An interview with Gullane Course Manager Stewart Duff ahead of the Scottish Open

Stewart Duff - Course Manager at Gullane

Stewart Duff - Course Manager at Gullane

I spoke to Stewart Duff, course manager at Gullane Golf Club ahead of next week’s Scottish Open. It was a great chat covering how he will be setting up the course next week, how he widens the fairways for the pros and what it takes to get the greens running to Tour standards. Thanks a lot to Stewart for the time. 

UKGG: When did you find out that the Scottish open was coming back to Gullane?

SD: They always announce who’s getting it next just before the tournament starts, so last year that was at Dundonald but we maybe knew six months in advance of that.

UKGG: I guess the Tour must have been happy with what they saw in 2015?

SD: It seems to work. It’s just a great location. It’s not like when the Open's at Muirfield and you don’t even know it’s there. You can see this as you drive in or drive out of the village and it feels like when the Open used to be here 20-odd years ago. The place used to be jumping, the shops were busy and there were no parking restrictions. It was just fantastic. So the European Tour sort of recreated that and the village feels included  in the competition.

UKGG: There was a concern in 2015 that the course may be just too close to the road - but that seemed to work out fine.

SD: There was a lot of concern and it’s always been the main criticism of the course. It’s maybe why the course ranks so lowly in the Golf World and Golf Monthly rankings as there are always a lot of comments about the road. But the European tour have screened it off so you’re not aware it being there and there’s dampening too so you don’t hear the traffic. It’s surpassed expectations for the European tour and ourselves.

The road behind the 18th at Gullane is screened off for the Scottish Open

The road behind the 18th at Gullane is screened off for the Scottish Open

When we were walking around trying to set up the course initially and trying to pick the right composite course for the event it was very much the view of the European Tour that it should start and finish in the village. They just know what they’re doing and they’ve got it right.

UKGG: How involved are the European Tour in how you set the course up for the week?

SD: They are constantly looking at the condition of the course. I remember the last time, in 2015, they were coming through in the winter months, and early spring. It was such a cold spring and we didn’t get growth until the first two weeks in June  Every time they’re were coming they were saying ‘this is great, this is great’ and then bang the growth came and they looked at the rough and said ‘Oh my God what’s happened to the rough’!

UKGG: How does it compare this year because it was a harsh winter?

SD: We wintered really really well, surprisingly given the harsh conditions. Spring was good and the only thing has been the dryness. It’s going to really benefit the fairways and the look of the course but it’s a constant battle to keep the glass cover.

It’s been very, very dry. Luckily we had about 30mm of rain on one day about two or three weeks ago and that has really helped, it was getting close to dust before that. We got the moisture levels back up and now it’s just started to edge back down again.

UKGG: Will you still be watering the fairways through the next week?

SD: We watered them on Sunday. I would love to say that was the last water on the fairways and I’m going to drought them right through to the tournament, but it just depends how sunny it gets, how hot it gets and how windy it gets.  We may have to top them up again but the whole idea is to get them dry, hard and fast.

UKGG: And how’s the rough looking?

SD: The rough is looking great. After that rain, a few pockets thickened up so I borrowed a big rake from Dunbar Golf Club. On the left of the first hole there was some lovely tall fescue which was looking great but then we got that rain and it started to thicken up. It was up to waist high and we needed to thin it as it could have been a horrible start for any player. We’ve been around the course and thinned it out a bit. The European Tour agronomist is here on Thursday and he may want some tweaks here or there. Everybody’s got a different view. You’ve done what you think needs done and then someone else comes in and says maybe do this or that.

While the fairways are wide at Gullane, the rough can still be punishing

While the fairways are wide at Gullane, the rough can still be punishing

UKGG: How does the course play when you’re setting it up for a tournament compared to a normal summer?

SD: An average player thinks it’s just a flick of a switch to get the greens going from 8.5 to 10.5/11 on the stimp but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not as easy as just dropping the height of the cut. We are just starting double cutting morning and then in the evening time. We started that yesterday, just about a week in advance. In 2015 we started it two weeks in advance as we had a big surge of growth. So it’s very much reacting to the weather conditions and then you start intensifying the things you’re doing.

In terms of tees, fairways and aprons we normally just cut them twice a week, but in tournament week we’re cutting them every day, so that’s not anything members are going to normally get. This is tournament preparation. Depending on conditions we might drop the height slightly but what you’re trying to do is take all the growth off the greens or just get minimal growth. The guidelines are to get them rolling at 10/10 ½.

What we like to do for the evening cut is take very, very little off. Then you know that you’ve got your timing just perfect. You need a good coverage of grass going into a competition. If you going into competition week and you’re cutting, cutting, cutting to get speed then your greens are going to get really weak. So it’s all about the preparation.

UKGG: Gullane is famous for its amazing greens all year round, does that put a lot of pressure on you?

SD: I think our greens are probably better in the winter time because there’s very little growth on them so they’re probably running faster, but not as smooth. Then in the summer you get the growth so they run smoother, but a bit slower and you’re constantly fighting to get the speed up on the greens.

UKGG: What did you think when you saw what happened at Shinnecock?

SD: No disrespect to the USGA, but I do think they get it wrong. I think they push them too much, too hard and it makes it farcical. But the R&A and The European Tour seem to have it right. They’re aware of the weather conditions on a links course, when the wind gets up even to 12 or 15 miles an hour it makes a huge difference

The R&A have learnt from Muirfield when they dried them out too much in 2013, they were stimping at 15 after a day’s play. As a greenkeeper you probably want them tricked up to protect the course but you don’t want to make a mockery of the players. At Birkdale last year they were rolling at 9 on the windy days

Golfers have to watch what they want and ask for. You’ve got committees saying they want them running at 10 every day but if you do that you’re putting pressure on the grasses so you need more fertiliser, fungicide and water - that’s not sustainable.  And secondly when the wind picks up it’s a problem.

Also every extra foot in pace puts extra time onto every round. Here at Gullane, ideally we have them at 9 every day but tournament play, providing it’s not too windy, will be 10/10.5.

The first will play straight up Gullane Hill to the narrow green, normally the second hole at Gullane 1

The first will play straight up Gullane Hill to the narrow green, normally the second hole at Gullane 1

UKGG: There’s a lot of talk about how far pros are hitting the ball. This year is on track to be the longest average driving distance ever on the PGA tour. Is that something you think about when you're setting the course up?

SD: We’ve got a template for each hole and where the pinch-point should be. Surprisingly, in 2015 the Tour wanted the landing areas widened because they’d seen the rough getting up. Average width is about 30 yards for these guys which isn’t too tight. Castle Stuart’s a lot wider and I think the golfers like that.

UKGG: It’s shaping up to be the strongest field in Europe this year. Why do you think that is?

SD: I think this is perfect for the pros the week before the Open. It’s not too dissimilar from Carnoustie, apart from the hill and the elevation, but playability wise it’s going to be quite similar. It’s a great build up and you don’t want to beat these guys up. It’s just nice prep work for them leading into the Open.

Switching to the links courses, no disrespect to the inland boys who have great courses, has been great. These guys aren't used to playing links courses. It was really smart thinking by the European Tour.

UKGG: There’s a bit of a question as to how many different courses can host the event, as even though Scotland has a lot of links courses, you need a lot of space and the courses need to be long enough.

SD: I think it’s a bit of a challenge for the Tour. I’d love to see maybe 5 courses on a rota so they get it once every 5 years. I'm not sure if the clubs or the Tour would want that but it would be fantastic. Having it every year at one place is tough on a course, the membership and the staff.

UKGG: How many people will you have working on the course next week?

SD: We’ve got 25 full time and we bring in 10 or 11 guys. This year we have gone far and wide. We’ve got guys in from the States, from France, from Australia. I thought it would be good to have an international feel to it. I always send someone up to Kingsbarns every year. We sent people to Castle Stuart and it’s great experience for them.

UKGG: If you could choose the weather now for the week what would you ask for?

SD: I’d have the same as we had in 2013 at Muirfield. The course was white, burnt-out looking, a proper links course. Probably the best ever presented links course I’ve seen. So that’s what I’m after, the burnt-out look.

UKGG: And do you think you’ll get it? There’s still a bit of green out there!

SD: Well, as I say, if I don’t water the fairways that’ll help, but it’s all timing. I’ve got the Ladies' event to think of as well though. It’s very much like a game of snooker. You’re always thinking about your next shot all the time. I’m thinking ahead to the next tournament and opening it up to the members.

Then we’re into August and September which is a busy invitational time for the golf course. So that’s in the back of my mind. Nature has a way of balancing things out though. We’ve had a drought for two months, sure as dammit we’ll get two months of rain, that’s the way it works.

UKGG: Is there anyone particularly when you look at the field you think will do well?

SD: Who can pick? It’s so difficult. Rose seems to play well here, he did last time. Stenson did well at Troon. It’s just great seeing these guys. I’m dying to see Reed - it’s going to be great seeing him.

UKGG: It must be fantastic seeing these players playing your course?

SD: It’s a fact that everybody underestimates their own course. We’ve had loads of amateur events, qualifying events and no-one's ripped it apart. I remember on the first day in the commentary in 2015 them saying they were going to rip it apart, but they didn’t.

All you need is 15mph winds, we average 12mph in Gullane, and that offers the protection as well as the rough and the bunkering. The wind really gets in the players’ heads. Another great defence is our greens. These guys are used to big undulating greens but ours have very subtle borrows and I think the last time they found it hard to see those borrows and that seemed to help the course as well.

The 18th hole is again lengthened with a new tee cut into the hill

The 18th hole is again lengthened with a new tee cut into the hill

The Scottish Open is played at Gullane Golf Club from July 12th - July 15th and the Ladies Scottish Open from July 26th - 29th.