Set on the edge of West Bromwich and close to the M5 motorway, one of the best kept secrets in the West Midlands is Dartmouth Golf Club, a testing and picturesque nine hole course that boasts the longest par five hole in Europe, at a staggering 675 yards! Once you have carded your six (or more likely, seven), the remaining holes are set out amongst a backdrop of undulating, tree lined fairways to test the skills of any golfer
Dartmouth Golf Club is set in the Sandwell valley and was officially opened in 1903 by Lord Lewisham (The Earl of Dartmouth, from whence it gets its name). The land is now owned by Sandwell Council who have leased it back to the club under a long term peppercorn rent agreement.
Back in the seventies, the club did have ambitions to buy the land and increase the course to eighteen holes, however, the costs became prohibitive so, after much deliberation by the members at the time, they took the decision to remain a nine hole golf course.
Like many clubs, it is faced with economic challenges, not least the number of other courses within a five mile radius all competing for business.
The club currently has around 180 members who play on a regular basis, with many prepared to help out on a voluntary basis; with only two full-time greenkeepers employed to look after the course, any additional help is very welcomed.
The club's manager, Dave Rogers, as well as being responsible for IT, is also Chief Executive of Midland Mencap. In that capacity, he has initiated a scheme enabling some of the Mencap volunteers to work on the course. The club currently have three people on this scheme - Richard Henson, John Rowntree and Nick Horton - who come in two or three days a week under the supervision of Dave and the Head Greenkeeper, Shaun Lawley.
Dave explains that these are people suffering from such things as learning disabilities and they are given basic gardening skills, such as hoeing, to undertake. He says that it does wonders for their well-being whilst also introducing them back into a daily routine.
Shaun Lawley joined the club ten years ago and has played an important role in improving the condition of the course through his dedication and commitment. Back then, the club employed three greenkeepers, however, like many clubs feeling the pinch, they ended up losing a member of staff.
Shaun's assistant is Chris Norton, a current club member, who plays off a 13 handicap. He previously worked as a gas engineer, but took the opportunity to work at his home golf course when the position came up three years ago.
With both Shaun and Chris having engineering skills, maintenance and servicing of machinery is undertaken in-house. This is especially important as the club tend to buy secondhand machinery to save money, and the aim then is to make it last as long as possible.
Having reliable machinery is key, especially during the height of the growing season when grass cutting is a priority.
It generally takes between three and four days to complete one cutting cycle. Greens are generally mown daily, to 4mm in the summer and between 5-6mm in the winter. Tees are cut once or twice a week at 12mm, whilst fairways are only cut once a week at around 18mm, usually midweek.
What time they have left is devoted to the rough (100mm) and semi rough (50-75mm), cutting as much as they can in any given week.
To help speed up play, Shaun keeps the majority of the course at fairway height of cut. With only seven bunkers, it generally takes three hours to cut greens and rake the bunkers every morning.
Shaun and Chris spend Mondays and Fridays getting other jobs done, such as hole cutting, moving tee positions and generally getting the course either ready for the busy weekends or tidying up after them!
The feeding regime for the greens is a traditional granular programme topped up with liquid iron, starting off in the spring and summer with applications of a 10:0:9 NPK granular followed, in late summer/early autumn, with a 8:0:6 NPK.
All the greens are the original soil push up greens having fairly steep banks and surrounds. These, bunker tops and sides, are mown every three weeks using strimmers and Flymos.
On the day of my visit, the greens had just been aerated. Shaun had hired in a Wiedenmann Terra-Spike from ALS Contracts to punch into the surfaces using 25mm diameter tines to a depth of 300mm. He was then going to leave them open for a week before scarifying and topdressing with twenty tonnes of sand.
Over the years, the quality of the greens have steadily improved. In the past, they were prone to flooding, especially during the winter months, and would remain out of play for long periods; now, they are playable all year round.
T he layout of the course enables members to choose whether they want to play nine, twelve or eighteen holes as each tee complex has two tee-off positions, which are denoted by yellow markers for the front nine, blue for the back nine, with white for competition tees.
The club runs a popular West Midlands nine-hole league competition every Monday, Wednesday and Friday during the summer.
Shaun recognises he can only achieve so much with the resources he has, often relying on the goodwill of the members to help at certain times of the year; for example, during autumn when cleaning up after leaf fall can last for up to three months.
The course has a pop-up watering system for the greens only, which was installed in the 1970s. When finances become available, he would like to invest in a new irrigation system for greens and tees. However, there is still plenty of work to be done on the tees before any new systems can be installed, as many need to be enlarged and reshaped.
Wildlife is plentiful, with foxes, badgers, rabbits, kestrels and buzzards seen most days. Moles and rabbits cause the biggest problems for Shaun, who does his best to control them with traps.
With a lot of trees out on the course, the duo are kept busy during the winter months pruning, crown lifting and thinning out, but they do get much needed assistance from one of the club members who is a qualified tree surgeon.
The course condition is a credit to both Shaun and Chris, whose simple aim is just to keep it playable week in, week out. They rarely take time off and Shaun would love to have another member of staff, so that he could enhance the course further, reducing the pressure of work - particularly during the height of summer when there is so much grass growth and play - and give him a degree of flexibility.
The club has recently invested in a new website to attract players which, in return, may bring the club some much needed income to invest in what is a hidden gem of a golf course in the heart of the West Midlands.