Meet the course manager: Jason Norwood

By Alistair August 27, 2022 10:16

From Reay Golf Club, the most northerly 18-hole links course on the British mainland, Jason talks about a career that’s already progressed from assistant PGA professional to Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year, being the sole paid greenkeeper and irrigating a course that has little rainfall.

Within two years of winning Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year in 2019 Jason Norwood moved hundreds of miles during the pandemic with his family to fulfil his ambition of becoming the course manager of a links course in Scotland. We caught up with him to find out about how the award changed his life, what his first year as a lone course manager at Reay Golf Club on the northern coast of Scotland was like, and his plans to install an irrigation system to combat the lack of rainfall on the course.

Jason Norwood

Could you tell us about your background and your career path to your current role as course manager at Reay?

I started playing golf regularly at the age of 13 and I always planned on becoming a PGA teaching pro. All the options I took at school, for example business studies, were based on that career path. After I took the PGA training course I was an assistant professional at Ripon City Golf Club for three and a half years, which was a good role but it was affected by the financial crash shortly afterwards and didn’t really work out for a few reasons. I didn’t want what was a hobby that I really enjoyed to become a bit of a chore. I’ve seen a lot of head professionals get to a place where they don’t play for fun anymore and golf is just a job to them. I didn’t want that to happen to me so I moved away from golf for a while and had two other roles before I ended up greenkeeping. I had been interested in greenkeeping before, and even spoke to a couple of the greenkeepers at Ripon about pursuing it but my age at the time would have meant I was on an apprentice wage, which as a family my wife and I just couldn’t afford for me to do. Eventually in 2017, when my eldest son was just about to turn two, I realised if I didn’t do greenkeeping now I was never going to be able to do it. Luckily the right opportunity became available and I got a job as an entry level greenkeeper at Rudding Park Golf Club in Harrogate. I stayed there for around four years until 2021 when I took up the position at Reay. There was a lot to sort out about going to Scotland beforehand, especially during the pandemic, as it was a big move for the family. We moved during lockdown and that was an extra challenge, but it’s been worth it so far.

Club captain Andy Bain(L) with Jason Norwood

You were the winner of the Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year Award in 2019. Why did you decide to enter and what did the process involve?

I actually entered in 2018 and got to the regional finals for Yorkshire. I didn’t get through at that stage but I had only just started the college course then. It was something I really wanted to do and I knew I could reapply in 2019 when I would have had more experience and covered a lot more of the material, and I would know a bit more of what to expect. You have the regional finals first where you’re asked several different questions about golf course maintenance and a few questions about yourself, then if you make it through to the actual final there are more in-depth questions about turf maintenance and there’s a written test, a grass identification test and a ten-minute presentation about yourself. I spent a lot of time getting that as right as possible because I thought the judges would expect most of the finalists to get most questions right in the tests but the presentation was the part where you could shine a bit more and be creative. The only time I had done public speaking before was my wedding speech, which was terrifying, so I spent hours practicing it. The first time I practiced in front of my wife it took me about ten minutes before I could say a word, I was that nervous. The presentation was about my family so she knew it all already but it still took a lot of courage to stand up and speak at that stage. I talked about my family life and where I would like to get to in my career and I based the style of the presentation on FIFA, the football game, to make it a bit different. My wife’s a graphic designer so she could help guide me to get what was in my head onto the screen. The presentation went well on the day and I found out I’d won later the same day. It was great to go back and see the guys at Rudding with my glass trophy, and to see my college tutor afterwards. There was a research day about a week later and I found that people recognised who I was a bit more, so the difference in the way I was seen by others in the industry was noticeable straight away.

What opportunities did winning this coveted award present you with and how has it made a difference to your life?

I flew out in January 2020 for the six-week University of Massachusetts Winter School for Turf Managers, which was very intensive but good fun. I also had a week in Orlando and got to attend the Golf Industry Show, and then finished off the trip by going to Minneapolis for a tour around the Toro factory. The pandemic was just beginning while I was out there and just after I got back to the UK everything shut down, so there was a big contrast between that and the amazing opportunities on the trip. Being able to put on job applications that I was the current Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year and had all this extra experience made a big difference to me, though.

Reay is the most northerly 18-hole links course on the British mainland. What else makes it stand out?

I always wanted to work on a links golf course in Scotland and it was one of the ambitions I set out in my presentation [for Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year 2019]. These are the conditions that golf was first intended to be played in. I hadn’t expected to achieve my ambition so soon and I think the award has helped. I’ve only been greenkeeping for five years so it’s been a steep learning curve. The location and the setting at Reay is stunning; you can see the sea on every hole. It’s a really interesting course and quite challenging, although not the longest in the world at 6,000 yards. It’s a really pretty golf course with a lot of potential.

You’re a lone course manager at Reay. How do you manage day-to-day?

At the moment I’m the only paid greenkeeper but I’ve got a regular pool of seniors that have volunteered to help out. They’ve been brilliant and give me as much time as they can, especially Pete Barker and Evan Sutherland. Without them it would be almost impossible. We’re also aiming to get an apprentice soon and that’s something I’m looking forward to.

What are the trickiest aspects for you and your team of volunteers to maintain and what equipment do you rely on most for this?

The weather is the hardest thing to deal with up here. I’ve been here around 18 months and it just doesn’t seem to rain, which is crazy when you think you’re on the north coast of Scotland. We don’t have an irrigation system at the moment and there are no sprinklers around the green so trying to keep everything wet is very challenging. You can apply water and then the next day the moisture-meter readings will be low again, and the same goes for wetting agents and liquid feed. Maintaining the greens with adequate water when you can’t rely on Mother Nature is the hardest challenge.

All of our machinery for greens, tees and green surrounds is from Toro, as is the rough cutter. We’ve got two Greensmaster 3250 mowers for the greens and tees, a Groundsmaster 4300 rough cutter and a Reelmaster 3100 Sidewinder. We had a 3250 at Rudding Park too, so that’s all I’ve ever used for greens and tees. The cutting units are interchangeable if one needs maintenance and it’s very versatile and straightforward to operate, which is especially useful to me when I’m working with volunteers. With the Sidewinder you can move the cutting units left to right and it’s great for going round bunkers, especially at Reay. We also had a Sidewinder at Rudding Park so it’s a tried and tested machine for me. Being able to shift the machine quickly and easily so the wheels aren’t near the green is very important when you’re working alone a lot.

What do you find most rewarding about greenkeeping and what has been your biggest challenge to date?

Just being able to look back at the end of the day and see what you’ve achieved on the course, especially on a sunny day. I like seeing the contrast between the rough and the fairway when you’ve been mowing the rough anti-clockwise and the fairways clockwise and you can see the structure and you’ve got the lines perfect. A lot of the members and volunteers have commented on it too, it really stands out. To be able to stand near the shed, where you can see a lot of the course, and appreciate what you’ve achieved is one of the things I like best about greenkeeping.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had was preparing for the finals of Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year because it was something I’ve never had to do before. To stand up in front of judges who are very respected in the industry and talk to them for 10 minutes straight, knowing that if I did well it would be life-changing was a real test. Since my children came along, preparing for things and making plans became a priority and it’s very important in greenkeeping to plan ahead to get the best result.

What has been your proudest achievement in the course manager role so far?

It was probably getting through last summer, which was really really dry, with no irrigation system. It was constantly warm and there was hardly any rain. They lost the greens here in 2018 during the last really hot summer and almost had to start again, so to have to face that in my first season meant I was really thrown in at the deep end. To manage to maintain the greens and still have grass coverage at the end of the season was a real task.

What are you working on at the moment and what other projects have you got planned for this year?

One of the ideas that we’re hopefully going to put into practice this winter will be trying to put in our own irrigation system. There are three burns that run through the course that we can extract a certain amount of water from each year to apply to the green. I’ve suggested that we make our own system, a loop around the greens where we can have pop-up sprinklers as opposed to the impact sprinklers that you move about. Hopefully we can get a much more even distribution of water around the greens and it doesn’t take six hours of me driving up and down and moving the sprinklers here, there and everywhere. We’re in the early stages of designing something along those lines and we’ll try on one hole to begin with to see if we’ve got enough pressure and then go from there. I’ll be able to get advice and support from some contacts I’ve made through winning the Toro Student Greenkeeper award, such as Pete Newton who is Toro’s irrigation expert. Irrigation has to be the number one priority for me at the moment because of the ongoing lack of rainfall. We can’t afford to miss out on the passing trade from the NC500 [a popular touring route around coastal Scotland] because of lack of irrigation. We rely on word of mouth from people who have played and enjoyed the course so we need the irrigation system in place to keep the greens at their best.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about entering the profession?

I would say there there’s never a stupid question about the job so ask lots of questions and really apply yourself to your level 2 training. I was a lot older, around 28, when I started so I think I was a lot wiser than when I was at school and didn’t really dedicate time to things. I immersed myself as much as I could in my training, went on all the BIGGA and STRI days. I also really took on board the feedback from Toro when I made it to the regional finals of the Student Greenkeeper of the Year Award in 2018 and made sure there was no stone left unturned the next year. I would say to just utilise everything that’s available to you and there are lots of opportunities out there, you just need to search for them a little bit.

I would advise anybody else who is entering the Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year Award to speak to previous winners and runners up because the advice I got was invaluable. The current champion, Matthew Milligan, is somebody I know very well because he was at Rudding too and we spoke a lot before he went to the final, which he said helped him to know what to expect. That’s what greenkeeping is all about, we all share ideas and support each other. We’re like a big family and if anybody ever needs any help they can get in touch.


By Alistair August 27, 2022 10:16

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