The lonely greenkeeper: ‘I stood under the oak tree and wondered if it would take my weight’

Greenkeeping is a lonely profession and, as Mick Davie found out, it can put severe strain on your mental health. So he set out to help fellow sufferers

It’s the point where you think you can’t go on. When the problems that have been gnawing in your brain, incessant like the dripping of a leaking tap you just can’t fix, feel insurmountable.

For Mick Davie, that moment came when he was standing under the oak tree in Hazel Grove’s practice ground, wondering if it would take his weight.

What brought him to the edge wasn’t a single climactic event. It was pressure building relentlessly, over many months of anguish and sleepless nights, until he felt he could stand no more.

Get a greenkeeper talking about their course and watch their pupils dilate. It’s like they’re proudly showing off a child.

Given what they invest into the turf – in blood, sweat and toil – it shouldn’t be a shock that when things aren’t going well they take the criticism hard.

And when that noise is coming from everywhere: from members, visitors, committee, it can feel like there’s no way out.

“I was doing everything I possibly could,” remembers Davie. “But the more I was doing and the more nothing was happening, the more complaints were coming in and the more it was getting on top of me.

It was five years ago that the walls started to close in around Davie at the Stockport course where he was course manager until his recent retirement.

The greens were struggling – “absolutely shocking,” the 59-year-old admits – and while it was through no fault of his own, a victim of circumstances he doesn’t want to go into even now, he would still meet people and brace himself for the barrage of criticism.

“Every time I saw a committee member I just expected a complaint,” explained Davie. “Every time I saw a golfer I was waiting for their complaint.

“My home life was fine, and very supportive, but while I was at work it was just drips and drips and drips – until one day you think to yourself, ‘I really do not need this anymore.’”

If he had his time again, Davie would have gone to the doctor. But he didn’t. Whether it was about “growing a pair, getting up and sorting it out”, as he described the stereotypes of those of a certain age, he took on the burden of healing himself as well – scouring the internet for self-guidance and self-help to help his mental health.

Then he found himself at a stress awareness meeting at Sale Golf Club, run by the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association.

“When I walked into the room, it hit me the hardest,” said Davie. “There were 40 plus greenkeepers, many of them from prestigious golf clubs, many who were friends and I realised none of us had been talking to each other. It was a big wake-up call.”

Davie was determined to do something. It was local to start – a regular meet-up in Manchester, where greenkeepers “have a chat, sometimes a moan, sometimes a laugh – sometimes we don’t even talk about greenkeeping!” and a Facebook page called the ‘Greenkeepers mental health support group’, that has quickly become the go-to place for those in the industry looking for support and advice.

The Facebook group has proved more popular than he could ever have imagined, with more than 600 members. But if you think about the greenkeeping profession, its unsociable hours and the interaction with customers, should it really be that much of a surprise?

“It is a very lonely place to be,” Davie said of what the job can become. “I’d equate it like this: at times, it’s like being on an island but no one is speaking the same language as you.

“Although it’s a positive, working with nature, it can become very negative. You lie in bed at night-time just listening to the rain and wondering how that’s going to affect you.

“Or during a period of drought you lie there hoping for the rain – knowing the baking sun is going to affect you again, and realising that golfers don’t always appreciate how much weather affects the ground conditions, which has a knock-on effect on what you can do.”

He continued: “It’s like a drop of water on a limestone path. As it chips away and chips away it just wears you down.

“Social media has caused a big problem within that area. Years ago, if there was a complaint on the course, it would blow up among a fourball, they’re going to write a letter of complaint when they get in, they get into the clubhouse, have a drink, go home, and think, ‘I won’t bother with it.’

“Now people are out there, taking photos, it’s round Snapchat and before you know it you’ve got 100 people all joining in.”

Davie’s mental health work has had such a profound effect in bringing greenkeepers together, to talk through their problems, that it has brought him nationwide attention.

When thousands of turf professionals gathered in Harrogate last January for BTME, the showpiece turf exhibition hosted by BIGGA, he was honoured with the association’s Outstanding Contribution of the Year Award.

For a career that came to a close at the end of March, it was a crowning moment.

But it won’t be the end of the story, not by a long chalk. After three decades at Hazel Grove, Davie hopes the extra time he has on his hands will allow him to further develop the mental health support network he has started.

“I’m looking into how I can try and help as many people as possible, so this is just the start,” he explained. “I hope to develop some personal and presentation skills and eventually communicate with golf clubs and not just greenkeepers.

“It’s not a case of pulling others out of the water, it’s trying to prevent them from being pushed into the water in the first place.”

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