Meet the course manager: Gavin Neill

By Alistair April 20, 2024 08:27

Gavin Neill reflects on his first year as course manager of Lundin Golf Club by talking about putting the ambitious master plan for the course into action, why volunteering at all the major tournaments has helped him in his career and how the venue coped with high winds and rainfall over the autumn and winter months.

Can you give a brief description of your background and how you came to work at Lundin GC?

I’m originally from Tain in north Scotland, so I started my apprenticeship on my home course at Tain Golf Club in 1998. I was there for around three years and I did my Level 2 and all my spraying certificates at that point, but then I needed a change and I wanted to take advantage of all the travelling opportunities available in this job. My boss at the time, Ian MacLeod, had contacts in the New York area: course designer Eric Bergastol and agronomist Richard Hurley were constructing a new golf course (Branton Woods) upstate New York. So, I went over to gain some course construction and grow-in experience. The following year I decided to enrol in the Ohio State Programme where I went back to Branton Woods for a season, then went down to Quail Ridge CC in Florida for some warm season grass experience and then finally to Congressional CC, Maryland for my final season in the states. When I came back to the UK I did my HNC at Elmwood College full time and started looking for a seasonal position, preferably in Scotland. I saw that St Andrews Old Course was hosting the 2005 Open, so I sent my CV to Gordon Moir, and he gave me a position on the New Course at St Andrews Links.

I had an amazing year, experiencing the Open and Tiger Woods winning. I really got the bug for working at high end courses. I was at St Andrews New Course until 2007, and it was always my ambition to work on the Old Course. In 2007 I became a full time assistant greenkeeper on the Old Course and was promoted to course supervisor and then to deputy course manager of the New and Jubilee courses at St Andrews. All together I was at the Links for 18 years. Throughout that time I also had a hobby of volunteering at major events. I went back to Congressional Country Club in 2011 for the US Open and I got to work at Augusta at The Masters in 2013. In 2018 I worked at the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National and in 2019 I worked at the USPGA Championship at Bethpage. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to experience all the major tournaments in golf. It was a sacrifice at times but it helped me develop and gave me memories to last a lifetime, so I have no regrets. You get to meet some great people at tournaments, share ideas and learn a lot about courses.

During my 18 years at St Andrews they invested heavily in my personal development, which provided me with a wide skill set and I felt ready to move into course management at the next level.

Lundin is an iconic course. How did you feel about taking on such an important role there a year ago?

It was great to achieve my first course manager role at such a prestigious links venue. It’s a club with great history and it’s hosted the final Open Championship qualifiers in the past. It was such an opportunity to challenge myself and all the experience I’ve gained from past venues and major tournaments into the progression of the course, the club and our team. I was 39 at that point, and I felt I had enough experience of delivering high standards under pressure by then. I was confident I could do the same at Lundin.

What size is your team and how do you share the workload between you?

We have a team of eight: myself, my deputy course manager, a first assistant, three senior greenkeepers, one junior greenkeeper and a repair technician / greenkeeper. I’m very fortunate to have an experienced team. My deputy has been here for over 45 years and the majority of the team has a wealth of knowledge of this site, which has been a huge help to me. With a smaller team it’s vital that we share a consistent skill set, which enables us to be more flexible and rotate the tasks between us. I feel this promotes the importance of everyone’s role in order for the team to succeed.

What do you enjoy most about your role and what’s the biggest challenge your team faces when maintaining such a prestigious course?

I’ve always enjoyed working outdoors, even in the Scottish climate, believe it or not! Greenkeeping has always been a passion and I can’t imagine being in any other type of industry. Moving into a course manager’s role has been a great learning experience. The club have been very accommodating since my arrival and they’re always looking to invest and improve the course, which is very motivating. It’s also especially rewarding and satisfying when the course presentation is at a high level and the team is receiving good feedback. I like interacting with members and visitors. Our members are always interested in how the course works and very positive about what we do and our plans for the future. As a manager I also really enjoy seeing team members develop their skills, especially the younger staff.

The site itself is stunning. It’s very picturesque, with great views from all parts of the course, especially the top holes. Twelve and 13 sit high above and look over the Firth of Forth, to Gullane, North Berwick, Bass Rock and Edinburgh. It’s a huge selling point for the club. We’re very lucky that we’re so close to the beach and the water and that’s a big feature of the opening holes.
As with any outdoor job the biggest challenge is the weather. All we can do is work with Mother Nature and we’re always preparing for what’s next. We had 600mm rainfall between last September and the end of December. That’s not far off our yearly average. We also received quite a lot of storm damage in the last three months due to very high winds. We’ve had a lot of damage to trees, especially on our elevated holes. A lot of pine trees have had to come down, which has extended our workload. Being prepared for the trends of extreme weather and the seasons moving deeper into the year is part of the job. We don’t see the strong growth recovery now until late May, which creates a challenging early spring for us. The flip side of that is that we still see good growth rates for end of season recovery into late October and November.

We had a drought period from April to mid-June last year. We had a cool, dry period with east winds and the surfaces dried out. As soon as it began to warm up we started to lose a little bit of turf. It’s a heavily sand-based site and it dries out very quickly. We have to be prepared and take extra moisture readings, with hand-watering when necessary and changing the frequency of wetting agent applications. I think preparing for really dry conditions will be the norm for the next few years.

You have several big projects going on at the moment, including course changes. What can you tell us about them?

The course was originally designed by Tom Morris and was expanded by James Braid. It was felt it needed a more modern approach with possibly some subtle alterations required and the club decided to invest in course improvements. The objective was to enhance the playing experience for future generations, but also to retain its character. We interviewed architects in early spring last year and appointed Martin Ebert.

Then Martin, myself and my greens convener, Grant Moir and the general manager, Martin Ball and our greens committee, created a master plan throughout the summer months. It’s a three-phase plan for the next two to three years, which involves the full renovation of all our course bunkers, including repositioning, removing and reshaping. We’re also creating new teeing platforms, new grass walkways will be installed, and we’re reshaping selected greens surrounds. Here at Lundin it is a very confined site and in the past they have had limited areas for sourcing revetment turf. Last autumn I decided to visit various venues that have already used Eco Turf for revetment and gain a better understanding of the processes involved in this project.

Following on from these visits and discussions with our architect Martin Ebert we decided that the installation of Eco Turf in our new bunkers would be the most beneficial option, ensuring that we are restoring the natural links look of the revetment bunker walls. Over 90 percent of our bunkers will be fully built with the Eco Turf with others just having the naturalised rough edge. We think these changes will greatly enhance the reputation of Lundin GC on a local and international level.

What are your goals and aims for the course in the future?

Our main aim is to continue with the master plan and complete the phased-works. Course-wise, from the day I started we were fine-tuning all close-mown surfaces to promote consistency and uniformity. We’re always looking to improve course presentation and standards with sustainable practices and to grow and develop our greenkeeping team. The club achieved GEO certification last year, and one of our main objectives is to continue all the great work my predecessor, William Swan, and the team implemented with various environmental projects. Most importantly of all, our objective is to make sure the members of Lundin Golf Club are happy and proud of the course and the changes we’re making, and also that we’re delivering a positive visitor experience.

Lundin GC has been a long-standing customer of Double A and you’ve recently added a John Deere Gator TE to the fleet. Why did you choose this model and what are you using it for?

Lundin has had a relationship with Double A for around 30 years now and it’s an important one for us. Most recently we purchased the John Deere utility vehicle, the Gator TE from them. I wanted to ensure we were at full capacity for staff transport and, as we already had a Gator TE it was an easy decision to get another, with the site being very confined and holes being very close to one another, especially near our maintenance pathways. I prefer that the team are using the electric vehicles like the Gator TE when out doing their late morning and early afternoon tasks so that we are not disturbing our members’ / visitors’ experience. It serves us very well because of its quiet electric operation and its solid towing capacity. It’s also got a very spacious cargo box which allows for easy loading and unloading. When fully charged it can be used for seven or eight hours. Most importantly it’s very sustainable, with zero emissions. It comes highly recommended by me and my team.

How has Double A supported you through the process of adding to the fleet?

Double A is a local business, based in Cupar, and that benefits us greatly. They’re always very reliable and efficient. We don’t have a full time mechanic, so we depend heavily on well-serviced machinery that we can rely on and for that reason, our service contract with Double A is vital. When I started in the role last year, I asked the team at Double A to do some refresher training with my team, they happily accommodated us at their premises and we all got a lot from it. We know we can always call on them.

What would your advice be to somebody hoping to start out in greenkeeping today?

Nowadays in greenkeeping the world is your oyster. There are so many opportunities to gain experience in venues all over the world. I would advise anyone starting out to take advantage of these opportunities. I have benefitted massively from being involved in things like the FTMI [Future Turf Managers Initiative] programme and applying for anything BIGGA (The British and International Golf Greenkeeping Association) have promoted. There are also endless resources available such as BIGGA Resource Library, webinars and podcasts that can benefit everyone from apprentice greenkeepers to course managers.

Of course, volunteering at tournaments is something I would advise people to do. It’s a great opportunity to gain tournament experience and to network and make friends. I’ve got so many friends from all over the world because of it. You learn as much from the people you meet as the courses.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that it’s important to experience the lower end courses as well as the prestigious ones, and I enjoy doing that. I often visit courses with lower budgets and resources, where maybe two people maintain the course, and I have learned so much from them. I started out on one of those courses, so I know what it’s like when every little decision is financially important.

Shadowing people is also something you can learn so much from, even if it’s just for a couple of days or even hours. We’ve had people come to Lundin to shadow for a few hours and they get so much from it. When I started out I asked if I could shadow people I respected and they gave me a few hours of their time. We’re so lucky in this industry that so many people, even those from the top courses, are willing to share ideas. Social media has been great for sharing information and asking questions about the industry. It’s a very generous industry and people are always willing to help each other.

I think you also need to be willing to take risks, go out of your comfort zone and accept that you will need to make sacrifices, such as volunteering your time for free. I have no regrets and I believe that if you do your homework and put the hard work in you can have a very successful career. It can be demanding, but it’s such an enjoyable, rewarding and healthy career to have.


By Alistair April 20, 2024 08:27

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