Last August, the PGA of Australia announced that Yallourn Golf Club will play host to the inaugural Gippsland Super 6 tournament. The tournament will tee off this week (7 November) and over the past 12 months the club and superintendent Mark Burton have undertaken a number of projects to get the course tournament-ready.
Superintendent: Mark Burton (41).
Where in Australia is Yallourn Golf Club? Yallourn Golf Club is located in the township of Newborough in the Gippsland region of Victoria, about 60 minutes’ drive from Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. Gippsland is well-known for the coal-fired power stations within it that produce much of the state’s electricity.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be a superintendent. I was always interested in all sports and would have a go at any sport. I loved watching sport on television and I always wondered how golf courses were manicured to look so good. An opportunity came up for an apprenticeship at Heyfield Golf Club in central Gippsland and I was successful in applying for the role.
Who were some of your early mentors? My earliest mentor (and still is) is John Scott from the Maffra Golf Club. He is only too happy to take a phone call or have me drop in and see him to ask questions, get new ideas or run ideas past. There is not too much in this industry he doesn’t know, although he will tell you otherwise. To add to this, he is one of the best blokes I’ve ever met. His earliest advice was to ‘back yourself in what you’re doing, because it’s your neck on the line’.
Talk us through your career path and how you came to be at Yallourn? I started my apprenticeship at Heyfield Golf Club in 1994 and remained there until 1996. Halfway through the third year of my apprenticeship my boss was retrenched, making me the only curator there. When I completed my apprenticeship I moved to Patterson River Country Club and was there for two years before returning to Gippsland in 2000 to work at the Traralgon Golf Club. In 2002, I left the industry for seven years, before returning in 2009 to work at the Wellington Shire Council, based in Sale, maintaining the council’s many sporting reserves. In 2012, the job at Yallourn Golf Club was advertised in the local newspapers and I applied and was successful.
What do you like most about being the superintendent at Yallourn GC? I like the fact that there is something different each and every day. You need to be hands on with every job, whether it is mowing, watering, machinery or irrigation repairs. The club has been very accepting of myself and the kids and is a very friendly golf that has taken me in with open arms. We have become part of the Yallourn family.
Give us an overview of Yallourn GC and some of its unique characteristics. Yallourn is a very undulating course lined with beautiful gum tress and overlooks nearby Lake Narracan. It will be great to host the Gippsland Super Six tournament later this year as you can see the final three holes all from the clubhouse.
What changes have you implemented in terms of managing the course during your tenure as superintendent? Making significant change has been difficult due to the tight financial situation at the club. Some of the smaller changes we have made include mowing greens more regularly, including on the morning of our competition days (Wednesday and Saturday). Before I arrived at Yallourn the greens hadn’t been renovated for 4-5 years and this was evident by looking at them. I now ensure we renovate twice yearly, in autumn and spring.
What other maintenance changes do you want to introduce/plan on introducing? I would like to see regular fertilising of fairways and tees as they do struggle throughout the year without fertilisation. I would also like to see our fairways and surrounds mowed more regularly, not just when they look like they need mowing.
Any special environmental considerations you have to incorporate into the management of the course? There is a waterway that runs through our course that we have to consider when using chemicals, so as not to harm the wildlife within the waterway.
What are some of the major challenges facing Yallourn GC both from a turf and club management perspective? Our major challenge is money. We operate on an extremely tight budget and when we can save a dollar we do. We rely heavily on members to volunteer their time to work on the course, in the clubhouse and during major events. We do 99 per cent of our own repairs on machinery, only calling in a mechanic when things are too difficult for myself and the volunteers. This challenge is not unique to us and there are a large number of golf clubs nearby all competing for members.
Outline any major course improvement works recently completed or coming up. In 2018, the club was successful in gaining funding (nearly $250,000) from the Latrobe Valley Authority (LVA) to undertake several major upgrades to the course and clubhouse. Three-quarters of this amount was from the LVA, with the other quarter coming from our own members due to the 1:4 funding requirement. Work we have undertaken so far includes;
The installation of an automatic irrigation system for all 20 greens, saving much time and money;
This year will see work start to prepare for three new holes at Yallourn due the new Monash Views housing development taking place adjacent to the course. This will result in a land swap between the club and the developers, which will see us lose three-and-a-half holes while receiving three brand new holes. We will say goodbye to the current 2nd, 3rd and 4th holes, as well as half of the 5th which will become a par three. These works will happen over the next couple of years, with Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead doing the design work. This is an exciting development for the club that has been many years in the making.
Speaking of exciting, the PGA of Australia announced last August that Yallourn will be hosting a new Tour event – the Gippsland Super 6 tournament – this coming November. How did this come about?
The Yallourn committee presented a proposal to the LVA to conduct a major professional golf event to benefit the local community. Following this proposal, the LVA approached the PGA who then prepared a formal application in conjunction with the club for Victorian Government funding from the LVA Major Events Fund.
As a result the Gippsland Super 6 professional tournament will be held during Melbourne Cup week in November 2019 with a professional prize pool of $125,000. A range of community-based events will also be conducted by the PGA in the Gippsland region during the week to increase the involvement of all sectors of the community in golf in the area.
In addition to the tournament funding, the YGC also received a grant of $195,000 from the LVA to upgrade club infrastructure and this work will be completed by the end of January 2019.
Must be an exciting feeling knowing you will be hosting a major PGA Tour of Australasia event. What has been the reaction by members? The club is very excited to be hosting a significant event on the Australian golfing calendar and everyone is looking forward to November.
In addition to the four day major competition (which comprises three days of stroke play and match play qualifying ahead of a top 24 six-hole shootout), there will also be a range of activities throughout the week including a junior Pro-Am, masterclass sessions and qualifying competitions for local amateurs to take part in the tournament proper.
What works will be/are being undertaken to the course to accommodate the tournament? We have just constructed and sodded a new tee on the 17th which will be used for the playoff holes during the match play events of the tournament. We are waiting to hear from the PGA to let us know what other major works we will need to complete in order to make the event a success.
What do you think will be the most challenging aspect getting the course up for the tournament? The additional time requirements and resources required to host this event will be challenging. We are looking at borrowing extra machinery in the lead-up, such as green-mower and a roller, but I am looking forward to the challenge. Extra mowing and rolling will be the main additional work we will undertake before the tournament.
Have you had any major tournament experience before? Not at this level, but every other tournament we have we treat as a major tournament, so our expectations for the course will remain the same – maybe a touch higher! We will be seeking assistance for the event. We have had a couple of offers from current and past superintendents from other courses saying that they are willing to help out in the week leading up to the event.
Ultimately, what do you hope to produce for the event? The Yallourn Golf Club at its ultimate best it can ever look. I want the professionals to walk away thinking ‘Wow, what a great course for a club that only has one superintendent and a team of volunteers’.
Water is obviously a critical issue for any golf course. How is Yallourn GC faring in the water management stakes? We are lucky at Yallourn to have such a large storage dam in the centre of our course. The drainage from the residential area above us directs stormwater into our dam for use on the golf course. Any rain comes straight into the dam to top it up. We have Santa Ana fairways which require very little water once established, which helps us out in the water department.
The one product I couldn’t manage my course without is... Ultrawett wetting agent because we really suffer from dry-patch in the summer. Primo Maxx is pretty good too.
What are some pros and cons of being a regional-based superintendent? Some of the drawbacks include not being able to attend information days and seminars as we are so far away from the city. Also, being the only full time employee makes things challenging too. Waiting anywhere from 5-14 days for products to arrive once ordered can be problematic. Many of the problems discussed in turf magazines is related to inner-city clubs with money and not always relatable to regional and country-based clubs.
On the flip side, the majority of members and visitors are always friendly on the course and the club has a real family vibe which makes it a great place to work at. Going down the street you always bump into someone from the club to stop and have a chat with.
Are expectations of course presentation and conditioning any less than that placed on your metropolitan counterparts?
I don’t think the expectations are less, they are probably the same. I think country golfers are more accepting if things don’t get done due to financial constraints. In saying this, we still strive to present the course as best as we can at all times.
Do you have to be more resourceful as a regional-based superintendent? Absolutely! We hang onto old machinery that we think we might need. If we throw things out, we will take all of the nuts and bolts off them and store them, just in case they come in handy at a later date. We never throw anything out unless it is absolutely wrecked, because we ‘might need that one day!’
Do you use volunteers to assist with the management of the course? We have a group of 3-4 volunteers that work four days a week for about four hours each day. On a Friday we get anywhere between 5-7 volunteers in to assist with preparations for our weekend competition. Our four-day-a-week volunteers assist with mowing, spraying bunkers, raking bunkers, just about everything except spraying of greens and fairways. On Friday, our volunteers help to present the course for the competition on Saturday with their jobs varying from changing holes, raking bunkers, mowing fairways, tees and surrounds and just about any other job they are asked to undertake. Every so often we have working bees on a Sunday where members will assist to tidy up the course before major events.
If you could change one thing about your job as a regional superintendent what would it be and why? I love my job at Yallourn, but if I could change something about the role I would like to have an apprentice to mentor at the club and who can also assist with the day-to-day maintenance of the course.
How important are the relationships you have with other course supers/trade reps? Extremely important. We recently attended a chemical seminar at another local golf club and it was surprising how many of us didn’t actually know each other. I’ve made some good contacts with other local supers who are in similar situations. What you can pick up from others and what they get from you is priceless. We have a very small number of trade reps that call in to see us, but it’s great to be able to ask them for any information and take them out onto the course to show them any problems we might have.
What are some of the more unusual requests/things you have had to do as a superintendent of a regional course? On some of our big tournament days it’s all hands on deck and on a number of occasions I’ve found myself driving the drinks cart to provide refreshments for the golfers.
What have you got in your shed? Jacobsen Greens King 4, Kubota roughcutter, Toro 5510 fairway mower (which is used for tees and surrounds also), Toro Sand Pro bunker rake and Kubota front end loader. My favourite piece of machinery is the Jacobsen greens mower as mowing the greens is my favourite job on the course. Our next major purchase is a brand new Jacobsen Greens King 4 Plus which is currently on the way. It should arrive late January 2019.
Do you think regional/country superintendents have a better work-life balance than their metro counterparts? No, because we might have to be on the course at any time, which might include in the middle of the night or on the weekend, to fix something or repair a leak because we haven’t got a 2IC to assist with such tasks.
Favourite spot on your course? Standing on the 15th tee looking up the hole towards the green. It is our best looking hole.
Best advice you have received. ‘If the members are complaining about the fairways, you’re greens are good. If they’re complaining about the tees – you’re fairways and greens are good; and if they’re complaining about the rough – the course is great’. John Scott from Maffra gave me this pearler!
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of a superintendent’s role today? The most challenging aspect of my role as a superintendent is the time constraint. There is always something extra that the committee would like you to do but we only have so many hours in the week to do it.
What gives you the most job satisfaction? On a Friday when you’ve come home after giving everything you possibly can to present the course the best it can be that week. Also, the occasional compliment from our members.
Most pleasing/rewarding moment during your time as Yallourn GC superintendent? Hearing that we are going to host the PGA Super Sixes tournament in 2019 is pretty rewarding. It is a good feeling knowing that my work as a super has been recognised and that the PGA feels that our course is ready to host an event of this magnitude.
The ASTMA wishes best of luck to Mark Burton and the team at Yallourn for the upcoming Gippsland Super 6 Tournament.
This article was originally published in Volume 21.1 (January-February 2019) of the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal.