Alex Newenham embarked on the dream greenkeeping assignment recently when he travelled to Florida for the Players Championship at Sawgrass. Alex attend the PGA Tour event as one of seven representatives from Britain and Ireland, and it was the trip of a lifetime for the Douglas greenkeeper; “Needless to say the whole experience from start to finish was incredible and without wanting to use every cliche going that we hear so much on the X-Factor it was life giving and changing. I found it a worthwhile experience – professionally and personally.” The 12 day trip was a working holiday, with the team of visiting greenkeepers working as part of the 70 plus team on duty, and Alex described the schedule: “The working day was hard, not because of the actual work itself because there is such a team environment that others keep you going when you’re struggling, but because of the length of it and in my case the concentration required for my specific role. The alarm went off at 3.20am every morning and as the week went on the snooze button was hit once or twice but we were still up and in the bus by 4am and at the greenkeepers base by 4.30am. After a quick breakfast and having been assigned our jobs for the morning shift we were out on the course by 5am. My job every morning had me being one of the last back to base again at about 10.30-11. We then had a few hours to either catch some sleep or get back on the course to watch some golf. We were back at base again at 3pm for lunch and sometimes a talk from a guest speaker before being assigned our jobs for the evening shift which started about 4.30 again and finished at 9.30. By the time we got back to our accommodation, popped out for another bite to eat we were hitting the sack again at 11pm for our very welcome but very short 4.5hrs sleep.”
“If we weren’t catching up on sleep between shifts we were free to watch golf. I hadn’t gone all that way to sleep and as my daily tasks didn’t involve walking up to 30kms per day (handmowing tees followed by hand mowing the rough) I was just about fit enough to be able to watch the golf. The real excitement was the first 3 days of practice where we had unlimited access inside the ropes. On the Monday of practice we were watching on the 17th Tee-box and Cam Smith and Jason Day came over and after playing a few shots they were generous enough to allow us onto the Tee box with them for a photo. Jason also recorded a video message for my wife at home wishing her a happy birthday.”
“We also got very close to most of the biggest names in golf. Rory, Jordan Speith, Bubba, Tommy Fleetwood, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Patrick Reed, Vijay Singh, Sergio, Webb Simpson, Jon Rham, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker and we did get to see Tiger in the flesh. The experience to sit at the back of a tee-box while all these guys walked on, chatting with their caddies and entourage during practice rounds was incredible. We were so close we could have almost reached out and touched their drivers on the backswing. The sound from the club was something we could only dream of making ourselves someday. We saw them take three shots from the tee. One left, one right and then one down the middle as if preparing for every eventuality. We also had great access during tournament days although we had to fight through the crowds like everyone else. Often we would find a tree and snooze under it behind a green and wake each other up when someone of interest was approaching the green. Sleep was hard to find in that environment but the craic we had then was mighty.”
Looking at it through the eyes of the day job, Alex found the trip to Sawgrass to be very worthwhile; “I can’t begin to describe the opportunities I had during my time there for professional development. Before I went out there I had expected to be raking bunkers, possibly cutting fairways, though I had dreamed of cutting the 17th green. Nothing could have prepared me for the task I was assigned for the week: Myself and Justin (an intern with the Ohio State Programme) were given responsibility for moisture consistency on the back nine greens. The 17th was one of the first places I went in the morning and one of the last places I went in the evening, it felt like our office for the week. There was one time when we were on it taking moisture readings and applying water as required to certain spots (to get consistency throughout the green). On the green at that time were the president of the PGA Agronomy team, the man he replaced due to retirement a few months previous, the two head PGA rules officials plus a TV crew. We had to gently encourage them off the green for a few minutes while we continued our work without giving them an early shower. This was while the stands and galleries were crammed with golf fans and surrounded by countless media groups. On a serious note though was that daily interaction with those two agronomists. They are the PGA’s leading men in soil management and therefore greens presentation. They were keenly interested in the moisture readings we were getting and it was they that set the target for us to aim for during the week. So at the beginning of the week we were aiming for tournament day to have the moisture percentage of the greens a consistent X%, everyday we would apply water to areas that were below X% and then apply water to the whole green to bring it up to X+% in the knowledge that during the day with the help of gravitational pull on water, sunshine evaporation and wind evaporation that the figure would drop below a certain %. We managed these figures throughout the week, taking into consideration the plant health (there’s no point in putting the plant under undue stress early in the week, when it might not recover in time for Sunday golf). This all resulted in consistent greens, with a true roll that were consistently smooth and firm and this all added to the speed of the greens which were also improving and gaining speed as the week went on. Come Sunday the plant was healthy, the greens were fair and fast and it made for some great golf. The insight I had into tournament set-up on the greens was something that a lifetime of college study could never teach me and I am so thankful to have been given that job for the week.”
“There is one photo taken by one of the volunteers which shows 50 greenkeepers working on one hole during tournament week. Starting on the 1st as play finished on then 18th there was a team of people handcutting the roughs, there was team of people working on detailing the bunkers, blowing debris out of bunkers and of cart paths, handcutting the Tees, approaches and collars, cutting and rolling the greens, hand watering the fairways, approaches and greens. These are the kinds of tasks that are carried out on every golf club here at home on a daily basis. That was one of many things that struck me about the operation: It’s the same as at home. However, with a team of over 150 people all working together things get done quicker but also things get done that often get passed over when course superintendents are working with limited staff and budgets. So I would be very slow to try and implement changes to what happens in the Irish set-up because Sawgrass is incomparable. However, what I have learned about how I do my job is to continue to look for ways of improving always. I talk about improving by 10%, or pursuing excellence, but the number doesn’t matter so much as the motivation behind it. Sawgrass wasn’t perfect and I’m sure if I went back next year there would be things that have improved from this year. So now, as I work, I’m looking for ways of improving how I do my job; whether it’s taking an extra 10 seconds in a bunker to pick out the stone when I’m raking, or getting off my machine to pick up the litter as I’m passing. It’s the little things that together make a big difference.”
It would be remiss of me not to thank a few people for this incredible opportunity. The GCSAI, John Deere, TPC Sawgrass agronomy team and of course Douglas Golf Club. Not to mention my long suffering wife and family for affording me the time away from real life.