Meet the golf course manager: Neil Smith

By Alistair July 23, 2022 12:56

From Slaley Hall Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort in Northumberland, Neil talks about how the venue became the first in the world outside of Asia to host an event on the Asian Tour this summer and why he feels so lucky to be working for The QHotels Collection.

Can you give a description of your background and how long you’ve now been at the golf club?

My name is Neil Smith, since July 2018, I have been the golf course manager at Slaley Hall Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort in Northumberland, which is part of The QHotels Collection.

It feels as though it’s been forever, but I have now been in the industry for almost 25 years, starting at The Belfry as a summer intern. It was and is a fantastic place, with the highest of standards across the board and this made it a wonderful place to begin to learn my craft, surrounded by people who were incredibly talented and also willing to share all the tips and tricks.

From there, I worked my way up through the ranks to be Kenny Mackay’s number two, which was a huge nod to the fact that this was set to be my career for years to come.

In time, I then moved to Oulton Hall in early 2012 where I was given the position of golf course and estates manager, which is another stunning resort, and really started to help me understand the locational differences between resorts but also the things that you can take with you and reapply at each place.

NEWCASTLE- ENGLAND- International Series England at Staley Hall Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort, Hunting Course, an Asian Tour US$ 2 million event, 2nd – 5th June 2022. Picture by Paul Lakatos/Asian Tour.

Following six years in that role, I then relocated to Northumberland and Slaley Hall Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort in July 2018 where I hold the role of golf course manager. It is a stunning resort with a storied and impressive past that it is an honour to try and continue to improve on.

How has the course evolved in recent years? What projects have you carried out?

When I took up my position at Slaley Hall in 2018, I knew that the remit was going to be to make sure that the playing surfaces across the resort were in their best condition. At that point, we knew that we wanted to continue to host high-quality golf events throughout the year, which requires the playing conditions to be outstanding year-round and with the team I have, that has been my only goal. We are currently in the middle of a triple-header of events, which included the PGA Professional Championships, and it has been wonderful to see the course hold up to the stresses of such extended use at the highest level.

In the long term, once we really know the course is exactly where we want it to be year-in and year-out, we would like to look at the waterways and bunkers on both courses to be in line with modern-day golf. We have recently had investment into the drainage from The QHotels Collection, which was the same across all the resorts, so now that is also in the books, it’s about getting the features of the course updated too.

How does having high-class events like the Asian Tour affect your work in the early part of the year?

The work started on the golf course the day after the event was signed off, the importance of having the first Asian Tour event outside of Asia at Slaley Hall was not a fact that was lost on us and so we spent most of the first week just planning out what we could achieve in eight weeks for the event. This planning included programmes for all turf areas to be in line with the start date so that the course was on an upward trajectory by the time the tournament got underway.

One part of this for example was the greens’ programme, which we made sure to time so that it was at its best in time for the first practice day. We understood, very clearly, the interest and media attention that the course would be getting as part of the International Series England, so we knew we had to have all four corners of the course looking pristine for then. In the build-up, this meant altering the programme on a weekly basis, using help from our main fertiliser supplier, ICL, to optimise the product used and timings. The fertiliser used can help us pinpoint when the course comes to its optimum point so that was a large part of the calculations that we were making.

What growth has the club seen by way of members and play since then, and what challenges has this brought?

It has only been a month or so of normal play since the Asian Tour event, so it’s hard to say at the moment about the exact impact, but if previous major events are to go by, we will see a boost in pay and play bookings in the next couple months as we did after the PGA EuroPro Tour championship in October 2021. These events give great media focus, allowing us all to show off the work that the resort has put in to be one of the standouts in the northeast of England, and if it gets new people to the area, to try the course and experience the excellent golf on offer in this part of the country, then it’s a huge positive.

Crane fly larvae have been a major issue on UK golf courses lately, has this impacted you and how have you dealt with it?

Luckily, and maybe because the crane fly larvae don’t enjoy the colder temperatures in the north-east, I don’t believe there is nearly as much of an issue with this as is the case in many clubs across the UK. As a result of this, we aren’t currently doing anything differently to address this, but it is something we are monitoring within the turf regularly, if it becomes a problem in the future, we will deal with it using knowledge gathered by other greenkeepers and suppliers.

For us, issues like this are good practice because it gives us all a chance to learn how to deal with something new and use the existing knowledge of my brilliant team. We must be prepared for this to change and like so much of the business of greenkeeping, it’s all about responding to things when they come up and being willing to change your approach completely if a better method presents itself. Those teams and resorts which are willing to be at the forefront of the profession at all times are those that will perform better in the long term.

What advice would you give to youngsters starting out and wanting to pursue a career in the profession?

To some degree, the industry is constantly evolving, so some of the steps that I took may not be applicable now, but to me, there are always a couple of tricks that will be relevant. Firstly, be sure to soak in as much information and tips from those around you when starting out. I have been around brilliant people since I started 25 years ago, and every different greenkeeper will have a practice that is new to you or a tip that you can apply, so be sure to focus early on and use the wealth of knowledge around you.

Secondly, I always advise applying the following ideals as I do, ‘treat people as you would want to be treated’. That applies to both staff and guests, and if you do that, not only will you get better working relationships and better production from the team, but you will quickly develop relationships with regulars who can point you to things you hadn’t considered and allow you to get more positive feedback on what you are doing.

Oh, and if the chance to work abroad in hot climates ever arises, take that chance!

What changes do you think need to be made to benefit the industry sector and profession of the greenkeeper?

Not so much within The QHotels Collection but one thing that I would like to see change is definitely how greenkeepers are treated, or at least how the role is considered generally. There are a lot of people who just see it as a matter of ‘cutting the grass’ or things to that effect when in actual fact there is a huge amount of science, technical knowledge, planning and hard work that goes into making sure the course is in the best possible condition the year long. I wish more people could see behind the scenes and the work that is going on, the early starts and late finishes, there is so much to the profession.

Additionally, through the industry as a whole, this definitely needs to be better reflected in the pay that some golf course managers receive, I have heard and seen too many examples of incredibly talented staff being undervalued and this needs to change, which I also think comes through the better understanding of exactly what goes into the role. I feel incredibly lucky in my position within The QHotels Collection to have people around me that appreciate the importance of me and my staff.


By Alistair July 23, 2022 12:56

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