Muirfield Open Championship grounds team ready for big day

Colin Irvine has a seat in the stands. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Colin Irvine has a seat in the stands. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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STANDING on top of the grandstand on the 13th green, Colin Irvine looks out as the sun beats down.

The 200-acre Muirfield golf course stretches out in all directions, with the Firth of Forth shimmering spectacularly to the right.

Below is agronomist Richard Windows – an expert in grass, plants and soils. A variety of scientific gadgets laid out next to him, he is currently measuring the moisture levels in the ground.

All around the prestigious golf course, in Gullane, there are signs of activity. Four-wheel electric gators zoom about carrying staff in high-vis waistcoats, the sound of grass cutting fills the air and in the distance a water jet sprays upwards.

But whilst the temperature may be rising on the course, Colin, who is Muirfield’s course manager, is remaining cool, calm and collected ahead of next week’s Open.

Colin, who is himself from Gullane, says: “This weather is perfect. The heat isn’t as much of a problem as the rain.

“It was harder in 2002 when the weather was more a problem. Then, there was a lot of rain.

“So at the moment we’re tidying things up, green cutting. There’s a lot of science at work and we’re testing the smoothness of the greens and keeping an eye on the moisture levels of the ground.

“The greens and tees have been watered once in the past fortnight and the fairways haven’t been watered at all. We cool the grass down but we don’t water it.

“The greens are being rolled once a day, although this will go up once the championship is under way.

“We’ll also be double cutting it each day – once in the morning and once in the evening from Sunday.”

Colin, 48, has been Muirfield’s course manager for 19 years.

Now considered to be one of the best greenkeepers in the world, his training includes a City and Guilds course in greenkeeping and four years studying turf management at the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI).

Working as a caddy when he was just 16 years old, Colin was asked by the head greenkeeper to become part of his team in 1981. By 1988, Colin was Muirfield’s assistant course 

Following a two-year stint at a course in Düsseldorf, Germany, Colin returned to Muirfield in 1994, this time as course manager.

Throughout the year the former North Berwick High pupil leads a team of 12, which has risen to 36 in preparation for The Open.

Enlisted to help are representatives from other Open courses, including Carnoustie, St Andrews, Turnberry and Troon, as well as three golf students on scholarships with the championship’s organisers, The Royal & Ancient.

There is also a group of four from Colin’s former place of study, and the sports research organisation, the STRI.

It isn’t just the course that this team of experts look after – they also consult ecologists to help manage the rough areas and work and protect the wildlife and plants.

The STRI team will be performing their tests twice a day – once in the morning before play and once in the evening when play has finished.

It means long hours for the team. But it doesn’t seem to be a problem – for them it is an exciting opportunity to see some of the world’s best golfers. And the golfing giants are already appearing. World no.2 Rory McIlroy was spotted practising at Muirfield on Tuesday.

Beyond the pristine greens and 18 holes of Muirfield, a tented village has appeared. Some, such as the recently erected Bollinger tent, will receive championship visitors. But behind the scenes, rows of portacabins and huts are home to those working at The Open.

Amongst those a dedicated team is working on the giant screens which will help transmit the golfing action around the course.

And large on-site catering cabins feed the hard-working staff.

This year’s Open will be the first time Muirfield’s new layout is played in competition. Renowned course architect Dr Martin Hawtree carried out a review in 2011 to make sure Muirfield remained a suitable challenge for the world’s best golfers.

Some of the changes include adding new bunkers to selected areas and relocating some greenside bunkers to tighten the entrances to certain greens. Some greens have been extended to provide more championship pin positions.

The new layout also introduces six new championship tees to extend the course to a total of 7245 yards.

One of the team preparing the revamped course is trainee greenkeeper Murray Lorimer, 18, who is hard at work with a mower next to the 14th tee.

The former Knox Academy pupil says: “At the moment we’re fly mowing and getting things tidy, but we’ll be really busy when the championship starts. We’ll probably be working from around four in the morning until nine to get things ready for that day’s play. Then we’ll be back again from around five until ten at night.

“There’s a lot of attention to detail. I wasn’t an early bird before but I am now, and it’s such an amazing opportunity to work at Muirfield during the championship and to see some of the world’s best players.”

Modern technology is also helping the greenkeeping team to keep the course watered with a computer 

Standing in his office with a complex grid behind glass, Colin explains: “The last time Muirfield had The Open Championship in 2002 we had to hand water the entire course. It was a lot of work, so in 2010 we got a new computer system.

“It means that following measurements taken by the STRI team, I can programme in where to water because not all holes are the same and some are drier than others.

“The computer system works the 800 sprinklers throughout the course, so then throughout the night the course is watered.”

Over in the workshop, all different sizes of machines are lined up ready and waiting to spring into action.

Muirfield has two large fairway cutting machines, which Colin explains cost around £40,000 each.

Engineer Steven Satchwell, from Haddington, is the man tasked with keeping everything in working order.

Steven, who has been working at Muirfield since 2009, says: “I’ll be checking over the machines before they go out and when they come back in. The blades will need to be lowered or raised depending on what height the grass needs to be cut to.”

He adds: “There’s a lot of work to get the course championship ready.”

• The Open Championship runs from July 14-21, with the first round taking place a week today.