When it comes to course maintenance, Goswick Golf Links has long been blessed with a steady and experienced hand. For 50 years, the all-important role of head greenkeeper was played by George Thompson who had assumed the reins from his father in 1977. When George retired in 2016, he was succeeded by Berwick-Upon-Tweed native Ryan McCulloch, who had served as his apprentice since 1998.
Those of us who call Goswick our golf home know just how fortunate we are. Or do we? Ryan and his team maintain the course to such a consistently high standard, most often behind the scenes, that it’s all too easy to take their work for granted.
Recently, member Dan Miller caught up with Ryan after Mother Nature had laid a blanket of snow upon the dunes — slowing but never fully stopping his progress.
DAN: First lockdown, then the rain and now snow. I imagine is must be tough going out there on the links while the rest of us stay huddled up in our homes.
RYAN: It’s a bit frustrating. But it can’t be helped. It just seems to be the pattern now. When I first started at Goswick, we did used to get quite a bit more of a winter, where we could stop cutting the course in October. That’s not true anymore. Last year, we were still mowing in December. The seasons have definitely changed. So we have to change with it.
DAN: It’s funny that you talk about change when those of us who play Goswick are amazed at how much it stays the same — no matter the weather.
RYAN: Well, that’s our primary objective. There is no such thing as an offseason. Members and visitors alike expect the course to be in good nick no matter what time of year or day of the week they play it. So I’m glad to hear you think we’re achieving that.
DAN: Absolutely. In the pre-COVID days, I played in a fair number of open events at other courses throughout England and Scotland, including some that are better known and higher up on the various rankings. Yet, invariably, those experiences only reinforced my belief that Goswick can hold its own with any links course in the UK. Our fescue greens, in particular, are just a joy to putt on.
RYAN: That is one of the things that sets Goswick apart. We’re very fortunate to have such traditional links land with fine grasses we are able to maintain with minimal inputs.
DAN: Minimal inputs?
RYAN: Yes. We try to use no more than the amount of water, fertilizer, nitrogen and other agents that’s needed to maintain the health and firmness of the turf.
DAN: Which is what makes a round of golf at Goswick so enjoyable, that lively bounce and run of the ball.
RYAN: Exactly. Goswick might not be the greenest or lushest looking course out there. But we don’t want it to be. People come here for a very different golf experience, something they can’t find at very many other courses.
DAN: So, it sounds like you have a bit of balancing act on your hands between keeping the turf healthy and keeping it firm. How difficult is that to manage?
RYAN: Well, thanks to technology, it’s getting a bit easier. When I first started at Goswick as an apprentice, I learned all of the traditional methods from George. It was a great training ground for me, but a lot of it was done by look and feel. These days we have ways of gathering data. I can take core samples from the greens and do a soil analysis, measuring the moisture level, organic level, pH levels — things like that. And with the new irrigation system (installed in 2018) we can be far more precise in how we apply various inputs. For example, I can insert a probe into a green and, based on the readings, use my mobile phone turn on a sprinkler for one part of the green and maybe run it for 1-3 minutes to achieve the desired moisture levels. There’s a lot less guesswork. And it’s a lot more efficient, freeing up man-hours to work on other things.
DAN: Clearly, there’s more to this than just cutting the grass. Has it been mostly a case of on-the-job training?
RYAN: That’s a big part of it, for sure. But over the years I’ve also earned my qualifications. Goswick has always been very supportive of that, allowing me and other staff to block out time 2-3 times a year to go up to Elmwood College in Fife for greenkeeping training. And I’m a long-time member of the British and International Golf Greenkeepers’ Association (BIGGA). We’re part of the Scottish East Section so I attend the Scottish National Conference every year that attracts 300-400 people with seminars and speakers all day long. It’s a massive education event.
Beyond that, I’ve had some fantastic opportunities over the years. Like the time I had a chance to visit TPC Deere Run in the States to get insight into course preparation and also to take part in the John Deere Classic Pro-Am. And in 2013 I got to spend 10 days helping to set up Muirfield for the Open and the world’s best players. It’s a fantastic industry to be a part of. I’ve met so many amazing people who are all so welcoming and willing to help.
DAN: In other words, this isn’t just a job to you. It’s a lifelong career.
RYAN: Absolutely. I couldn’t see myself doing anything different. I love working at Goswick. And I appreciate the opportunities it’s created for me and the people I’ve met because of it. It’s exciting to take the ideas I learn and bring them back to Goswick and find ways to make it even better. That’s what it’s all about.
DAN: Even better? I like the sound of that.
RYAN: There are always areas that can be improved. Such as getting rid of the gravel walkways so that you have a continuous flow of grass from the first tee across the entire course to the 18th green. The pathways from the 6th green to the 7th tee and from the 10th green to the 11th tee have helped to change the look and the feel of the course. We want to continue with that. Also, currently, we’re doing a lot of maintenance work on bunkers. And we built a new tee on the 17th hole. I anticipate it will get a lot of use when we open it up in the spring.
The fact is we have a very good golf course. My mission is to keep finding ways to take it up a notch every year without losing what we have. And looking further ahead, there might be opportunities to make more significant changes at some point— a bit like we did under George that led to Goswick being selected for regional qualifying from 2008-2012.
DAN: I sense that Goswick is on the verge of writing an exciting new chapter in its more than 130-year history. So much to look forward to, even if — at the moment — we’re kind of stuck in this holding pattern.
RYAN: Well, I can assure you the greenkeeping crew is continuing to push ahead. And we look forward to the day when we can welcome everyone back to enjoy our handiwork.
DAN: Maybe not as much as we are!