location to allow the construction of the visitor stands surrounding the 18th. A complete indoor refurbishment of the clubhouse is also on the agenda in time for the big event.
Graeme took up the reigns of the Portrush course at the end of last year following an impressive career at other venues.
He said: "I joined the greenkeeping staff at my home club, Scotscraig Golf Club, in 1995 and went on to work at Kingsbarns from 2000 until 2006, with a spell at Royal Melbourne in this time."
"I moved to Ireland in 2006 to work at the Castle Dargan Golf Course and stayed as course manager until 2011. I then enjoyed working as course manager at County Sligo Golf Course, Rosses Point from 2011 until 2014."
Throughout his career, Graeme has secured qualifications at NC, HNC and FdSc levels in greenkeeping and sportsturf, PA1, 2 and 6.
He cites two people as those who have inspired him. "I would have to say I looked up to the duo of Stuart McColm and Innes Knight at Kingsbarns as they were both perfectionists and learning that the fine detail makes all the difference," said Graeme.
"I am responsible for the golf course budget, but report to club secretary Wilma Erskine on a monthly basis and whenever necessary for anything out of the ordinary."
The only club in Ireland to have hosted the Open Championship, Royal Portrush is a members' club which welcomes visitors all year round to face the challenges of its courses and to brave the testing conditions.
The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club ranks amongst the world's greatest courses. Unimaginable rough and testing greens, combined with the unpredictable weather of the roaring North Atlantic make this course an admirable test for even the most seasoned golf aficionado.
The design of the course was mastered by Harry Colt, universally acknowledged as one of golf's greatest course architects. He used the natural contours and dunes of the links land at Portrush to create a legacy which attracts golfers from all across the globe. In a tribute to his skill, the writer Bernard Darwin said: "Mr HS Colt has thereby built himself a monument more enduring than brass".
The 6,867 yard course, which has been extended to just under 7,200 yards, is routed through rugged links land, and constantly changes in both direction and elevation, whilst all the time providing some of the most awe-inspiring scenery to be found in Northern Ireland.
The Dunluce Links is home to one of the most stunning par fours in golf, the 411 yard 5th hole. A dogleg hole played from an elevated tee towards the ocean, it rewards the daring shot across a wide expanse of rough.
Those who tackle this hole should take care, as an overly long approach shot will end up on the sand of the White Rocks beach which lies just beyond the rear of the green.
Some of the most stunning views, from the green towards the 13th Century Dunluce Castle and the surfers braving the swells below, can be seen from this hole.
Calamity Corner, the 210 yard par 3 14th hole is a must play for any follower of the game. Between the tee and the green is a yawning chasm, which must be cleared to stand any chance of making your three. It is hard to describe the feeling as you stand on this tee, looking out across the Valley links below, knowing it will take a fantastic shot to hit the small target across the void.
The Valley links lies between the East Strand and the Dunluce. As its name suggests, the course is situated between the huge sand hills immediately along the Atlantic shore and the higher ground on which the championship course is laid out.
That is not to say the holes of the course are routed over anything like plain, level lying land; far from it, as the Valley has more than its fair share of the humps, hollows and undulations to be found on any links worthy of the name.
Other staff helping Graeme include Alex McCook, the deputy course manager, who has been with the club for twenty-seven years, and Chris Calvin, the irrigation technician who has enjoyed twenty-two years service. The course employs its own mechanic, Steven Walker, who has been with the club for thirty years.
Graeme added: "We use the STRI for ecology and agronomy services and are into our second season of a five year ecology plan. There are five seasonal staff for divoting and bunker raking and we will add more when needed."
"The course is a sandy loam with a sand sub-soil and the greens and tees are a push up sand construction."
"We operate the standard links maintenance of spring and summer over-seeding, winter verti-draining and ProCore and Hydroject work carried out during the season. All fairways have been verti-drained this winter with approximately 600 tons of sand applied over both courses."
"Being situated on the edge of the Atlantic, high winds are a huge concern for us. We use Sea Nymph thirty percent seaweed as a turf conditioner to lessen any environmental turf stress and also improving nutrient uptake. We find that this helps during any stressful periods for the turf, whether it is frost, wind or drought. Daily bunker maintenance helps us prevent turf damage from sand blow."
"There are one or two areas on the course which have very slight winter shade issues, which we are addressing with Sea Buckthorn and Rosa Rugosa removal as part of our five year ecology plan."
"We use temporary greens and a total of six practice greens, practice areas and a driving range."
"We overseed greens and tees predominantly using a Toro pedestrian ProCore and overseed larger areas using a Charterhouse disc seeder.
Currently, we use a mix containing varieties of slender creeping and Chewings red fescues, which helps us to increase shoot density and disease tolerance in our playing surfaces. We are also looking closely at a new fine-leafed ryegrass which will help to improve the wear tolerance and aesthetics of some of our grass pathways and winter tees."
"Work is rotated among the staff so that there is some variation but, at the same time, using everyone's strengths."
Graeme takes nutrient analysis one or two times per year and problem areas may be percolation tested and particle size analysed. Ongoing work includes the removal of Sea Buckthorn from 4,000m2 and areas being sprigged with marram grass.
"Beginning this year, we are constructing new holes, greens, tees and bunkers, with new machinery sheds also planned."
"In the recent past, there has been a new short game area and new championship tees on the course."
"We regularly have staff training in first aid and defib. Staff are currently working on HNCs, FdSc and mini-digger training, as training budgets have been increased. It gives all a feeling of progression which I believe is important for morale," Graeme concludes.
What's in the shed?
Toro Flex 21 greensmowers x 3
Toro 1000 greensmowers x 6
Toro 1600 tees mowers x 3
Toro 3250 greens/tees mowers x 3
Toro 3550 fairway mowers x 4
Toro 6700 fairway mower
Toro 3100 reelmaster (semi-rough and grass paths) x 3
Toro 4500 rough mower
Toro 175 Multipro sprayer
Toro Workman with spinner top dresser
Toro Workman with sprayer
Toro Workman MDX x 9
Toro ProCores x 2
Toro ProForce blower
Truturf turf iron
Charterhouse 1575 disc seeder
Weidenmann Terra Spike XP
Ultraplant spinner topdresser
Ultraplant Trommel Screener
Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle
Massey Ferguson 362 tractor
Massey 1547 tractor
Massey 1260 tractor
Kubota M7040 tractor
Kubota B2410 tractor
Retired Joe to spend time with grandkids
After 26 enjoyable years service with the Royal Portrush Golf Club, Joe Findlay has retired as the head greenkeeper, or course manager as the job title reads today.
Joe completed his time over two periods; April 1977 to December 1987 and then May 1998 to December 2014.
"I entered the industry through a youth employment agency," said Joe.
His employment history tells its own tale. From March 1966 to February 1968, Joe was trainee greenkeeper at Croham Hurst Golf Course.
Then it was on to assistant greenkeeper at Addington Court Golf Course from February 1968 to June 1971.
He moved straight away to first assistant then head greenkeeper at Shirley Park Golf Course until November 1974.
A job as head greenkeeper kept him occupied at Hindhead Golf Course from November 1974 to March 1977. From then until the end of 1987,
Joe worked at the Royal Portrush Golf Course, leaving to be the general manager at Abbey Organics, part of Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey in Portglenone.
A return to a golf club came in March 1991 when Joe took up a position as course manager at Roe Park Golf Club and then at Ballyliffin Golf Course.
He returned to Royal Portrush in May 1998 as head greenkeeper.
"The people who inspired me during my career were Cyril Chamberlin and Fred Hawtree at Addington Court and Jim Arthur," said Joe.
"I've enjoyed my time thoroughly at the Royal Portrush Club. They were a great bunch of people to work with."
"I am looking forward to spending more time now with my grandkids, the youngest of which was just born in February."
"We have all these beaches on our doorstep to explore with the grandkids and I am very much looking forward to that this summer."
"I still live in Portrush and call down to the club for the odd game and to see my old colleagues," said Joe.