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Environmental Champion Tees Off

Leaving school early to take up an apprenticeship as a greenkeeper, Mick McCombe, course superintendent of the Maleny Golf Course, never expected to end up working at one of the most prestigious golf clubs in London, or take out a national award for Excellence in Golf Course Management in Australia.

by Judy Fredriksen

The tiny town of Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, NT, where Mick grew up, is so isolated you need a permit to drive there because there are 700km of unsealed roads to negotiate – an impossible journey – especially during a tropical wet season.

But the grass could grow quickly in this former crusty mining town, inspiring Mick to become a greenkeeper.

“It was pretty obvious I think – to Mum and Dad – when I would one week, mow a cricket pitch in the back yard, and the next week it would be a footy pitch or tennis court. I was always out on the mower,” chuckles Mick.

Mick was in his mid-teens when his family moved to the Glass House Mountains, where his obsession with mowers manifested further. Like many young enterprising blokes his age, he was eager to earn pocket money by mowing lawns. Yet unlike his mates, who saved up to buy their first car, Mick spent his hard earned money on his first ride-on mower.

After finishing his apprenticeship as a greenkeeper with the Pine River Bowls Club, he went travelling and found himself working at the Coombe Hill Golf Club, London.

While this golf course may not be well-known, it certainly boasts a long parade of high profile identities as regular members. If you played a round at Coombe Hill, you could be teeing off from the same green once frequented by Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming, Dwight D Eisenhower, their Royal Highnesses – Edward VIII and George VI, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Harry Secombe and Sean Connery.

The very private Coombe Hill proved to be the perfect environment for the young Aussie to learn about producing high quality surfaces.

“They did offer me a position to continue after my summer internship there, but I just had to get home. I got very homesick,” explains Mick.

Back in Australia, Mick began to massage another of his talents – music – into life.

“I play guitar, lap slide guitar and am a singer/songwriter. I had my own band called Mick McCombe Band for about eight years. We played all around South East Queensland, at quite a few festivals – Caloundra Music Festival was one. We had a small following on the coast playing all original songs – blues and roots.”

However, Mick’s passion for greenkeeping ultimately won out and through a series of serendipitous events, he met his future mentor Ben Tilley, now president, Australian Sports Turf Managers Association and course superintendent, Headland Golf Club.

“Ben suggested that I come up and have a chat to the Maleny Golf Club Committee. He had been working with Maleny ad hoc for several years, recommending grass types for putting greens, guiding Greens Director, Rob Bailo, and President (at the time), Max Whitten, to develop the course.

“Ben knew Maleny needed a fulltime greenkeeper and believed I would be the perfect candidate to steer them in the right direction.

“It wasn’t until I came up here that I could see that there was huge opportunity for me professionally. Beautiful property – unbelievable potential.”

Mick took up the position of course superintendent in 2014 and immediately set to work, engaging volunteers and looking at the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways to transform the hilly slopes of Maleny into a highly desirable and effective golf course.

With a lot of help from Ben and Rob, and based on the construction of Machrihanish Dunes Golf Course, Scotland, Max convinced the Sunshine Coast Council that they could build a golf course for $1.5 million. And build it they did, with the help of an endless stream of volunteers – people who built rock walls, bunkers and buildings, as well as keeping the course mowed.

“Machrihanish Dunes is an environmentally sensitive area like we are and by adopting similar construction methods we built a course with minimal disturbance.

“A lot of major golf courses spend $1.5 million per hole, and we built 18 holes for that price.”

Mick’s hard work paid off when in 2015, he was awarded the 2015 Living Turf Superintendents Achievement Award by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Queensland. The accolade recognises superintendents who go above and beyond their role, and produce an exceptional quality golf course.

This award made Mick eligible to be entered into the national awards, which he also won, receiving the trophy from the Australian Golf Course Superintendents' Association for Excellence in Golf Course Management in 2016. If that wasn’t enough, he was also named Superintendent of the Year by Golf Digest magazine in the same year.

Not to be one to rest on his laurels though, Mick would love to win the highly sought-after Claude Crockford Sustainability and Environmental Award which recognises outstanding achievement in environmental management, sustainability and responsibility at a sports field, recreational grounds or golf course.

To achieve this, Mick has already ensured that Maleny will be one of the first golf clubs in Australia to introduce internationally recognised initiatives that will improve environmental impacts across the golf course operations.

At this rate, he’s sure to be on par next time the awards tee off!



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