Few grounds managers get the opportunity to redesign an entire golf course. Mike Bush has succeeded in overseeing major changes to two in quick succession - most recently, the Kernow Course at Cornwall's St Mellion International Resort, where work was completed last month.
The resort belongs to Crown Golf, the UK's largest golf course operator, which has pumped more than £20m into transforming the site into a major destination in the South West, based around a new, 80-room, four-star hotel, clubhouse and leisure and conference centre.
For course manager Bush, it has been an opportunity to resolve several issues with the courses, which he has relished taking on. "I've never claimed to be a golf course architect," he says. "But they allowed me to design the layout and manage the budget of £2.6m. It's not an opportunity that course managers have very often."
The former Old Course had, in fact, only existed on what had been farmland since 1976 and had been somewhat overshadowed by the opening in 1988 of the adjacent Nicklaus Course (see box, p22). The ambition with the now renamed Kernow Course ("Cornwall" in the Cornish language) is not to host championships but to provide one of the top resort courses in the country.
Part of the impetus was to make the course more challenging, Bush explains. "I wanted to resolve a few design issues, to increase the yardage and the par. Technology has moved on since the mid 1970s, including for golfballs. Some bunkers didn't come into play. I felt it could be improved aesthetically, too."
The course now comes in at par 70. Nine of the original holes have been retained, but the first and second have been combined and the number of par-three holes has been reduced from six to five. "One of them was a bottleneck - at weekends it was gridlock," he adds. "But we looked at six layouts until we got one we were happy with."
Reshaping the course involved moving 160,000 tonnes of material - with the planning constraint that none of it should be brought on or taken off site. "It's surprising how much you need - a thousand tonnes doesn't go that far," explains Bush.
Such a volume goes beyond moving the topsoil and subsoil and includes breaking up the bedrock, which was "ripped" by 50-tonne bulldozers as well as tractors with mole ploughs. Sufficient topsoil was kept aside to resurface to a depth of 15cm.
Installing effective drainage was essential given the area's climate. "We get around 1,400mm of rain a year, which is more than twice the rainfall of the South East - ridiculous amounts sometimes," says Bush. "We're between two moors and on heavy clay. On different soil, we could have saved £250,000."
On steeper areas, "contour drainage" was employed to dissipate run-off into gulleys, each with individual drains. "We decided we couldn't afford wall-to-wall herringbone-type drainage. But this is already widely used elsewhere in the world," says Bush.
The work also revealed a spring on one slope, which now drains into a pond, lined with marly clay, added as "an afterthought", he says - though one appreciated by the resident population of waterfowl. Indeed, another condition of planning consent was that the effect on resident wildlife had to be monitored, including an assessment of the work's impact on the newt population.
In all, 47 bunkers have also been constructed or refurbished with a Sportscrete base. "The top inch goes like concrete, but it still drains," he says. This has been topped with 450 tonnes of bunker sand.
In addition, eight greens have been created, sown with an 80:20 bent and fescue mix, in line with United States Golf Association specifications, along with nine new tees. For these, the weather provided a further, more unusual challenge, he points out. "In winter, the greens were like skating rinks. We are still three to four weeks behind on growth."
A further £25,000 was spent on a series of Tarmac paths laid to allow the resort's new fleet of 65 electric golf buggies to navigate the course more smoothly. However, use of the vehicles will be prohibited in winter to protect more sensitive areas.
Other aspects of the work included burying an overhead power line above the 11th green at a cost of £22,000, transplanting trees and £15,000 spent on new signage. Overseeing the work was a challenge on a number of levels, he says. "I submitted figures once a month and a timeline for the whole project was useful to show the board.
"It was also a job to get all the contractors working well together - some digging ditches, some installing sprinklers, some laying Tarmac, especially as the course was still in use. They are not golf course people. They will go straight from A to B unless you tell them otherwise. Communication was a big thing."
Managing the work also meant long hours, he explains. "The irrigation guys were here 12 to 13 hours a day, working 11 days on, three off. The other contractors only went back to Ireland every three months. I was on-site all the time. But it was very enjoyable - a great buzz."
Effective communication was also important in dealing with the club's 1,300 members. "They're paying over £1,000 a year - we had to keep them enthused. Generally they were supportive, but there were a lot of Chinese whispers. I put on an evening for the members - more than 150 attended - and we also did a newsletter and email bulletins to keep them up to date."
It may not appear to be the ideal moment to relaunch a high-end golf resort, given the economic climate, but Bush is optimistic. "The biggest impact of the recession has been on corporate golf - it can be hard to justify and organisations are more likely to hold conferences in-house. But membership is okay and other parts of the business are vibrant. Now it's a question of getting St Mellion back on the map."
THE ROAD TO ST MELLION
Mike Bush grew up on a farm near the St Mellion course, and after school spent two years working in golf course construction in the mid 1990s, a period he describes as "the middle of the construction boom".
"I then stayed around in greenkeeping, which I enjoyed," he adds. Returning to Cornwall, he worked at Lanhydrock course near Bodmin, then at St Mellion. "But I wanted to be trained, and Elmwood College seemed the best for greenkeeping."
After two years at the Fife college he returned to St Mellion to become deputy course manager in 2003, before taking full charge of the 180ha site - "a lot to look after"
- as well as a team of 17 greenkeepers and one electrician. He also finds time to lecture at Duchy College, where his experience on project management is particularly appreciated.
A golfer himself - he plays off a handicap of 12 - he says: "You don't have to be a top golfer - some of the best golf architects aren't."
NICKLAUS SIGNATURE COURSE
Managers are hoping that the renovation of the Nicklaus Signature Course will bring back the glory days to St Mellion. Opened in 1988, the course played host to the Benson & Hedges International Open between 1990 and 1995, where it saw victories for Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal, among others.
However, its re-establishment on the European Tour has not been plain sailing. Originally scheduled to host the revived English Open as part of the European Tour in 2009, the event was put back until next year because cash-flow problems faced by developers building 265 holiday homes on adjacent land caused work on the course to be postponed.
"I was gutted, but also delighted to have more time to do it properly," explains Bush. "Sky [TV cameras] would have picked up every blemish and I would have been judged on that."
The course was the first in the UK to be designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and any changes have to be approved by the Nicklaus Design company. "Tom Pearson, its senior architect, tells you who his preferred contractors are," Bush explains. "But it needed a total refurb - for the tour, it all needs to be higher-spec."
Construction European Golf Services
Hard surfaces Glendinning.