Meet the course manager: Gerry Bruen

By Alistair October 23, 2021 08:23 Updated

The course manager at Williamwood Golf Club in Glasgow talks about maintaining the venue during the pandemic.

Can you give a description of your career path to Williamwood Golf Club?

From a young age I can always remember being keen to play golf and it was around the age of 11 I got the golfing bug. A friend of the family, Sandy Brawley, who was the first assistant, told me that Eastkilbride Golf Club needed an apprentice greenkeeper so I applied and not long after my 16th birthday my career in greenkeeping began. During this time, I attended Langside College where I gained my Level 1 & 2 and also my HNC in golf course management. I left Eastkilbride at the age of 24 as I was successful in my application to Williamwood Golf club as a deputy under the course manager Robert Johnston. I must admit the step up from assistant and the responsibility of being in charge during the course manager’s absence was very daunting but also very rewarding. Robert’s budgeting and project work was excellent and he shared everything I needed to push on and be confident to apply for a course manager’s job. At the age of 28 I was successful in my application for Kilkeel Golf Club, a mature parkland course three miles from the coast in Northern Ireland. Again I was lucky as the retiring head greenkeeper Jimmy Jones was happy to work another six months and helped me understand the course and the area. I was the youngest of five staff members when I arrived and I must comment on how welcoming the staff and indeed the club were and I quickly settled into life in Northen Ireland. Just over three years later with my wife expecting our first child, Robert Johnston contacted me to say he was moving on from Williamwood to a new golf course being built called Rowallan Castle and that the Williamwood job would be advertised soon. I applied for the position and my interview was 15th June 2007. I remember that day well as my daughter Zara was born on the 14th at 7pm and I was on a flight back to Glasgow the following morning at 6am and being interviewed at 10am. Robert Johnston picked me up after the interview and showed me around the very impressive Rowallan Castle, he kindly offered me a position with him and on the flight home that evening I knew we were coming home. I was successful in my application with Williamwood and I have now been at the club for 14 years and greenkeeping for 29 years. Williamwood GC has seen some major project work during my time to date and the course has also matured well with a number of tree planting projects really brining the best out of some excellent golf holes on the course.

How have to kept abreast of course maintenance during the pandemic?

On the Monday that Boris announced we were going into lockdown I had scheduled to do maintenance work to the greens as it was likely that lockdown was happening and with so many unknowns it was a very worrying time. My greens subcommittee quickly tried to get our heads round what was going to happen with the course and a plan was put in place. Looking back, I was so glad I had started working with John Ross at compliant grounds, our new health and safety advisor and for the previous eight months I had been using his software to document man hours and actual time taken for each job. This was great information when discussing with the greens subcommittee how we would carry out essential maintenance during lockdown. It was agreed that myself and my deputy William Lewis would come in and carry out the essential duties to keep the course as close to ready for when we would open back up. I don’t think anyone envisaged the surge in memberships and members who would usually only manage one round a week now able to play as much as three and have to deal with the pressures that would have on the course. We quickly identified we had to adopt a resort type management style were we have to get as much done in the morning ahead of play. The club also agreed to later tee start than previous years so 8am on a Monday and 7.40am all other days which gave us time to get a good start on the golfer.

Going into last winter the rainfall was awful and the rounds being played was at a record high. The measures that we introduced to elevate the wear was more roping of areas, more frequently adjusting of the ropes and a traffic light system on trolley use. Thankfully this got us through the winter into the spring.

Like most other business planning can be very difficult as staffing levels are always changing.

I find this to be the biggest challenge to date. I had two assistants this season move on to deputy positions at other clubs which I was delighted for them but during the growing season advertising, interviewing and training new staff does take time, also days lost to staff self-isolating and testing for Covid ultimately impacts on the presentation of the course.

Like everything else you just have to keep moving forward and keep the communication with the club as best as you can.

You’re undertaking a bunker renovation programme to the course, what exactly will you be doing, how many bunkers and in what timeframe?

Being in the west of Scotland we can accumulate some eye watering annual rain fall, on average 1.2m a year with 2020 seeing 1.6m. Again looking at the high man hours involved in maintenance I set about building a case to present to the club to improve playability and reduce maintenance hours. After considering all methods, costing and feedback from other course managers who had already done these types of renovations we trialled the rubber crumb liner in five bunkers. This was done in-house and we hired the forced action mixer that is needed when choosing this method. The feedback and playability after some serious storms was excellent and I was delighted that the project has been approved; we have purchased our own mixer and we will be doing all bunkers hopefully over the next two off-seasons.

You invested in another Lastec XR700 rotary trailer mower. What were your reasons for selecting this piece of kit and how are you using it in combination with the older unit to maintain the course?

Having already seen the pressures of tee times being booked all day when golf came back in 2020 this made me look at the fleet and see what positive changes we could make to help maintain the course more efficiently. Again looking at the man hours during the 2020 growing season we decided to look into ways of reducing time taken on cutting rough. We were taking anything from 28 to 34 hours a week depending on conditions to cut using the trailed articulator 721XR.

After a number of different options, it was agreed to purchase a second articulator, the XR700 mainly because we had another tractor we could utilise during the growing season. This has been an excellent purchase and we are managing to complete the rough with a few stronger areas being done twice in under 16 to 18 hours freeing man hours up for other duties.

Who were the biggest influences in your career path to date and why, what are the things that you enjoy most about your job, what are you most proud of and how does this make feel?

My close friend and old boss who is sadly no longer with us, Brian Bolland from Eastkilbride Golf Club, was always very supportive of myself and the other staff members. They would always encourage us to attend BIGGA section seminars, Harrogate and to achieve the qualifications to make us the best assistant greenkeepers we could be. I am eternally grateful to my late boss Brian Bolland, Sandy Brawly and the committee at Eastkilbride GC for everything they did for me and many other young greenkeepers who went on to manage some top courses not only in the UK but also in Europe.

Over the years I have been very fortunate to meet so many people and have many friends I have learned from and able to call at any time. I have also worked with three different agronomists, Dr Ian McClements, George Shiels and Jay Dobson, again all very knowledgeable people, who all give very sound practical advice.

I have always tried to introduce the finer grasses into the surfaces and more recently some very good fine leafed rye cultivars as well, that’s what gives me good job satisfaction. Seeing surfaces through a balance of nutrition, maintenance and overseeding being able to cope with everything that mother nature can through at us. As a greenkeeper I strive for consistency but ultimately in my profession there are so many variables for this to be the case, however with a motivated staff, a good working environment, good machinery maintenance and a reliable fleet we can be reactive to most situations and still achieve our goals.


By Alistair October 23, 2021 08:23 Updated

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