Set in scenic countryside in the heart of the Vale of Glamorgan, Wenvoe Castle Golf Club is long recognised as one of the finest challenges of golf in Wales. On a very cold morning late in January, Lee Williams met up with the club's recently appointed Head Greenkeeper Lucy Sellick.
As I approach the course, the first thing to hit you is the beautiful old castle building, which is now the clubhouse, pro shop and greenkeeper's sheds. Waiting for me in the old courtyard is Lucy Sellick, who gives me a warm welcome and, with the threat of rain, she immediately takes me out for a tour of the course on the Toro Workman, before we sit down in her office for a brew and chat about all things turf.
Lucy has been in the industry since she left school and has never looked back. She explains: "I still remember the day now. It was my sixteenth birthday when my next-door neighbour, who was building a golf course at that time (Virginia Park Golf Club, Caerphilly), knocked on the door. He asked me would I like to earn some money and I excitedly replied yes please. I was straight in at the deep end; I helped lay turf on the driving range during the build and also used to go before school to pick up golf balls. As soon as I left school, I started full-time on the new nine-hole golf course as an apprentice greenkeeper where, over the next nine years, I worked my way up to first assistant."
Lucy then took a position as a qualified greenkeeper at the prestigious Celtic Manor Resort Golf Club in Newport, South Wales. "I spent nine years working at Celtic Manor, and I'm proud of the fact I had a hand in building the new course in readiness for the 2010 Ryder Cup." She then moved on to Saltford Golf Club in Bristol as deputy course manager where she had a one-hundred-mile round trip a day, and was averaging over 31,000 miles a year, which she did for almost ten years. To do that kind of mileage every day shows a lot of dedication. I asked what her motivation was: "I absolutely love my job. I loved the course; the members were great and it was such a wonderful course where I also played some nice golf. However, I thought it was time to look for a position closer to home." I asked how she came to be at Wenvoe Golf Club. "It was a strange scenario, as I had applied for the head greenkeeper job at Llanishen Golf Club first, which was closer to home than this. I was on a shortlist of two and I didn't get it, but then the head greenkeeeper, who was previously here, got the Llanishen job. Wenvoe found out I was looking, and they got in touch with me, which was quite nice. After a few conversations and an interview with the Chairman of the Greens and the President, I was offered the position, which took some time to sink in."
Lucy is keen on training and is always looking at ways she can improve as a greenkeeper. She currently holds NVQ Levels 2, 3 and 4 in Sportsturf Management, spraying certificates PA 1, 2 and 6, 360 excavator licence, chainsaw cross-cutting and felling licence and, on top of all that, she took a course in Conservation Environmental Management fourteen years ago, which is now serving her well. She explains: "I just had that feeling greenkeeping was going to go that way, plus I love the outdoors. It was interesting building dry stone walls, hedge laying, learning about ecology, wetlands and woodlands. It's now come to fruition as ecology and looking after the environment is prevalent in the industry. I'm now looking to do a course possibly on the agronomy side of the job." I admire the fact that Lucy is always willing to learn and is not afraid to ask questions of fellow greenkeepers if she doesn't have the answers.
Lucy and her team, (left to right): Steve Webb, Ty Garland, Ben Rees and Laurence Walter
Lucy thanks her granddad for inspiring her to get involved in working outdoors. "He was a parkie cutting grass. I think a bit of that rubbed off on me, but he was also in the forces, so I was all geared up ready to join the navy. The opportunity to work at Celtic Manor blew me away with what I got to do there. I enjoyed working with Mark Harper when I was at Virginia Park Golf Club, and being part of the South West section, speaking with Paul Worster and many other industry professionals have helped and supported me along the way."
Lucy has a small team to help her with the day to day maintenance of the 18 hole, 6208-yard, par 72 parkland course plus practice hole. This includes Steve Webb, First Assistant, 39 years' service with qualifications including: Level 3 Sportsturf, spraying PA 1, 2 and 6, 360 excavator licence and chainsaw licence. Laurence Walter, Assistant with 49 years' service and NVQ Level 2 in Sportsturf and spraying PA 1, 2 and 6 under his belt; Ben Rees, Apprentice Greenkeeper with 3 years' service and currently studying towards an NVQ Level 2; Ty Garland, who works part-time and was the former Head Greenkeeper, who has served the club for an unbelievable 48 years. "Ty will hate me for this, but I think he is over 70 now. He comes in on Tuesdays and Fridays and each time he pops his head around the door and says "Fairways as normal" to which I reply "Yes please Ty". Once he has cut the fairways, he cleans off the mower and greases it up. He's just amazing and it means I don't have to worry about the fairways all summer. All the lads do a great job and I couldn't do it without them."
Lucy tells me about the general soil profile of the course. "It mainly consists of clay, with quite a high rock content on the front nine holes, so aeration is a no go on those fairways. Greens are a mixed bag; a few were rebuilt and, topdressing over the years, means there is a good 5 inches of sand on them, which is good. When I first came here, I struggled with thatch on the greens to around 50mm and I'm still working out which are good and which are bad. It's still part of my learning process, but we haven't seen a temporary green yet and we've played on frost."
Summer was a real struggle for Lucy and the team with an irrigation system in need of an upgrade. "The system is older than me at forty-seven years old now. Some greens have triple heads and they're just awful. They were the bane of my life throughout the hot summer and created constant problems; we were doing a lot of the watering manually, but luckily we managed. There is definitely some major investment needed, to the point where I want to say to the club 'let's drop all the winter projects and re-invest in new heads on the greens, install new PVC pipes and generally give it a good overhaul'; at present, we are just constantly fixing leaks."
During summer, the greens are cut daily at 3mm with an old Toro 3250 Greensmaster and run over with the Tru Turf roller to improve ball speed and roll. In the winter, the height of cut is lifted to 5mm and only cut when needed (which has been a lot with the growth we have had this winter). Lucy likes to run the tractor-mounted GreenTek sarel roller over the greens and, once a month, she will use the Toro Procore with 8mm tines at a depth of 4 inches. Then, three times a year they will use the
Verti-Drain 7316 at a depth of 8 inches. In Autumn, they pulled out 5 inch cores and replaced with an 80/20 rootzone mix. The team brush the greens with a tractor mounted V brush rather than choosing to scarify (with the heat we had last summer); this flicks all the unwanted debris from the base of the greens.
Whilst out on the course, I noticed a lot of disruption from worm casts and birds, and asked if this is a big problem. "Yes; worms and worm casts are a big concern, I have just started to look at! I'm currently investigating a product called Angus Downcast, which I'm being advised on by Ray Hunt from ALS. I'm tempted to use it this year, with a turf hardener leading up to winter, but it's something I need to speak to Ray more about. At the moment, it's just a matter of switching the greens every morning."
With more and more fungicides being removed from the market, Lucy would like to incorporate more bent grasses into the greens. "The greens are 60% bent, 30% poa annua and the other 10% is a bit of everything. You can just see the poa knocking off now and I just think it would be good to fill those gaps a little bit more, especially with the way it's going with pesticides. We are going to have to get a bit more protection through species rather than relying on chemicals."
Lucy is currently using up a stockpile of fertiliser that she inherited from the previous head greenkeeper and, once this has been used, she will look to put a fertiliser programme together. "I have just bought a winter tonic of SeaAction Liquid Seaweed and Turf Hardener for the greens and I'm just waiting for a spray window. In the next month or two, I will sit down and look at the brochures in the office to see what the best options are available before making my decisions based around price, products, reliability and agronomic advice."
Lucy has a combination of everything when it comes to machinery. "Some of it has been purchased outright and some on hire purchase. We have a mixed fleet of ages in the shed which looks good but, on the other hand, it's not so good. My four biggest pieces of kit are less than three years old, then I have a ten-year-old greens mower and a Toro Workman. I'm not complaining though as there are definitely people worse off than me. It's something I will I need to sit down with the club and work out in the future."
Lucy likes to have regular talks with her staff about training and health and safety. "We regularly have little chats on various aspects of the job and share ideas. When new machinery comes in, we all have compliance training from the dealer whilst they go through all the features of the machine. We have a dynamic risk assessment process so all staff know where they can and can't go working; this is made up of red, amber and green zones. I feel, training wise, we are all pretty much up to speed."
Lucy believes there are too many clubs taking advantage of passionate greenkeepers. "Most love their job and hate to leave on a Friday with the course not looking its best, so if you are understaffed, the first thing you are going to do is make up that shortfall. There's a lot of stressed, overworked greenkeepers out there, and there shouldn't be. I think there
are still too many people who don't recognise the skill and the professionalism within greenkeeping. The only way to get members to understand what we do is through education, e.g. by inviting them down to the sheds to look around and get involved. Since I have been here, I have had the Greens Chairman, General Manager and Captain in to look at the problems first hand, rather than discuss it in the clubhouse, which better exposes them to our problems."
Lucy is quite active within BIGGA. "I'm Chairman of the South Wales section and I sit on regional boards, so for me, promoting the industry is way up there. I believe we need to encourage more young people into our industry; regardless of gender."
The current clubhouse is on the site of a former castle which was built in the early 1700s. There is still speculation that, a Wenvoe Castle known to exist in the mid-1500s, was its predecessor and reputed to have been burned down by Owain Glyndwr, a potent Welsh nationalist who led the rebellion against the occupying English forces at that time.
The buildings and land forming the golf course were owned by the Thomas family who accumulated wealth and significant influence as they gradually passed from affluence to extravagance fuelled by a desire to be both Members of Parliament and landscapers on a grand scale. It is possible that, at that time, the early seeds of a golf course were beginning to emerge with records showing the area of the front nine holes was known as 'The Gathers' and the back nine aptly called 'The Lawns'.
The Thomas family eventually paid the price for their extravagant lifestyle and, in 1774, were forced to sell land and property and Wenvoe Castle passed into the hands of Peter Birt who made his personal fortune from coal and canals in Yorkshire. Mr Birt immediately set about dismantling the buildings on the site, rebuilding in its place a mansion house with castellated battlements with the front of the new 'castle' measuring some 374 feet long. This was the only mansion house built in Wales that was designed by Robert Adams. The Birt family married into the Jenner family, who later became involved in the creation of the golf course.
However, in 1910 there was a severe fire which destroyed almost all of the Birt-built Wenvoe Castle, with only the East Pavilion, the Stables and Archway Tower remaining intact. These remaining buildings are still enough to provide the elegance and grace of a Country Mansion House and enjoy protection as a Grade II Listed Building.
The buildings took on a new lease of life as a clubhouse when the golf course was opened in July 1936 by the Rev. Hugh Jenner, the club's first president and benefactor over many years.
The outbreak of World War II had a dramatic effect on the golf course. The top floor of the clubhouse was requisitioned, and the back nine holes were ploughed up and commanded to produce cereals. By early 1941, club meetings were cancelled because of air raids and blackouts and this fear was not without justification as bombs actually fell on the fifth fairway causing considerable damage.
After the war, it took some considerable time to regain the land for golfing purposes, and it was not until 1956 that the full 18 holes finally came back into play and, by 1958, a water supply had been installed to every green.
Over the years, improvements to the course have been carefully planned and implemented. A demanding layout has been developed through the planting of significant numbers of trees, particularly on the back nine holes. Additional bunkers were strategically placed to supplement the natural hazards such as the lakes. The result demands good course management by the player and a stern but fair and enjoyable test of golf. Adjustment of the tees has enabled the length of the course to be maximised, and the course has now been extended to championship standard of 6544 yards from the back tees.
What's in the shed
Toro 3250 - 8 Blade units
Kubota tractor with front loader
Toro Pro Core
Tru Turf roller
GreenTek Sarel roller
Women in turfcare
In an era of equality, we at Pitchcare don't wish to be seen as singling out females in the industry. However, in a male-dominated profession, we wanted to ask Lucy how she feels about it.
How do you find being a woman in a male dominated industry?
- Most in the industry have been welcoming
- I believe I have had to work harder and prove myself
- Don't be put off by the few negative comments out there
- You could say we work smarter
Have you experienced any adversity whilst in the job towards yourself?
- People's perceptions - this is where we need to be visible
- When enquiring about lift capacity on tractors, I was asked 'what colour do you want it in love'? I found this unprofessional and answered not yours
- In interviews, I have always been asked, 'can you lift heavy things?' and 'I know we shouldn't ask but do you have children?'
Do you enjoy the Job?
- I love the job! Therefore, I hate that so many women are missing out on this great industry
What are your thoughts on getting more women interested in working in the industry?
- I don't think it's just women. There seems to be a whole recruitment shortage and taking away 50% of the population makes it harder. The turf industry needs to push the sector as a whole. I believe most greenkeepers fall into the industry because they played golf, or a family member did the job ... not many grew up wanting to be greenkeepers. Again, this is where visibility comes into it and I think TV coverage of tournament set-ups may be helping
What advice do you have for any women who are interested in a career in groundsmanship?
- Give it a try! Clubs are screaming out for volunteers or seasonal help, which is a great place to start. Then, if you enjoy it, look at it becoming a career. There is lots of information and contacts out there that would help, but don't be put off
- Too good a profession to be missing out
- I hope seeing me on the surface - someone who they can relate to - provides motivation
Read Getting Personal with Lucy here