Years of planning, learning, hard work and determination pay off.

Posted on October 30, 2013 at 11:15 AM

The story of Sharpley Golf Course in County Durham is the stuff of dreams. It is about the vision, enthusiasm, energy and drive of two people, Simon and Carole Weightman.

Originally arable and dairy farmers they weathered the storms of the low milk prices, the threat of foot and mouth disease and appalling weather until the harsh winter of 1978 when the roads were impassable. The milk lorries couldn't come and collect the milk and the Weightman’s just had to pour it away. Their dairyman who had been with the family for 28 years was retiring so it seemed the right time to make a big change.

Imagination and diversification

The Weightman’s journey through diversification led them to convert the dairy buildings in to a livery stable, some grass fields into pick your own strawberries, and the creation and digging out of eight fishing lakes.

Simon explains, “In the early 90’s we thought long and hard about what to do next. We knew we had to be less dependent on agriculture for a living and the contoured land did not lend itself to modern farm machinery.

One idea we’d toyed with was building a golf course.” Simon with his experience of building lakes and drainage had the confidence for such a huge project.

There was clearly a need for a course devoted to more pay and play. The soil was suitable, the location excellent and the population and demand were certainly there.

Simon joined BIGGA and enrolled on many training and education seminars and workshops from construction, design, drainage and course preparation.

The planning process was very lengthy requiring a separate application for each of the two local authorities. It included a driving range, clubhouse and hotel. The Greenbelt status would not allow any form of housing development.

The Weightman’s called in Golf Course Architect Jonathan Gaunt to provide a basic layout. It then took six years to gain consent. At that stage local architect Chris Stanton provided an amended layout. The long delay gave Simon time to research the building of an affordable course with a very limited budget.

Permission was sought to import clean inert soil material and construction began in 2002 using a Caterpillar D6 and an excavator. All the ground except for the fairways was stripped. The topsoil stored and then generous amounts of soil waste from building development and construction sites was brought in to create an even more undulating ground giving the impression of a links course. In so doing the rich topsoil was depleted which helped encourage fescue grass.

Simon explains, “We diverted existing land drains and added new ones. Over 40 km of new drainage pipe was laid. Four winters passed during the construction and this allowed for extra remediation drainage to be installed. We were fortunate to find a seam of sand and gravel in one of the drumlins, which was laid down when the Cumbrian and Nordic glacier melted.

We bought a second-hand screen and suddenly we were generating over 400 tons of sand and gravel a day for drainage and soil improvement.

Quality USGA root one soil was imported for the greens, generous size tees were made with our own soil mixture, and drainage was a top priority. When the irrigation water main was laid we deployed our excavator rather than a mole plough, as many as 245 drains required reconnection, these would have been unknown had we used the plough.

The roughs were sown first and established and later the semi roughs and finally the fairways. By doing the work in stages it reduced the damaging effect of run-off on this undulating site. Shaping was done so the water was led away.”

Steve Cram the Head Greenkeeper at Slaley Hall Golf Course advised on a redesigning of the greens layout so the greens were not invaded by run-off water. This enabled Simon to take over the final design and 14 greens were raised to create swales and hummocks as well as the multi drainage outlet scheme, which resulted in the rolling three-dimensional greens that are now the talk of the North-East.

Head Greenkeeper, Richard Hood said, “Our reputation for our greens is paramount. We want to be a high quality golf course because we have well constructed greens, the best drainage and a great layout and we want to maintain that position.

We play on them all year round and the course has never closed due to rain. We were fortunate to have such a lot of rain last year as we built up a reputation when other courses were closed and their players came here.

To continue our good reputation this year we invested in a pair of Bernhard grinders and we noticed a difference straight away with healthier grass, better finish, better ball roll, true greens and less wear on the machinery, in fact the grass looks so much healthier that we can reduce the amount of fertilizer we use.

It is challenging and hard work for the team of four greenkeepers but they do a fantastic job. We occaisionally need to call in one of the farm staff to assist with the excavator or reconstruction work and sometimes even extra mowing when needed.”

Sharpley has a modest lodge-style clubhouse, and a 14 bay driving range academy with two part-time PGA professionals. One of the staff, George who is now 85 has been with the Weightmans for over 40 years, first on the farm and now works part-time in the clubhouse.

“Sharpley golf course is doing really well with lots of society bookings, mid week members and plenty of weekend players.” Carole said.

“What we would like to do now is set up a small par three golf course for all players and for those in wheelchairs. Annually we have hosted the Jack Charlton Disabled Childrens ' Angling Event, golf charity days for Help For Heroes, British Disabled Golf and Veterans At Ease.

Our next task is to seek funding for the design and build of a stand-up-and- swing device that will make it easier for those people with a variety of disabilities to play golf within the driving range.

At our last event in July, Stephen Miller who won three golds, a silver and a bronze medal at the Paralympics came along to support us. One of our greenkeepers, Liam Dover got him going and within a couple of hours he was hitting the ball over 120 yards. You see that and you want to get everyone at it.”

It's all about determination and drive and there is no question Carole and Simon will achieve this, their energy and positivity are inspirational.