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Steve Chappell (Centre)
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Europe

People of The Ryder Cup: The Greenskeeper

Whether it’s making sure there isn’t a grain of sand out of place in a bunker or rolling greens in the early hours of the morning, greenskeepers are a key part of any Ryder Cup week. 

Battling the elements, arriving at the course in darkness and periods of chaos between rounds all come as part of the job during the biennial matchup.

We spoke to Steve Chappell, who worked on The 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor and was Head Greenskeeper of the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles during the 2014 Ryder Cup, to find out more about the greenskeeper’s role.

Chappell, who is now Superintendent at Royal Bled Golf Club in Slovenia, discusses when the process starts and just how much pressure sits on a greenskeeper’s shoulders during the week. 

What are your first memories of The Ryder Cup? 

“To be honest, it wasn't something I watched a lot of. My first real recollection of a Ryder Cup was watching Europe with my father on the television. 

“The first thing I truly remember is Christy O'Connor Jnr’s shot into 18 at The Belfry. The two-iron he hit in there, I remember that like it was yesterday. That Ryder Cup was pretty much the first Ryder Cup I really paid attention to. 

“The first Ryder Cup that I really got immersed in was the ‘War on the Shore’ in 1991 at Kiawah Island. I was working in greenskeeping by this point and the whole event just drew me in, the golf course, the atmosphere, the tension, the controversy and the absolute desolation when Langer missed that final putt against Hale Irwin. 

“It still ranks for me as one of my top three Ryder Cups along with Medinah 2012 and of course Gleneagles 2014.”

Your first Ryder Cup experience as a greenskeeper came at The 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. How did that opportunity come about and when does the process start in making changes to the course and hiring more greenskeepers? 

“It was in April 2009. Jim McKenzie, Director of Estates and Golf Courses at Celtic Manor, Jane Jones, who was the Regional Administrator for the British and International Golf Greenskeepers’ Association at the time, and I all met at Celtic Manor. I was invited for a chat about organising the volunteers.

“I've got to know Jim very well and consider him a close friend now. He taught me a lot about management as much as anything during that 18 months.”

Four years later you were head of the Centenary Course at Gleneagles. Just what goes into getting the course ready a year from the event? 

“We were lucky that we annually hosted a European Tour event on the PGA Centenary. We knew roughly where we were going to be with the setup of the course on a yearly basis. Obviously, the standard that we set is that it is set up for tournament play every day. It's Gleneagles after all, so there's an expectation from the people who come and play. 

“We started working on that in the spring of 2014. We did some work in the autumn of 2013, but really the big work was the spring. We were changing the cut lines and starting to get everything established as we went. 

“My crew on the Centenary Course was 26 for the season of 2014. At the start of September, the golf course closed, so we had 26 days leading into the start of the event week itself. We took on an additional four members of staff, so we went to 30. 

“Then for the week before the event, we had an additional 12 to 15 staff. The actual week of the event we went up to about 80 greenskeepers. We brought in 40 volunteers and we took the majority of the staff from the King's and Queen's courses, because they were shut down. In fact, the first of the Kings became the driving range.”

When the week arrives, what does your schedule look like on the day, between matches and overnight?

“It was pretty straight forward, in many respects, at Gleneagles. I lived on-site, so I would get up to the maintenance facility around 03:30 or 03:45. It was really nice, because where I lived was next to our maintenance facility for the PGA. We relocated everything to the central compound, so it was more central to the golf course environment. 

“Every morning I'd drive up and turn all the power lights on over the 18th and the putting greens. The guys would start arriving ready for a 04:30 briefing. We'd have a chat with the guys in the marquee and then the teams would head out onto the golf course at around 04:40. 

“For me, it was a question of being out there behind them, liaising with the team leaders, making sure that everything was how it was supposed to be. We were making sure we were on the right timeline and achieving the target pace, firmness readings and moisture readings that we wanted from the greens. 

“Once that set up was done it was a question of listening to the radio and waiting until we were ready to go out for the mid-round set up. That was a much more condensed crew, because we were just doing things like changing pin positions, cutting greens, rolling if we needed to and touching up bunkers. After that it was a waiting game. 

“The Ryder Cup, in my experience, is an event where you have periods of chaos from a maintenance point of view, but there are also times when everyone is just sat there twiddling their thumbs if the weather is decent. 

“You’ve got another small period of intense work in between the rounds and then in the evening you're straight back out again. There's a lot of sitting about waiting, which for me was the hardest part of it.

“It was very different to Celtic Manor in 2010. Yes, there was a lot of sitting around waiting, but for all the wrong reasons. We were just waiting for it to stop raining before we could go and try to mop up.”

What would you say makes a great Ryder Cup Course and how do you think Le Golf National will set up this year?

“I'm sure it'll be absolutely fantastic at Le Golf National. You need a good mix. From the spectators’ point of view, you've got a lot of fans watching very few matches, so you want to have good access and good visibility.

“For example, I don't think the Old Course at St Andrews would be a good golf course to take the Ryder Cup to, because you can't see anything. 

“The stadium environment that they've created at Le Golf National and that we had at Gleneagles is really well suited to a Ryder Cup. Obviously, it would be lovely to see The Ryder Cup played in sunshine. We were fortunate enough to experience it at Gleneagles.

“I don’t think you need the golf course to be overly tough. At the end of the day, it's a matchplay event and you're dealing with the best 24 golfers in the USA and Europe. You want it set up so people can attack it. You don't want it too easy in some respects, though.”

Finally, what are your most memorable experiences of being part of The Ryder Cup?

“There was an amazing sense of satisfaction coming away from Celtic Manor. Walking into the closing ceremony was awesome, I have to say. 

“We got to sit right near the front of the stage. That was quite emotional, actually. There were a lot of guys who were in tears almost. That was a cool feeling. 

“I really enjoyed when we finished in 2014. Myself, my wife and my best friend walked down from the main facility and stood behind the 18th green with the rest of the team, waiting for the final matches to come in. 

“Europe had retained The Ryder Cup, which was fantastic. It was really nice to be with the guys and just savour that experience, while we waited for the Zach Johnson vs Victor Dubuisson match to finish. 

“It was a great feeling of satisfaction and it was nice to be with the guys and the team that had helped create it.”  

Stay tuned for more inside access pieces on RyderCup.com over the next few weeks.