Teed up for a link to the leisure industry

8th August 1997 at 01:00
John Quinn last week christened the new 18-hole Elmwood course outside Cupar with a round of military golf: left, right, left, right.

The course manager at the further education college-owned club really had no excuse when his ball disappeared into the lush undergrowth that three years ago was rich agricultural land for students to hone their farming skills. It is now an emerging golf course for students to hone their greenkeeping and course management skills.

As misfortune would have it, the decision to set the blades high was Mr Quinn's and he soon knew all about the jungle-strength grasses. The lost peoples of the Howe of Fife were surely disturbed by the whizz of golf balls tearing into the swaying grasses. Heavy rough and stiff breeze equals high scoring for members of the Honourable Company of Sclaffers.

For Mr Quinn, it was a nervous morning as the first balls ever to be hit on this unique course were banged down the fairway by the captain and secretary of the Royal and Ancient, golf's supreme body, based seven miles away at St Andrews. It is the only 18-hole course attached to an FE college in Britain and has been established to confirm Elmwood's leading role in greenkeeping and course management. Hence the Royal and Ancient's Pounds 100,000 investment to cover a quarter of the cost.

The sclaffers drew some comfort from the leading foursomes' difficulties as forlorn figures circled the undergrowth in desperation. Five balls lost in the first six holes, or was it six in five? Either way, the course was setting a challenge to some talented golfers.

Michael Bonallack, seven times British amateur champion and now Royal and Ancient secretary, returned a score in the upper 70s and pronounced himself delighted with the venture. He, too, accepted it was not easy with the narrow fairways and high rough.

Now a leading figure in British golf administration, Mr Bonallack says: "For a new course, it's in superb condition. As a pay-as-you-play course, it should encourage youngsters without them having to pay a club subscription." He believes Elmwood has the best greenkeeping course in the country. "This will give it an edge over all the others," he maintains.

For Mr Quinn, the Royal and Ancient verdict offered some comfort and consolation. He was no doubt instructing his lads out on the course to warm up the mowers. The grass, apparently, will become less ferocious as the heavy dosage of nitrates in the agricultural land dissipates. Golf courses are not made in two years.

Mr Quinn, an Elmwood graduate, masterminded the transformation from college farmland to college golf course. The college attracts some 400 students to greenkeeping, with around 80 full-timers from around the world. Others come on block release from some of Britain's top courses.

"They are actually building real greens, looking after a real golf course to a standard and time-scale just as they would in a job. That gives Elmwood the edge in the job market," Mr Quinn says.

Students also learn about anything from programming computerised irrigation systems to handling expensive and complex, high-tech machinery. "It is not just about cutting grass any more. Qualifications are more and more science based. Students have to know what is happening to the grass, how it will grow and how it will recover and how to produce constantly high-quality surfaces."

They will soon be able to progress from HNCs and HNDs at the Cupar college to an MA in golf course management at Dundee University.

For Norval Black, Elmwood's principal, who retires shortly, the project is the culmination of eight years of planning. It was only after incorporation in 1992 that a combination of college surpluses and Royal and Ancient funding took the scheme from dream to reality. It may seem strange for one of Scotland's smallest colleges to run a commercial golf course but Mr Black is confident it is the right move, even though he does not swing a club himself.

"You have got to get yourself a niche, you have to be number one at something. We have got a local market for business studies and secretarial, a national market for agriculture, but it is a European market for greenkeeping. Greenkeeping and golf course management is a trade that is becoming a profession," he says.

Golf is one of the industries that continues to grow as income rises, and Scottish-trained greenkeepers are prized assets. Four of the five head greenkeepers at St Andrews trained at Elmwood. The golf course will also be a training ground for other students. Anyone studying trees, plants, gardening or commercial catering will find a ready-made facility at the course, close to the village of Springfield.

About eight hectares have been turned over to natural grass and scrub and planted with thousands of trees and wild flowers, native to the area. Buzzards, kestrels, foxes and roe deer are already moving in. Only wayward golf balls disturb their new habitat.

* The Elmwood course is open for limited play and will be fully open next April. It costs Pounds 15 a round for adults, Pounds 7 for under-18s.

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