There’s nothing Andy Johnston enjoys more than watching grass grow. In fact, he relies on it. Because growing grass in Andy’s world is no simple thing. Particularly at 5.30am. “That’s when turf grass disease develops. At sunrise. If you know what you’re looking for and you have a lifetime of intuitive skill, you can pretty much determine what’s happening on the ground and make adjustments to the overall plan.”
That ‘plan’ is the one Sentosa Golf Club’s General Manager uses to keep his two courses at the top of their game. Located on Sentosa, a tropical island just a half kilometre hop from Singapore, the Serapong course is at tournament level, rated 79th in the world and number one in the country, while the New Tanjong course rates number two in Singapore after Andy’s redesign two years ago.
“It’s really gratifying,” Andy says. “Every day, we make modifications to our plan, measuring grass to see if it’s growing too much or not enough, adjusting fertility, preventing algae. A course has the same problems as any living organism; it needs to eat and drink, and it gets sick. It’s my job to keep it healthy. “What sets our club apart is that all we have to offer is golf. That’s it. We don’t have any tennis courts, theatres or pools. So, if our course isn’t spectacular, what else is there to do?”
Granted, it’s not usually the job of a golf course general manager to care so personally for the greens, but most GMs are not also the Director of Agronomy. Growing grass was where Andy’s career in the industry began, and where it has since flourished for more than 30 years.
While he grew up with golf – his dad was the local course club champ, and played national championships on the US domestic circuit – Andy fell more in love with the greens than the game. After gaining a degree in architecture, he headed to Michigan State University, one of the very few schools specialising in turf grass science, and graduated amid a golfing boom in 1986. He had no problem finding work as a project manager or director of maintenance.In 2010, when he was vice president of Couples Bates Golf Design Group, his good friend and general manager of Sentosa Golf Club, Peter Downie, called him.
“I had completed redesign work for both Sentosa courses five years before and Peter called needing my help. Their superintendent had left, just 60 days before the Barclays Singapore Open. It was the first year the championship was being played on both courses and let’s just say there was a lot of work to do. I had a very small window to get the green speed up, which is all about the quality of the surface and the ball roll.”
Andy increased the green speed from averaging low eights to 13.5 on the first day of the Open, a speed never seen before in Asia. It was no surprise he was asked to stay on as Director of Agronomy. What he didn’t expect was Peter’s departure four years later, leaving him as General Manager as well, a title he accepts but doesn’t prefer.
“I’ll always consider myself a golf course architect first,” he says. “Seeing my greens grow with such celebrated surfaces, agronomy is probably the thing I’m best at. My target is to get Serapong rated in the top 50. We were 58, but when we closed Tanjong for redevelopment, Serapong went from about 65% occupancy to 89% for more than a year. It was hammered – divots, ball marks, and wear and tear really started to show.”
Last year, the club was the first in Singapore to achieve the coveted BCA (Building and Construction Authority) Platinum Green Mark, an award for environmental impact and performance.“We removed plastic bottles from the golf carts; that’s around 150,000 plastic bottles a year, and we’ve purchased a digester which will grind all our horticultural and kitchen waste to be used as fertiliser. We also plan to introduce beehives on our property corners to help the bee population, which is down 70% worldwide.”
Golf has taken a hard hit over the past decade, with scores of clubs closing around the world. Andy admits the 1980s triggered greed among designers clamouring to build courses in communities often without the necessary number of golfers to support them. Describing the courses as magnets to sell homes, Andy says the boom in the US alone saw 750 courses being designed every year for 15 years. Obviously, transforming Serapong into a championship course, attracting professional golfers and worldwide television coverage, has boosted promotion of the club and helped to make it profitable. It’s where Adam Scott won the Singapore Open three times and where Paula Creamer sank her ‘miracle’ 75-foot putt, the most watched golf highlight for more than 18 months.
It’s also where Andy dreams of hosting one of the majors – the Masters, the US Open, The Open or the PGA Championship. “There will come a point when a major will come to Asia,” Andy predicts. “It’s on my bucket list to have us as the venue. Not only would it be great for our club and tremendous for the community, it would be great for history.”
“There will come a point when a major will come to Asia. It’s on my bucket list to have us as the venue.”
Meanwhile, Sentosa Golf Club boasts the highest membership in town, with around 300 locals and 400 foreign golfers, and is the only club in Singapore open to the public. It’s also home to the Asian headquarters of The R&A, golf’s global governing body alongside the United States Golf Association.
The club doesn’t shy away from its elitism; a glimpse into the garage reveals an array of luxury vehicles, and guest players range from company presidents to rock stars. And when invitations for corporate events are rolled out, they aren’t fobbed off down the line. “The CEOs and presidents all come. You’ll never see that second tier turn up,” Andy says. “It’s the who’s who of Singapore playing here and there’s a mile-long list of celebrities who’ve played. They usually organise a four ball and their privacy is respected.”
Taking his Sentosa hat off, Andy names Spyglass Hill on California’s Monterey Peninsula as the most spectacular golfing property he’s seen, not just for its stunning views over the Pacific Ocean but for the design completed in 1966 by Robert Trent Jones.
“Today, we have Google Earth and CAD, so laying out a golf course is quite simple, if you have the skills,” Andy says. “You can complete a good routing, understand how the topography works and roll the golf holes around the property. I don’t understand how they did it before without these tools and when land was so overgrown with vegetation.”
The Sentosa Club logo displays a colourful peacock representing the club’s unique location on a tropical island. The bird’s rich blue head and body stand for the water surrounding the course, the fanned tail represents the greens, and the white circles signify the ground’s holes.
Andy still runs his own business, Johnston Design and Agronomy, and is currently working on several projects, including the redevelopment of Hong Kong’s Discovery Bay course and a five-course deal in the Dominican Republic on land “every bit as nice as Spyglass’’. It’s work he admits he’s more than happy to complete in ‘the office’.
“My office is this fantastic golf course,” he laughs. “When I arrive over the hill at Hole 3, overlooking the sea to Singapore’s CBD, I feel good. That’s when I think, ‘Wow, this is worth it’.”