Meet the new course manager: Derrick Johnstone

By Alistair September 23, 2023 09:00

The new golf course and estate manager at Foxhills Club & Resort in Surrey, Derrick Johnstone, talks about plans to improve the club’s two courses even further by measures including enhancing drainage, improving winter playability and allowing more light and air to penetrate the turf.

This year has proved to be an exciting time for golf at Foxhills Club & Resort in Surrey following the reopening of the renovated Longcross Course and the appointment of esteemed greenkeeper, Derrick Johnstone, as its new golf course and estate manager.

With a resume spanning nearly 30 years, Johnstone brings an established pedigree and love for the sport and his craft to Foxhills following a six-year stint at East Berkshire Golf Club after spending 13 years managing Wentworth’s courses for prestigious televised tournaments.

“Johnstone will offer a fresh perspective with an abundance of innovative ideas to both enhance and elevate the playing experience for all members, guests and visitors alike,” says a club spokesman. “The appointment coincides with Foxhills’ recent investment of £1.5 million in a course modernisation project which will see the biggest structural changes to both Championship courses, Longcross and Bernard Hunt, since they opened for play in 1975.”

On his new role, Johnstone said: “I’m thrilled to be joining the Foxhills team as the golf course and estate manager, with the opportunity to work on an industry renowned course that’s got bags of potential to be even better. Following the recent evolvement of the club and its courses, as well as the continued investment in both the layout and greenkeeping equipment, I can see the commitment from the club to be up there with the very best – and I’m excited to be on board to help make that become a reality. There’s lots of exciting plans in the pipeline to enhance the already excellent condition of the courses, but improving the drainage and preparing the playing surfaces to be better throughout the winter is my initial priority.”

Tej Walia, Foxhills’ managing director said: “With our course modernisation project now in full swing, it is the perfect time to welcome someone of Derrick’s calibre in both skill and personality to lead the excellent team we already have in place here. We are looking to establish ourselves amongst the best golf courses in the country and I have no doubt that with Derrick’s expertise, the recent purchase of the best-in-class greenkeeping equipment from Toro and John Deere, as well as the continued investment and course renovations, we will be up there in the conversation. I’m excited to see the courses elevated to new standards under Derrick’s leadership and this appointment demonstrates our commitment to providing world-class golf facilities.”

Foxhills’ golf course investment project will continue over the next couple of years as it moves to the front nine of Longcross and the Bernard Hunt course. The recent reopening of the back nine saw the unveiling of a new signature par three which saw the existing 16th hole completely reconfigured and transformed, with a new pond with wooden sleepers installed at the front of the green, as well as increasing the size of the putting surface and a new bunker installed to the left to try catch golfers who are tempted into bailing out.

The extensive golf facilities across the 400-acre estate also include a nine-hole par-three course, the Practice Den – 3,500 square-metre floodlit practice facility with a bunker, synthetic hitting areas and a large undulating green, a 16-bay floodlit and undercover driving range with synthetic target greens, as well as various putting greens.

We spoke to Derrick about his career and his new club.

Can you take us through your career to the present day?

It all started at the age of 16 when I was offered an apprentice greenkeeper position at the Vale Of Leven Golf Club – the club where I played golf with my dad and grandfather. I fell for the profession quickly due to my love of golf and being outdoors, although I hadn’t quite forethought how tough a dark, wet, midge-infested morning could be! Luckily, Loch Lomond hosts some magnificent views which helped me through.

A year later, I was offered a position at Cardross Golf Club, another local club to me which regularly hosted some larger professional events. The club supported me in gaining my HNC in golf course management at college and I was awarded a full-time position following my graduation.

I’ve always recognised the importance of expanding my professional knowledge and gaining valuable experience and, after six years with the club, I decided it was time to move on to experience golf courses of a higher calibre.

One afternoon, I received an unexpected phone call from Chris Kennedy, the course manager from Wentworth, who had been passed my CV from Sunningdale. Chris knew my current course manager at the time, who he had already spoken with to vouch for me. The following day, I tendered my notice and shortly afterwards began my time at Wentworth.

I spent four years working on the West Course and was then promoted to deputy head on the Edinburgh Course, which I held for nine years. I relished preparing the course for televised tournaments and I acquired valuable expertise from Chris Kennedy and Kenny MacKay, the course managers during my time there. I wanted to take forward all I had learned and use this to manage my own course and team. This led me to leave Wentworth, securing my first course manager position at Malden Golf Club.

I spent three years at Malden, developing the course and staff before moving on to East Berkshire.

Here, I spent six exceptionally happy years transforming the course and building close relationships with the staff and members, however, when the position of golf course and estates manager came up at Foxhills, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t let pass me by. Now a few months into the role, it’s been extremely fast-paced, working across 45 holes, but I have thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it and am excited by the future and what we can achieve here at Foxhills.

What plans have you got for the two courses?

I believe Foxhills is the challenge I need at this stage in my career. The courses are already exceptional but have potential to be even better. My initial and current focus has been to address various tasks such as: greenkeepers’ compound refurbishment, health and safety, staffing, motivating the team, understanding the current irrigation layout, negotiating machinery acquisitions, as well as golf course reconstruction and modernisation.

The first aspect I have prioritised is expanding the surfaces which have gradually become smaller and tighter over the years. The aim is to improve the playability and bring bunkers into greater prominence. Given that Foxhills is situated on clay soil and experiences wet conditions, our main objective is to enhance drainage and improve winter playability. At East Berkshire, we achieved favourable results with fairway drainage by employing vertidraining three times a year and implementing a topdressing plan. I aim to replicate this success at Foxhills by spreading 600 tonnes of sand over the fairways twice per year. Furthermore, I am developing a woodland management plan that involves removing unwanted species and creating open spaces around the magnificent pine trees scattered across the 400-acre site, particularly on the Longcross course. This approach will allow more light and air to penetrate the turf, thereby enhancing the condition of our surfaces during the winter months. Additionally, it is essential for us to excavate and clear the ditches to facilitate efficient water drainage from the site.

It is an exhilarating time to be associated with Foxhills and to hold my role, especially considering the club’s implementation of a substantial £2 million investment towards irrigation and reconstruction which will see the biggest structural changes to both Championship courses, Longcross and Bernard Hunt, since they opened for play in 1975.

With a new head greenkeeper, first assistant and four greenkeepers starting as well, we have plans to restructure our team, aiming to take us to the next level and reach our ambition of cementing both courses in the ‘Top 100’ rankings.

How do the courses cope with hot, dry summers?

Due to our clay soil composition, our course tends to be wet during the winter months, but this quickly transitions to the opposite extreme as temperatures rise. As our irrigation system has reached the 25-year mark, discussions have begun regarding an upgrade plan, and a comprehensive audit will be conducted shortly. After experiencing the warmest June on record, I have had to rapidly become familiar with our irrigation system. Currently, we rely on a borehole and reservoir, supplemented by mains water, to supply our irrigation system, ensuring multiple water sources are available. One advantage of having two golf courses is that I intend to conduct separate trials using different wetting agents and fertilisers to determine the most suitable products for our site. I am also eager to continue these trials for disease management, spanning from the end of the summer throughout the winter, and I am excited to witness the outcomes.


By Alistair September 23, 2023 09:00

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