Pitchcare were keen to get an insight into 'The World's Best Golf Club'; an accolade Sentosa Golf Club won at the World Golf Awards last year. Kerry Haywood conducted a Q&A with General Manager and Director of Agronomy, Andy Johnston, to find out why they are considered the best.
Serapong iconic hole 5
Home to two of the region's most exclusive and challenging golf courses; The Serapong and The New Tanjong, Sentosa Golf Club is enjoyed by more than 1,500 members from prominent and influential circles. Since 2005, international star players and world-class golf professionals from Asia, Europe and the USA have descended on its championship greens to putt for the Barclays Singapore Open and HSBC Women's Champions.
Pitchcare: How long have you worked here?
Andrew (Andy) Johnston: I have worked at Sentosa Golf Club for ten years full time, firstly, joining as Director of Agronomy in 2010. The club offered the General Manager's role on top of the DOA responsibilities in 2013. Prior to joining Sentosa Golf Club in a full-time role, I also took on the assignment for an additional five years as a golf course design consultant when I was the Vice President of the Bates Golf Design Group.
How did you get into the industry and where did you work prior to your current position? I have been in the golf industry my entire life. My first job (at fourteen) was at Tanoan Country Club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, cleaning clubs and washing golf carts. Golf was in our family from the day I was born. My father was an avid and accomplished golfer, and a member at the Boardmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he won many amateur championships in his youth and adult life. Additionally, my well decorated Italian grandfather was the Head Chef at the Boardmoor Golf Club for many years. I think you could say the influence of golf and club was something I was born with.
Left: Andrew Johnston, GM and Director of Agronomy Right: Clubhouse overlooking The New Tanjong 18th
What training and education did you undertake? My education includes an architectural degree from Phoenix Institute of Technology followed by a degree in turfgrass management from Michigan State University, and of course the school of hard knocks. In terms of my training, I have spent my entire career working hands on in the field of construction, as well as delivering grow-ins for new golf courses. I have also been lucky enough to have gained many insights, guidance and coaching into our profession, that many people may not know about, from some of the world's most decorated professional golfers, architects and superintendants. The advantage of this allows me to be perhaps one of the most well-rounded industry professionals; whether practising as a golf course architect, or an agronomic expert and of course running SGC as the general manager.
Was there one person who inspired you? How do you pick one? So many people in my life have provided me with so many meaningful inspirations. If I had to choose one, it would be Arnold Palmer, as he shaped many things that still drive me today during the years that I spent under his umbrella. Of course, my father also who had long lasting driving influence on my character and career.
Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else? Yes, I am responsible for budgets and everything the sun touches. I also have a few direct reports as well. Sentosa Golf Club is owned by Sentosa Development Corporation and I report to the CFO of the Sentosa Development Corporation. As well as this, we have a Club President and a Club Captain who also have input in our operations and I work very closely with.
About your club. The courses are semi-tropical parkland. The Serapong is a monstrous golf course, whilst The New Tanjong is a great course with more of a sand belt feel to it. The Serapong is Par 72 6794 metres (180 acres) and The New Tanjong is Par 72 6479 metres (130 acres).
What additional staff do you have? I work closely with Superintendent Rodney Mckeown and, under him, there are seventy-five men and women in the agronomy team that he leads (including five workshop technicians to carry out in-house servicing).
How would you describe the soil profile generally? The original soil profile is heavy clay; however, we have imported a 1-metre sand cap that helps with the massive amount of rain that we get.
How were the greens and tees constructed? The greens and tees are all 100% USGA construction method with drainage. The greens are all equipped with SubAir.
Do they require any special maintenance techniques? Yes. We run our greens on a daily basis at an average of 10.5 in the high humidity conditions that we face. Therefore, we have to implement many special techniques to make sure this can happen on a consistent basis. We also maintain the tees at the same HOC as the greens.
Do you have any additional equipment/systems at your disposal? We have an equipment fleet that would rival some of the world's best. We have SubAir in our greens, as well as perhaps the most sophisticated fertigation system in Asia. We have a single head control irrigation system and five weather stations that use modern task tracking software called Turf Keeper. Recently, we have invested in six ProCores and use them on a monthly basis. We also invested in six GPS spray rigs and have over sixty walking greens mowers - just a small taste of our equipment and systems that we use.
Does the course suffer from any regular natural occurrences? We are in a semi sub-tropical environment, so therefore, we see large quantities of rain in monsoonal storms from time to time. With the humid conditions, we normally experience daily thunderstorms, but for the most part the weather is very predictable. The sun rises at 7.00am and sets at 7.00pm, with the temperature ranging from 25 in the evening to 33 in the day. As with all environments, we adapt, we plan, we track and then we adjust on a day to day basis. We have found some products that we use are more effective when applied in lower temperatures, so there are times that we use applications at 2.00am to get the maximum out of the product.
Are there any issues with shade and air flow? We do have some isolated corners of the property where both shade and airflow are a factor. We have also invested in turf breeze fans and I believe we have somewhere around eighteen of them on the property for the thirty-six holes, but using our intuitive skills we manage these things well.
Do you have a driving range? We have a driving range facility that is double ended T at the top and bottom. We have a short game practice facility that is widely used, and we run many clinics on it, as well as it being used at times as a training center by the R&A for the Men's Asian Amateur Championships. We also have three high tech academies at our practice facilities.
The iconic 5th hole on the Serapong Course
Our weekly and monthly maintenance regimes are pretty predictable. We do the same thing week in week out and month in month out, unless we're preparing for a major championship.
In our normal day-to-day club life, we verticut and top dress our greens in two directions every Monday, before making fertilitiser and Primo applications every Wednesday. As well as this, we core our greens with pencil tines once a month.
For the past three years, we have been using some new carbon-based programmes that have allowed us to reduce our fertiliser inputs to our greens by more than 50%. These products are developed by amp agronomy, and the products have become so important. They have also allowed us to reduce our nematicides applications by up to 95%, including a reduction in fungicide applications.
We maintain the greens and tees at 3mm on a daily basis. We have a fleet of fairway and rough mowers that also helps keep the balance of the property under control and we have invested in fairway rollers, as well as having four transformer fairway rollers that, at times, we use on our putting services.
Do you have specific tasks for specific staff or is it an 'all hands to the pump' approach? We do have specific staff for specific tasks such as our irrigation technicians who are spray technicians, but we do believe in cross training everybody, so that our entire team can be a valuable tool. We also believe that our people are the most important piece of equipment. Therefore, we spend a lot of time making sure that we are healthy, mentally strong and all prepared to support each other to give 100% every day.
Left: Henrik Stenson learns more about sustainability from Andrew Johnston
What end of season and ongoing renovations do you undertake? There is no end of season, so we take on renovations when we can and do the best to get them done as fast as possible.
Are renovations affected by budgets? When we do recognise that we need to reinvest in the asset and spend money renovating the golf course, we plan for it in advance and budget the appropriate capex funding needed. We then present the concepts to our owners for approval and, once approved, we then close the course and make the relevant upgrades.
How have changing weather patterns affected what you do? We're seeing more drought seasons than we have seen in the past and they continue to stretch longer and longer. This is a particular problem for us as our golf course is the collection basin for the rainwater that fills our lake system, which is what we use for irrigation. We have no other means of recharging our lake system other than using Mother Nature and rain. Therefore, as the drought seasons become more prevalent and stretch longer, we have become vulnerable to low water conditions from time to time.
Do you take regular soil samples to ascertain what work is required? We take soil samples on a regular basis, usually about every six to eight weeks and have done this process for nearly ten years. It's amazing to see how we have continued to use this data and information to build healthier soils. You know they say, you're a soil manager before you're a turf manager, and if you manage great soils, you'll have healthy turf.
How do you interact with your club members? First, I try to make myself available to club members and, on the floor, to discuss, share and talk about any of their questions, needs and desires. I believe being hands-on is the key to great communications. I also believe social media, email correspondence and other media mechanisms are critical to keeping the general membership educated and up to speed.
Fairway renovations begin on the Serapong Course
Are you working on any special projects at the moment? We currently have closed the Serapong Course for six months, in which we are removing the grass and replacing it with a fresh clean layer of zoysia mitrella.
We are re-lasering and leveling all the tee boxes to reinstate a tabletop, flat finish, and updating the grass so that we can continue to maintain them at their super low mowing height of 3mm. We pride ourselves on having some of the very best teeing areas in golf - flat, true and pure. We are also pointing them back at the landing zones, widening them to their maximum width and re- sprigging them with platinum paspalum grass.
We have invested in several drill and fill machines and, with the help of some friends in South Florida, we have engineered a new carbon profile sand mix that we will incorporate into our putting surface in three directions. The process involves machines injecting a customized pre-made sand solution comprising ceramics, carbons, light acids and a USGA particle sizing specification compatible sand and structure to complement the current root zone structure, so as to upgrade the soil profile of our greens. This will enhance the water to air ratio, reduce the rising PH, remove organic build-up and strengthen the Cation Exchange Capacity of the soils so that they will be compatible and competitive for the next ten years or more.
We are also removing all the sand from our bunkers and replacing it with fresh clean sand. Each bunker will be given fresh liners and new white sand to reinstate consistency, texture and tournament ready compaction for improved playability. We will be adding a few new tees, a few strategic bunkers, and will be putting the golf course back into championship condition by October.
The New Tanjong Course will also be seeing a new green on the 3rd hole. This will add about 50 yards to the hole and will develop a new strategic green with a daunting McKenzie style bunker lying underneath it.
Right: The 5th hole on the Serapong boasts incredible views of the Singapore skyline
What projects have been undertaken in recent years? A few years ago, we rebuilt The New Tanjong course as it had aged and had become a bit obsolete. This was a massive project in which we moved over 750,000 cubic yards of dirt, re-engineered the lake system to create the new irrigation system, introduced a new cart pass system, built new greens and tees, with a new SubAir system, all in eight months.
Are you and your staff compliant with current legislation? We continue to keep ourselves up to date with the current legislation and continue to educate our staff and see what is needed to be on the forefront of modern-day life. Singapore is a very progressive community and city which forces you to be on the front of things.
Do you offer ongoing training to your staff? We do as much training in-house as possible and offer training to our staff. We also are the home of the Asia Pacific R&A office and are lucky that they are in our clubhouse and we can get a lot of firsthand training, as well as firsthand topics from our relationship with them.
Are you considering employing or do you currently employ apprentices? Every year we take on new interns from a local Singapore Polytechnic college. It is a pleasure to see some of our young bright faces at work.
Plans to increase its bee colonies to forty
Do you employ a health and safety officer? The Corporation does have a health and safety officer. Additionally, we have some internal club health and safety regulations and training that is implemented on a daily basis. We also have made sure that 75% of us are CPR certified.
How do you purchase machinery? Currently, we purchase machinery through local dealers, but moving forward we plan to engage and prepare to implement a leasing program. We are not loyal to any manufacturer; we are state owned and when we run a tender for new equipment it usually goes to the low bid.
Are there any new pieces of kit that have significantly helped to improve your playing surfaces? The new GPS spray rigs have made an enormous difference to our program. No matter how good our technicians and operators are, there are always man-made mistakes when using spray rigs. The new equipment has helped us reduce over 30% application waste, but more importantly it has 100% eliminated overlapping, which has helped to produced more consistent and healthier turf. With every application where there is an overlap, the problems caused on our surfaces have been created unintentionally but by over application of the product.
How do you undertake pest and weed control? We use a rotation of products on a preventative basis to help us drive through disease pressure, but more importantly the new carbon products that we have been using have reduced our disease pressure so significantly that we are hoping we can become fungicide free in the near future.
Left: Asian Tour players, Quincy Quek and Naoki Sekito, pay a visit to Sentosa Golf Club's bee sanctuary Right: The club unveils its GAME ON campaign at the 2020 SMBC Singapore Open
Does your course suffer from specific disease outbreaks? Our disease pressure is very predictable. It is dollar spot, curvularia, pythium root dysfunction, Brown Patch, and sometimes mechanical stress.
Are rabbits, badgers, foxes, geese, chafer grubs, worms etc. a problem? We see our fair share of worms, moles, crickets and insect infestation from time to time, but we do not have a wildlife issue.
How important do you consider the local flora and fauna? It's a part of our culture and we find it very important to adapt to the local flora and fauna and make it part of our facility.
Do you have an environmental policy in place? Our environmental policy in place is largely created by our in-house team, our goal is to be carbon neutral at some point in the near future.
Are there any special projects you are undertaking or considering? One of the many special projects that we are currently undertaking is to create our own bee colonies. We have developed five new bee colonies and plan to grow it to forty within the next twelve months. Bees around the world have reduced in population by up to 70% and both us and science feel that, if the bee population were to become extinct, this could be the beginning of the end of the world. This is how important bees are to our survival and society. All golf courses have usable corners and it is in these corners that we are developing our bee colonies to help do our part in bringing them back to a healthy population base.
What would you consider to be the state of our industry and are we undervalued? I think the state of our industry is in a bit of a flatline, if not a downhill slide. I wouldn't say we at Sentosa Golf Club are undervalued, but I would say as an industry we maybe need to help each other survive.
Gavin Green launches the #KeepItGreen campaign at 2018 SMBC Singapore Open
How would you raise our profile? I believe one of the ways golf can help the world and raise our profile is to continue to embrace our environmental climate change capabilities. The use of the carbon products and bio char products that we have incorporated have strengthened our plant material around our property to the point where they are becoming larger carbon sequestration devices and stretching beyond the imagination, due to the fact that one of the most important things needed to remove carbon from the atmosphere is photosynthesis.
Additionally, removing plastics, finding ways to use clean energy, upgrading your equipment to lithium battery powered golf carts and maintenance equipment, developing bee colonies, and developing herb gardens can be an effective way of creating a sustainable environment and be one of the leading movements in climate change, if we all bond together and push environmental excellence.
Golf and large green spaces are needed in big urban concrete jungles as they have a cooling effect on the surface and can provide a way of reducing global warming that is on the rise. We couldn't be in a more critical time for the world's existence and, beyond the great game of golf, our properties can become one of the largest collective tools to help fight the problem.
These are all measures that Sentosa Golf Club have implemented through the club's #KeepItGreen campaign to help create an environmentally sustainable environment, both on and off the course. The implementation of measures like these will be central to the club's new environmental campaign, GAME ON, which was launched at the 2020 SMBC Singapore Open, and will act as Sentosa's answer to climate change.
It aims to unite the game's key stakeholders with the wider golfing community to implement new modern processes to the betterment of the environment. The campaign aims to encourage golf clubs worldwide to accept the GAME ON agronomic and operational model and introduce new environmental measures to help reverse climate change.
The club's programme and efforts will be looked at in depth, via a free downloadable toolkit, to help other clubs to make an impact on the world's biggest issue and reduce their own carbon footprint and become environmentally sustainable. The toolkit will support, and point clubs to, The R&A's agenda and its Golf Course 2030 initiative, which will also unite industry stakeholders to agree a roadmap that secures optimal golf course conditions and playability for current and future generations by addressing climate change concerns.
Do you and your staff attend industry shows, seminars, demo days, road shows?
We have staff who attend seminars, as well as myself; and I normally speak at somewhere around ten industry shows annually to help share how Sentosa Golf Club drive tournament conditioning, how we continue to invest in climate change, but also do not sacrifice anything in our desire to be in tournament condition 365 days a year.
What's in the shed
Walking greens mowers x 61
Turf rollers x 9
Sand pros x 15
Fairway units x 8
Rough units x 12
Utility vehicles x 56
TriPlex mowers x 16
Toro ProCore x 6
Tractors x 5
Vicon spreaders x 2
Transformers x 4
ProCore fairway units x 2
SubAir units x 40
Turf breeze fans x 18
Bernhard grinders x 8
GPS spray rigs x 6
Fairway spray rigs x 2
Landscape rollers x 9
The Serapong course is well-known as the battlefield for the prestigious Singapore Open (2005 - 2019). Opened in 1982, the course initially was the creation of world-renowned golf course designer Ronald Fream. In 2006, it underwent a S$12 million revamp helmed by the Bates Golf Design Group which incorporated modern technology with the addition of SubAir, PermOPore an enhanced irrigation system, and more. The re-design creatively produced enormous greens and tees with classic contouring, the new enhanced bunkering and playing strategy now defines the Sarapong in its World-Class Tournament foundation. The overall results propelled the Serapong in its world rankings. The course now reveals fast and more challenging greens, trademark mounds and contours, mammoth lakes with stone-lined walls all complementing the breathtaking scenery of the Singapore skyline making for an exquisite game like no other.
The New Tanjong
The New Tanjong Course is uniquely set against the Singapore Straits with views of metropolitan Singapore all round. Inspired by iconic sandbelt golfing experiences, the New Tanjong Course asserts a unique personality with large bunkers rarely seen in Asia, offering players the challenge of playing on a course inspired by the style of renowned golf course architect Alister MacKenzie. With two standout areas at the Clubhouse and historic 'Pyramid' halfway house, the New Tanjong Course will surely evoke fond memories, long after the rounds are played.