SAGE 2023: Career
change has put Nik
in a happy place

Seldom can Learners’ breeze through the two-year Level 3 Advanced Golf Greenkeeper programme. The course is designed to challenge the practical and theoretical skills of apprentices taking it.


When a greenkeeper already well versed in the discipline of study is thankful to have passed, you know this is a qualification well worth attaining.


The fact that Nik Wadsworth was the first in the country to gain the honour gave him double cause for celebration and an early Christmas present when he heard that news last December.


"I was delighted to be the first to pass the revised Level 3," he enthuses. "The course was extremely hard work and I believe that I passed the exam because I really worked for it. What it did do was to make me think about what I was doing."


Nik is no new recruit to academia. A degree in geography and a career as a business analyst (his last post as senior BA for the Co-op) tooled him up for resuming his education; this time in greenkeeping.


Now 53, Nik says it's a career change he will never regret. "Six years ago, I decided I'd had enough of my line of work so took a postgraduate teacher training qualification but then grew bored and restless after I completed it," Nik recalls, "until a friend at Lymm Golf Club asked if I wanted to try a couple of weeks greenkeeping there. I loved it, stayed, and never looked back."


Nik knew he wanted to progress with greenkeeping, and he was soon on his way up, not only gaining Level 2 but passing with a distinction. "Then it was straight into Level 3 under my tutor at Myerscough, Chris Garland-Kelly."


His everyday work at Lymm had been noted too and he was nominated for Toro's Greenkeeper of the Year 2021 and again in 2022. "Greenkeepers are wonderful," he reflects. "They can turn their hands to anything and are builders, mechanics and engineers, as well as to anything turf related."


And Nik did turn - to nearby Dunham Forest Golf & Country Club, billed as one of Cheshire's top 10 sites, after completing his Level 3 work, starting out there as first assistant in a seven-strong greens team, under Superintendent, Tim Johnson.


"I would love to have stayed on at Lymm, but the first assistant's position was not available at that time and here was an opportunity to move up," he says.


Dunham Forest's 18-hole parkland/heathland course and it's beautiful setting attract some well-known names. "Manchester United's Class of 92 plays here and we have the occasional helicopter drop a member off for a round," says Nik.


While at Lymm, lockdown had proved the perfect opportunity for Nik to complete a project Lantra later assessed, he remembers. "Over one winter we planned work and financials for repairing fencing, rebuilding a public footpath that cuts across the course and creating a new track," he explains.


Course module content is already proving its relevance to Dunham Forest's maintenance strategy. "One of them covered transforming courses by applying sustainable practices. We're using less chemicals and fertilisers here, creating rough to encourage wildlife and moving to cleaner, more efficient machinery as well as more natural ways of caring for the course.


"Our new Toro triple mower is electric, adding to battery-powered counterparts already in the fleet. We're getting there - strimmers and blowers are all electric."

Technology advances but says Nik, "it has the potential to reduce the number of humans working in greenkeeping. You see plenty of robotic mowers about now, but robots carry many issues that will affect human activity.


"We're driven by developments in the US and Middle East, but we will always need people. Will we ever have something that rakes bunkers properly?


"I'm a great believer in IT and worked in it for some years. Such technology can be applied to make life easier and cheaper, not just for the sake of IT's sake. We want technology that's relevant."


Before that might impact the sector, he's honing his skills mentoring members of Dunham Forest's team. "One of the lads has just started Level 2 and another has changed careers, like I did. I've volunteered to mentor them as I feel I have the appropriate experience. The in-house mechanic at Lymm GC is also planning to take the course."


For someone used to studying, Nik's decision to take apprenticeships was a logical one. "I'm an academic and wished to educate myself in greenkeeping. Level 5 is next but after four straight years of learning, I'm taking a little time out."


One thing's certain for Nik though. "I'll never go back to work in an office environment again. I can see myself staying at Dunham Forest for some time, although I'll still be visiting Lymm as I'm a member there.


"It has such a variety of wildlife - three pairs of buzzards nest there, along with tawny owls, and peregrine falcons have the Thelwall Viaduct, which carries the M6 over the Manchester Ship Canal, as their home.


"Sited alongside the canal, the course is popular with herons and seabirds such as cormorants, shags and oyster catchers."


A visit to Lymm gives Nik an opportunity to link up with former deputy head greenkeeper Dave Whitby - "somebody who inspired me to progress, as did Andrew Riley, Rick Sinker and Master Greenkeeper, Stuart Yarwood."


Dunham Forest isn't badly off for wildlife either, with resident buzzards, a fox that runs off with golf balls, squirrels and hordes of rabbits ("they damage the bunker surrounds"). "We are custodians of a huge variety of fauna and flora with a responsibility to maintain diversity in a sustainable environment."


The National Trust's Dunham Massey stately pile sits across the road and the club's site is partly owned by the NT, so course management can require a tender touch. "Some of our beech and sweet chestnut specimens are hundreds of years old," Nik explains, "and we are not allowed to do any tree work on them without consulting the Trust for their advice."


"Work schedules can be challenging", he says, "with one weekend in three on duty - four hours each on Saturday and Sunday - you can be doing 12 days straight.


"I start at six and jobs are allocated for the morning, cutting the greens, fairways or approaches for example, and we rake bunkers at the start of every day. Then there's housekeeping such as trimming and strimming. Mowing is a morning job - 6-11 usually."


Like some other prestige courses, large houses skirt the course, reason enough for the greens team to adapt their morning schedules but technology has intervened.


"One of the greens we left until 7am before cutting so that diesel or petrol mowers did not disturb residents. Now we have electric machines, we can cut anytime. It's a massive help at weekends as we can start as early as we like."


Still on his timeline of learning, does Nik worry that age may catch up with him before fulfilling his mission to rise to deputy course manager level. "I want to continually learn and improve and like to ask why we do what we do and what are the benefits of changing things. As I was in business, I need to understand everything inside and out."


Being outdoors doing a variety of work keeps him fit and healthy, he says. "I've always been sporty and greenkeeping helps." Nik's Garmin tells him he had taken 7,576 steps that day, equivalent to 3.9 miles. "An average day is 20,000 steps but I'd been mowing all morning and only walked in the afternoon."

As the senior member age-wise, Nik assume a paternal role sometimes. "I'm the eldest of the team, the youngest is 21 and most are in their 30s. We all get on at Dunham Forest and we have a really good team environment. They use me wisely for course work. I'm the father figure but I don't want them to treat me any differently from others in the team.


Speaking of team dynamics, Nik sees parallels with business and greenkeeping. "Teams form, perform, storm then reform," he concludes. "That's the natural cycle of any business and why managers should help the team evolve, for themselves and for others in it."


With apprentices already taken under his wing, he has sound advice for those wishing to enter the sector. "This is a great way to transfer desire to do something into a practical career, but I've seen too many enter an apprenticeship, only to discover that they don't like it. Try greenkeeping first before you dive in."


Now "happily learning and growing", Nik sees a post as deputy course manager "at a course somewhere" as his preferred next step.


"I'd like more responsibility but maybe not as the head of the team. Being the Head Man at a course is a tough environment to be in control of. Money doesn't drive me but to have a happy life in a happy place does."


Nik is seeking further qualifications before he can feel "fully qualified" in his present post, he says. Already armed with his PA1 and PA6, he plans to complete PA2 later this year, along with small or large felling.


Does starting so early in the day adversely affect his balance of living? "Yes and no. Yes, the work allows you to finish early but my alarm goes off at 4.50am. You gain something but lose something too. I don't see the family much after 8pm. I was a night owl in my past life. Greenkeeping brought a massive change.


"Taking up a deputy course manager post would mean more liaison with the course manager out of hours, but it is important to me that I am able to maintain my work life balance."


"Watching my younger son Samuel play rugby for Lymm and Newcastle University and my eldest son Jack run for Warrington Athletics Club are extremely important to me.


My job in three words: Engaging, rewarding and variety.