Interview with John Wallace, Head Greenkeeper of El Paraiso Golf.
We had an interesting and illuminating discussion with our Head Greenkeeper John Wallace on how he maintains our course, which quite honestly has come through the summer months looking progressively better year on year. John came to El Paraiso in 2006 where he inherited a workforce of 22.
John currently has a crew of 14 including himself and again as an example, this is how the course looks now. In fairness I should also mention that we use the services of an outside contractor who supply three men twice a week to trim the palms and other trees and keep the hedges trimmed and tidy. This is a time-consuming, but necessary part of our course maintenance There are times on the golf course when a query might pop into our heads and there’s no-one there to answer it. So, here are a few questions which hopefully will help us understand the workings of a sorely tried Head Greenkeeper’s mind!
How do we combat invasive weeds?
John smiles with his usual unassuming quiet confidence, and is eagerly away on what is obviously a favoured subject. Pre-emergent herbicides are applied throughout the year, predominantly in springtime to combat weeds and foreign grasses. It’s extremely difficult to completely eradicate weeds and a constant battle for Sol.
There are strict regulations on many chemical applications which some five or seven years ago were perfectly legal, but which have since been taken off the market, making control of these weeds/rogue grasses a much tougher job. For example, there’s goose grass, crab grass, weedy grasses, and kikuyu grass to name but a few! In addition to the applications of herbicides we also try to dig the weeds out, and we now have less weed than a few years ago – but it’s a constant ongoing battle.
There are companies working on trying to find new effective formulations within the constraints of ever-changing regulations – however a product for example which would be available in France, is simply not allowed in Spain, where he feels we have meticulous regulatory bodies.
Are there any ways round these restrictions?
John fixes me with a schoolmasterly stare – absolutely not, it’s essential that we adhere strictly to the prescribed protocols, and we do.
Where does the water which is pumped into our lakes come from?
The water in our top lake between the 12th green and 18th tee is supplied from the lakes up in Benahavis which contain natural rainwater. During the summer this source can slow down or even dry up and so we are also connected to “treated” water, which mixes as it arrives, lake. Treated water as the name suggests, is used water which has gone through the sewage treatment works and has been semi-cleaned, but certainly not to the degree of being able to drink it! We tap into this during May/ early June time and we’ll stop using it once it rains. The pH level does vary, but the sodium levels have improved over the years and the general quality is much better. However, as we move towards the end of the summer the quality can deteriorate, as the mix in our lake changes to a greater percentage of treated water. The treated water is tested by Acosol who provide a weekly and monthly analysis.
Do we treat the new greens in the same manner as the older greens?
We have built a number of new greens in recent years and will be continuing with the programme of renovation and so the question is how do we treat the new greens as opposed to the old ones. We manage the new greens slightly differently as these are built to USGA specification. They may require more nutrients than the other greens, because they’re sand based greens, so the nutrients tend to leach a little bit more, and they may also require more water, but it’s a matter of balance and that comes down to the experience of the greenkeeper! All greens receive liquid fertilisers and we also use the irrigation system to supply fertiliser around the course.
What advances are we making with our bunkers?
Some members like firmer sand in the bunkers, but the USGA recommendation for sand depth is 8 – 10 cms. We have begun adding capillary concrete to our bunkers. As a matter of interest, Anika Sorenstam (the great professional golfer) has shares in the company manufacturing this polymer based product. This invention had not previously been made available in Spain although courses around the world are using the system, as bunkers are expensive items to maintain. The idea of capillary concrete is to filter water (irrigation or rainfall) without removing sand and letting it leach away and that’s brilliant. It also prevents the smectite clay subsoil beneath the bunkers, from contaminating the sand above the capillary concrete. We’ve used it in several bunkers already and it’s fantastic. The finished product when installed is very durable and will change the maintenance programme for our bunkers. The sand used is silica sand, called 30/40H which is USGA specific for bunkers.
Is our irrigation system sufficient for our needs?
The irrigation system was installed back in early 2,000 so it’s now 18 years old. It works very, very well and is fully computerised. The life span of an irrigation system is approximately 30 – 35 years. We’ve added a few “heads” here and there, but in general it’s a damned good system! One of the first things John did on his arrival was to have the irrigation audited and even now he gives it a rating of 8 out of 10 (he’s a Scotsman and cautious with his praise!). It’s an older style system and therefore can’t be controlled from his phone or laptop as the latest ones can, but it works, and works well. We have a Fertigation system as mentioned earlier, which can control and supply liquid fertiliser throughout the course. We have top class pumps supplied by Siemans, and we’re fortunate to also have a top class irrigation foreman and his assistant, who keep it all running smoothly. Over the last 3 or 4 years we have made improvements in the system, by upgrading and expanding our irrigation satellites, from the original maximum of 48 stations up to 72 stations, as we need more “heads” for the new and larger greens, additional “heads” for some fairways and also for the driving range.
Is the newly constructed 10th green the same size as the original?
No, it’s doubled in size and not the same shape. It was the smallest green on the course, it drained very poorly and the irrigation coverage was at best, average. The new green is built to USGA specification, and we have many more pin positions available. There are also subtle movements on the green which will make for thought-provoking putting. This is a Gary Player designed green of more than 650m2 and the existing bunker has been slightly re-modelled, following the professional advice from Steven McFarlane, who is the Senior Golf Course Architect for Gary Player Design.
What keeps your interest going?
Every day is different for a greenkeeper, which is what makes the job so exciting and rewarding. There are over 45,000 rounds of golf played each year on the course, so John rarely has a moment to call his own. Wind direction, weather conditions, looking and checking for diseases, irrigation issues, new projects and always trying to do things better and quicker – despite the constant intrusion of golfers in his workplace! And we both end with a laugh.
John Wallace is passionate and enthusiastic about the course, and that level of commitment comes from the heart and we’re extremely fortunate to have a Head Greenkeeper with the knowledge and breadth of experience, working his magic for us each day. Thank you, John.