Moving back to the UK after a decade abroad, Jon White joined Hankley Common Golf Club as Course Manager in January 2017. A 6-month irrigation system renovation had been agreed and the contractor Ocmis had been working on site for two months.
Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the 18-hole Hankley Common Golf Club and surrounding expanse of native West Surrey heathland are home to thousands of birch, rowan, Scotch pine and oak trees as well as adders, badgers, sand lizards and a delightfully-named rare bird, the Dartford Warbler. This is a dry, sandy, links-type course, with fine, free draining turf cut through swathes of heather. Opened in 1897 with 9 holes added by James Braid in 1922 and redesigned in 1936 by Harry Colt adding length and changing the routing of the short holes, Hankley Common was described as ‘one of the best inland layouts in Britain’ by Charles Lawrie; high praise from renowned golfer and architect of the Duke’s course at Woburn.
Irrigation consultant Roger Davey of Irritech designed the new system to replace the ageing Watermation decoder system on greens, surrounds, tees and fairways. The irrigation design solution included a central pump station relying on existing borehole abstraction. The project involved upgrading to a Rain Bird IC System™ with Stratus II™ Central Control with mobile interface (MI) and weather station. A double row system with Rain Bird 700 Series valve-in-head rotors was installed on fairways with back-to-back Rain Bird 751 Series rotors on greens and approaches and a combination of block and valve-in-head rotors on tees.
Real time communication direct from PC to rotor makes the Rain Bird IC System truly unique in the marketplace. The mobile interface enables the easy to use Central Control to be accessed from anywhere allowing users to conduct rapid diagnostics and system health checks. The timeless compatibility of all Rain Bird Golf irrigation solutions ensures its customers continue to benefit from all advancements in controls or hardware, vital with a 25 to 40-year investment. Built to last, the unmatched quality of the equipment is evident from the many installations across the globe. These advantages deliver an unrivaled lower total cost of system ownership for golf clubs of every size and type.
In overseeing the renovation, Jon brought his experience of irrigation at some of the best-rated courses, in France; as Superintendent at Golf de Morfontaine, Assistant Superintendent at Golf de Joyenval and Waverley Oaks Golf Club in Massachusetts, USA, where he also completed a turfgrass management programme at Rutgers University.
Hankley Common is set within a unique 850-acre site. The course occupies 164 acres and remaining heathland is leased to the MOD. Located on the Surrey sand belt, the site is predominately open heathland with some areas very exposed to the elements.
Jon explains, “It’s inevitable that some minor, unforeseen issues will arise during the renovation process but adaptability and a high level of workmanship from Ocmis ensured installation went very smoothly. Distribution uniformity proved challenging especially on some of our smaller tees at elevation. As with any new system, it takes time out in the field to get it dialed in. In some places it’s taken us two seasons experimenting with a wide range of nozzles and pressure combinations to ensure we are getting the most from the system and during this process Irritech has been very responsive, making multiple site visits after installation. The Rain Bird team has also been excellent throughout, providing technical support to me and my staff to make sure we continue getting the most from our system.”
Ocmis’ Sales Director Peter Dawson adds, “We had a very experienced team of people working on this project; the same team that also installed the new system on the Ailsa Course at Turnberry. Attention to detail and careful planning enabled each golf hole to be returned to Jon after a day or two in full playing condition, with minimum disruption to him and to the Club members. Rain Bird equipment works ‘out of the box’ and the reliability allows us to quickly move through the installation.”
The majority of Jon’s irrigation experience has been with Rain Bird’s satellite and decoder systems of varying age and quality and he acknowledges that with any system, the key is understanding its capabilities and limitations to ensure it’s being used effectively.
“There’s no silver bullet. Weather stations and moisture meters are the essential tools we use in our daily decision-making process to determine when and how much we irrigate. Ultimately, the more control you have over a given area, the more consistent turf quality will be. I’ve been really impressed with the advancements of the Stratus II™ Central Control software and IC System, especially the MI and real-time system health check capabilities.
My experience in both the US and France has taught me how resilient grass can be as a species during periods of drought and but most importantly, it’s limits. In the past, in a typical British summer, you were never really in danger of losing significant areas of turf through drought but last year really exposed the inadequacies of many irrigation systems in the UK. The bar has been raised when it comes to clubs needing to be efficient with water management. With standards and expectations constantly rising in the UK, effective irrigation and drainage are essential for maintaining quality playing surfaces. Hankley Common GC had the foresight to recognise that its ageing irrigation system needed upgrading and it had the capital to make upgrading a reality at exactly the right time. Fortunately, we had just enough water and uniformity of coverage to keep our fairways in dormancy so when the rain finally arrived in August, they recovered.
The renovation process, from conception through to design and installation can happen over several years and a lot can change in that timeframe. As it’s a 25-year investment, it’s important that the system you choose today meets all your fundamental requirements and is also capable of growing as technology improves. Everyone involved, including General Manager and Management Committee needs to fully understand the strategy and basic irrigation principles before making any decisions about what to invest in. Visiting similar clubs that have gone through the process, learning from their experiences and understanding how decisions directly impact turf quality and playability will help to determine priorities. Cost will always be a major factor and there will inevitably be compromises along the way but decisions at the design phase can lead to significant financial implications longer term if aspects have to be rectified later. What may seem expensive now will look at lot less so in two to three years’ time. Better to wait and do irrigation renovation properly or in phases, than sacrifice key elements just to drive down costs.
What we have at Hankley Common today gives us uniformity of coverage and the control we need to use our water resource effectively and a solid foundation for improving the overall quality of the course in future years. We set high standards and so our goal is always to exceed the expectations of our members and guests.”