A numbers game

Columns - america’s greenkeeper

© matthew wharton

I wrote about a trip to the Scottish Highlands and my love for the region last year in this space. Recently, I returned from another Highlands adventure where I discovered another golf course worthy of praise — Golspie Golf Club.

Golspie is in the village of Golspie in Sutherland on the North Sea coast. The village has a population of just over 1,300, but it boasts a phenomenal golf course designed by five-time Open Champion James Braid.

Founded in 1889 and redesigned by Braid in 1925, Golspie is one of the most unique golf courses in the world. It boasts a collection of true links holes, plus some heathland and parkland holes.

The course opens with a par 5 followed by a par 3 set just inland from Nos. 3, 4 and 5, which are along the coast with the sea on your left. The sixth hole is the second par 3 and turns inland straight away from the sea.

Following the sixth, you have a brief walk back to the tees of the par-4 seventh that continues to play inland over a tall dune to a plateau on the property. The par-4 eighth turns left and the course now resembles a British heathland with heather lining the sides of the fairways and Scotch pines providing the backdrop to the green in the distance.

The ninth, 10th and 11th holes continue through this pine forest creating more of a parkland feel and you are certainly sheltered from the ocean breezes at this juncture of your round. The 12th begins with the tee still sheltered in the trees before exiting out into the open heathland adjacent to the eighth. The 13th continues on that same portion of property before one reaches the 14th, which runs past the maintenance facility parallel to the road leading past the golf course.

This is where sea views return. Although not directly on the sea, the final four holes meander their way out and back to the clubhouse. True links holes to close out your round.

One of the things that struck me about the course was how much the heathland- and parkland-type holes reminded me of Pinehurst — minus the exposed sand scrapes. The landscape and nature of those golf holes were quite similar but with heather instead.

The par-3 16th featured one of the more intimidating two-tiered greens I have ever seen. It truly deserves to be featured on the @GreatGolfHoles Twitter account.

The most impressive thing about Golspie? The condition.

The turf was perfectly manicured, and the greens were firm and true. I can’t say anything about the golf course seemed out of place. The course is maintained to a high standard.

Head greenkeeper Muir Ross and his team set an incredible standard — and the team is what I want to highlight. The Golspie team consists of just three employees: Muir and two other greenkeepers. Actually, Muir told me, that team is just 2½ employees this year. Muir has one seasonal helper.

How do they do it? I honestly don’t know. My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting Muir for a drink and a chat before our round. He shared their soil is a rich loam which creates an optimum growing environment for the turf, compared to their rustic neighbor to the north.

Golspie is just six miles south of Brora. In recent years, the crew from No Laying Up helped shine a spotlight on Brora, a Braid design on the North Sea famous for sheep that help keep the golf course “cut.”

A round at Brora resembles stepping back in time. I find it immensely appealing. But that rustic charm will not always appeal to everyone. This is where I think Golspie has the edge. Golspie is a multi-course experience in a single round. And the level of condition and manicure will appeal to all.

Earlier this year, our team was struggling to meet our expectations when our numbers were low. We then managed a few new hires and received reinforcements from the H-2B cap relief. Once we reached our full strength of 18 workers, we were off to the races.

I certainly understand each golf course is unique, with varying soils, microclimates and more. But if three people can manage 18 holes at Golspie to the standard maintained by Muir Ross and his team, then we in the United States still have much to learn.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and past president of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.