WHEN Colin Irvine cut his first green at Muirfield at the age of 16, it was effectively a make-or-break interview. He obviously did a decent job as, just over 30 years later, he is the man responsible for the East Lothian course being in tip-top condition in the eyes of the golfing world this week.
Having worked his way up from trainee, albeit with a short spell in Germany along the way, to course manager at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Irvine will be in charge of a 32-strong platoon of greenkeepers working from dawn until dusk between now and the final putt dropping on Sunday night.
Preparing a course for the Open Championship is the pinnacle of any British greenkeeper’s career, but very few get that opportunity in the village where they’ve lived virtually all their life. “I was born in Haddington, but by mum and dad lived in Gullane, so I was born and bred close to the course,” said, Irvine, 48, who got into the profession without requiring any of the modern-day qualifications.
“I started here when I was 16 and that was through caddying in the summer holidays,” he added. “The head greenkeeper at the time, David Kirkcaldy, asked me if I wanted a summer job. My trial was cutting a green. It was the eighth green with an old Ransomes cutter and it was as dry as a bone. One of the old greenkeepers took me out and said ‘let’s see if you can cut it’. I suppose that was my interview and I must have done okay as I got the job.
“Then, at the end of the summer, David asked me if I wanted to stay on as a greenkeeper. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do anyway, so I went for it. That was in 1981. After the 1987 Open, Davie retired and Chris Whittle came down from St Andrews Links and he promoted me to second in charge, a position I held for around four years.
“After the 1992 Open, I went to Germany to be the head greenkeeper at a club in Dusseldorf. I thought Chris was going to be here for a while and back then you didn’t see number twos being promoted as much as seems to happen these days. After being there for two years, Chris left to go to Birkdale in 1994 and I returned, so in October I’ll have been in charge here for 19 years.
“Coming from Gullane originally and having attended Opens as a young boy with my dad really adds to the thrill of preparing a course for the Open Championship and I’m looking forward to it again. I think the first one in charge (2002 for him) is the most stressful and it becomes a bit easier after that – I hope so anyway.
“I wouldn’t say I have sleepless nights in the build-up to the event, but you do often wake up early in the morning thinking about things that need to be done. I won’t get much sleep at all during the week of the event itself. We’ll be looking to be heading out of the sheds at 4am to get the course prepared.”
Backing up the 12-strong greenkeeping team at Muirfield are some of their colleagues from the other courses on the Open Championship rota, as well as neighbouring venues, and three R&A scholars. Extra equipment worth about £300,000 has also been loaned out by John Deere to cope with the additional cutting demands that come with hosting a major championship.
“While the greenkeeping industry has changed big time over the years, the principles are still the same,” said Irvine. “Everything is mown much more evenly these days and it also costs a lot more money. It costs £30,000-odd for a fairway mower and around £6,000 for a handmower for the greens. But, when you get the right product, it helps you do the best job possible.
“I’d say I’m old school. We do a lot of traditional things here and I try and pass that on to the young lads. You can only reinvent the wheel so many times and I’m a great believer that you work with nature. You can’t change it and, if the weather is against you, then you need to do the best job you can in those circumstances. I try to steer away from fungicides and keep the course as natural as possible from an environmental point of view.”
He described what awaits the world’s top players as a “proper links” and, though still quite green and thick less than a fortnight ago, the recent hot and dry weather has changed the look of the rough considerably. “It’s now a lot browner and matches the rest of the course better,” he said.
“We had quite a covering of snow here in January, about 11-12 days. That can always create a problem when it comes off, but we just let that run its course. It was a funny spring here on the east coast. Nothing really started growing until May. But there’s no point throwing fertiliser on to get the grass to grow. It was a case of letting the soil temperature rise. The course was probably behind where we’d have expected it to be at the beginning of June, but it has caught up now and it generally peaks in July.”
While the rough was particularly punishing when Tom Watson won the Senior Open Championship there five years ago, Irvine insisted only those who are very wayward will have cause to grumble on this occasion. “If you stray too far off line, then there is no doubt it becomes tougher,” he said. “But anyone who just rolls in should still have a shot.
“You still like to see these guys challenged. I’m a member at Gullane and I certainly get challenged there. The pins are the R&A’s department during Open week and they can make them as tough or as easy as they want.”
Talking of tough, the monsoon conditions on the Saturday in 2002 was the worst day many of the players in the field have encountered on a golf course. “It was a worry for us that day,” admitted Irvine. “We knew what was going to hit and, believe it or not, we probably missed the worst of it.”