Unsung heroes of the Old Course – ‘He was banging and banging trying to straighten the scissors. You couldn’t make it up!’

Green keepers clearing the Old Course after heavy down pours during The Open
Green keepers clearing the Old Course after heavy down pours during The Open

There’s a distinctly autumnal nip in the air when I arrive at the St Andrews Links Trust’s Jubilee Sheds around a half mile out the West Sands road at the agreed rendezvous time of 5.45am.

A stiff easterly breeze is carrying in the roar of waves and the distinctive salty tang of sea air from the nearby beach.

But other than a steady stream of green keeping staff parking up and arriving for their eight-hour shift, it’s dead quiet, and still dark. Very dark.

Even the seagulls appear to be sleeping, and the only lights at this hour are the distant illuminations of the R&A, Hamilton Grand and the distinctive spires of the St Andrews skyline beyond.

Warmly welcomed by St Andrews Links Trust commercial coordinator Kathryn Keith, my slightly bleary-eyed photographer Steve and I are escorted into the brightly-lit machine storage sheds where an army of green keepers are firing up a procession of large sit-on grass cutters.

Amid the din of engines, the cool air is filled with the heady aroma of cut grass, dried mud and exhaust fumes.

At 5.55am precisely, there is a crescendo of motor noise as the cutters start to stream from the building with headlights blazing, heading out into the gloom to make the courses ready for the day ahead.

Overseeing the staff on the Old Course is course manager Gordon McKie and his deputy Simon Connah, who is to be my host for the day.

Ordinarily there would be 20 green keeping staff working on the Old Course.

But on this particular September morning, with the R&A hosting one of its autumn medal competitions, the staffing has been elevated to 27.

The extra numbers have been drawn from the 85 staff who work across the links trust’s seven courses the Old, New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum, Balgove and Castle.

It’s a hands-on job for the managers, who are all trained green keepers, and with one of the regular staff on holiday, Gordon is about to go out with the team to help rake the bunkers.

A key role for the Old Course green keepers is to mow all surfaces including 12 hectares of fairways, 1.3 hectares of tees and three hectares of greens. All are cut to a specific height.

Raking and presentation of the course’s 110 bunkers is also vitally important.

Another key role is the cutting of new hole locations on the greens, which is normally done every other day.

And on this day, Simon is taking responsibility for this himself whilst also keeping an eye on the progress of staff. The green keepers need to stay ahead of the first players who are due to tee off at 7am.

Climbing aboard one of the electric buggies which has been charging in the shed overnight, we head out into the darkness with headlights blazing, bound for one of the most famous arenas in world sport the 18th green of the Old Course.

It takes dedication to be a green keeper prepared to get up early every morning, whatever the weather.

The links trust is an important local employer. But it’s also an opportunity to hone skills on some of the most famous turf on the planet, with demand high for placements at St Andrews from green keepers around the world.

“The guys are really passionate about working at St Andrews,” says Simon, 43, a local lad and father-of-two who has worked as a St Andrews green keeper since leaving Madras College.

“A lot of the staff have worked on other golf courses and then come here to the Old Course. The aim is for the ordinary golfer to experience the same quality of course as during a major championship. Attention to detail is everything.”

When the Open Championship is being staged, the R&A tends to decide where the pins should be placed.

But ordinarily, the pin positions are left to the discretion of the green keepers.

As we go round, Simon reveals he has chosen the hole locations a couple of days earlier, and on this day he’ll choose the hole locations for three days hence.

He tries to take into consideration the following week’s weather and the quality and type of golf likely to be played.

With the Dunhill on, another consideration is the mix of low and high amateur handicappers playing off amateur tees alongside the professionals playing off championship tees. This will see staff numbers elevated to 60 with staff cutting simultaneously from the first and ninth and meeting in the middle to speed up the process.

Parking up next to the 18th green there is a faint glimmer of a lightening sky in the east, but it’s still dark enough for headlights to be a necessity.

Several sit-on grass cutters are already whizzing about the fairways in a formation that the Red Arrows would be proud of, whilst on the green a noisy pedestrian lawnmower is being pushed at pace followed by another green keeper sitting on an unusual-looking roller machine.

Simon is armed with a card detailing the new pin positions for all the greens on the Old Course. A GPS system is usually deployed to pinpoint the exact pin locations, but with the system down, he is tasked with having to pace out the new positions on foot. On this occasion, the 18th hole is to be 39 yards from the front of the green and 19 yards from the left. “I need to make sure it’s exact or we might get complaints!” he says with a wry smile.

Simon is carrying a hole-cutter. It’s like a giant bulb planter only this one, costing about £700, is incising a 10-inch deep hole into the hallowed turf of one of the most famous sporting venues in the world. Using an R&A/US PGA-approved depth setter, he hammers it down. There’s also a spirit level but it’s difficult to see in the dark. Simon reveals that this top end model allows the soil column to be taken out intact, keeping the root system healthy and whole. Cheaper versions would mean the soil having to be taken out in sections. The plug then fills up the old hole leaving just a faint mark on the green. All that’s left to do is to trim the lip of the new hole with a special pair of curved scissors.

Simon shares a funny story. “We had a seasonal member of staff who came into the sheds a couple of years ago. He was banging and banging trying to straighten the scissors. And it’s toughened steel! That’s one of those funny work stories. Lucky we came in when we did because he had six or seven other pairs lined up as well! You couldn’t make it up!”

Six staff cutting the famous Old Course double greens with pedestrian mowers takes nearly three hours and they will cover almost seven miles each.

With 45,000 golfing rounds per year and over 25,000 caddie rounds on the Old Course alone, it’s an investment worth making.

During The Open, the St Andrews green keeping staff were hailed as heroes for clearing water from the course following incessant downpours on the Friday morning of the competition. It even led 1999 Open Championship winner Paul Lawrie to Tweet his respect for the efforts being put in.

Simon smiles when he thinks back. “We were well prepared for it,”he says. “We were up clearing water on the Valley of Sin here. I think everyone saw the images on TV. The golfers were on the first tee on the Friday waiting to tee off and we had the executives from the R&A asking us if we could make the water disappear quicker. We had every volunteer under the sun here. We even had people helping on the course and we didn’t know who they were!

“And we had reporters trying to do live interviews with us as we were working away, so there was a bit of pressure.”

Simon said that with The Open coming to St Andrews roughly every five years, the team is a “reasonably well-oiled machine”. They were also fortunate to have the resources of seven courses to draw from. “That’s kind of unique I think on The Open Championship circuit.”

Simon said that despite the trials and tribulations of The Open week weather, the courses were in fantastic condition. In fact the damp weather had helped keep the Old Course green.

All seven courses are managed differently. For example, the Strathtyrum and Balgove are built on clay soils of old agricultural land. The Old Course is more sandy, which helps with drainage.

This effects everything from hole management to chemical inputs, fertiliser and water management. The links staff take environmental accreditation very seriously and keep chemical input to a minimum. Greens are over-seeded with traditional links fescue grasses which offer fantastic tolerance to drought, disease and close mowing.

Turf growth has slowed considerably with the approach of October.

Dunhill week weather is notoriously unpredictable with some of the first frosts possible.

But generally the course had never looked so good.

What also helps is the high standard of training, whilst green keeping had also become much more professional.

Simon has worked on all of the St Andrews courses but one of the great things about the Old Course, he said, was the regular contact from the visiting public. He said: “You get daily feedback from them. For some it’s a bucket-list thing even to be here. We’ve had people visiting with weeks to live. It’s a reminder not to be complacent when we turn up for work every morning.”

At last it’s daylight and there’s a cool breeze as we make steady progress out the course to cut the remaining holes. Everywhere there are teams of grass cutters mowing the fairways and famous double greens, and pressure mounts as the first players tee off and make their way at pace up the course.

The damp conditions mean it’s taking slightly longer to lift fallen cut grass from the fairway, but the well-organised staff keep ahead of the game.

Out on the 14th, Gordon McKie is helping to rake one of the largest and perhaps most infamous bunkers on the Old Courseand certainly one of the most scarily titledHell Bunker.

Measuring 300 square metres and some two metres deep, it takes 60 tonnes of sand to fill this bunker which famously caught out 18-time major championship winner Jack Nicklaus at the 2000 Open when he ended up with a quintuple bogey on the par five.

As course manager, Gordon, who has worked at St Andrews for 18 years, is responsible for day to day maintenance and longer term plans on the course.

He added:”It’s very rewarding most of the time, especially in years like this when we have the Open Championship then the Dunhill. The Old Course is a special place and we have a great team here.”

Seasonal staff on the Old Course this summer include Brad Carey, 27, from Melbourne, Australia. Dressed defiantly in shorts and t-shirt as he mows the third green, he is on a six-month exchange from Royal Melbourne Golf Club and hopes the St Andrews experience will bolster his CV.

Brad, whose partner works in the St Andrews Links Trust shops, said: “It means everything to be here. It’s the ultimate for my career. It’s fantastic. Second-to-none. I finish on October 16 and then head back home for the summer. I hope to progress up through the ranks into management.”

Sean Berry, 36, of St Andrews, has been working on the course for almost nine years.

He said: “To me having a course in top condition is essential. If visitors pay £150/£160 to play, they deserve to have a golf course that reflects that, in my opinion. I’ll be working on raking bunkers during the Dunhill. It’s great to meet the celebrities.

“I just hope the weather holds out and it doesn’t run to Monday like it did with The Open!”