Iconic Scottish greenkeeper Walter Woods passes away

Woods oversaw the Old Course at St. Andrews for more than 20 years and helped advance the golf course management industry in Europe.


Filed to: Europe

Walter Caroline Woods
Walter Woods with his wife, Caroline, at the BIGGA Turf Management Exhibition in 2018. Photo courtesy of BIGGA

Walter Woods — the 20th recipient of GCSAA’s highest honor, the Old Tom Morris Award — passed away Wednesday, Sept. 18.

Woods was 84, according to the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA). Woods spent more than 20 years as links supervisor for the St. Andrews Links Trust, caring for the legendary Old Course, where he hosted four Open Championships. He retired in 1996, and he was honored with the Old Tom Morris Award in 2002.

Instrumental in the formation of BIGGA (he was the organization’s first chairman), Woods has been lauded for leading the charge to modernize the golf course management industry and greenkeeper training overseas. In a news release from BIGGA, greenkeeper John Philp spoke about what Woods represented.

“I learned a great deal from Walter. Coming back to Scotland in a multi-course system, he was very much a mentor to me,” says Philp, who oversaw the Open Championship site at Carnoustie. “He had a strong work ethic and a passion for greenkeeping. He was a strong and fair character and was a shining example of golf course management leadership and professionalism. Greenkeeping has lost one of its greatest ambassadors.”

In 2001, Woods told GCM what his profession and the Old Tom Morris Award meant to him. “I believe the energy I’ve devoted to greenkeeping throughout my life is now rewarding me,” he said. “I hope this award will influence others to make their golf courses’ conditioning the best it can be to the best of their ability.”

GCSAA’s Golf Industry Show was an important event for Woods, who attended it numerous times. Upon returning home from those trips, Woods was known to pass along what he had learned at GIS to his European colleagues to assist them in establishing greenkeeping regimens and developing organizational skills that would shape their operations.

Walter Woods greenkeeper
Woods in 1987. Photo courtesy of BIGGA

In 2001, PGA European Tour director of operations David Garland called Woods “one of the founding forefathers of modern British greenkeeping.” Michael Bonallack, a five-time British Amateur champion who worked closely with Woods during Bonallack’s reign as secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, told GCM 18 years ago that Woods was well deserving of the Old Tom Morris Award.

“He worked hard in the way he maintained his courses to preserve the old traditional things that are best about golf,” Bonallack said. “It’s very easy to get drawn into the wishes of professionals who want the ball to stop on a dime. But Walter knew exactly how the Old Course needed to be set up for an Open Championship. It played like a true links course with fast-running fairways, firm greens, and good fine grasses and fescues — all of which meant not too much watering, and Walter was famous for being a skinflint as far as water was concerned.”

Jack Nicklaus weighed in on Woods’ skills in those days, too. Nicklaus — who won the first Open Championship that Woods prepped at the Old Course, in 1978 — played a practice round there with Woods, who at one point was a scratch golfer. “The responsibility shouldered by the man who takes care of the home of golf is enormous and demands a commitment of equally grand proportions,” Nicklaus said. “This was done with great care and proficiency and, certainly, with great pride during the many years that Walter Woods held that position.”

Woods was born and raised in Tillicoultry, a wool and farming community 50 miles from St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1962, Woods was hired as the head greenkeeper and head golf professional at Braehead Golf Course, 9 miles from Tillicoultry. His main task: Build a second nine holes to add to the existing nine holes. That led to push-mowing 18 greens three days a week. The fairways had to be cut, then the tees, and then the process started all over again. “I learned quick that the one thing you didn’t do in those days was fertilize your greens. If you did, it would take you twice as long to mow them,” said Woods, who was made an honorary GCSAA member many years ago.

Vintage St Andrews
Woods donated these pieces of vintage maintenance equipment from St. Andrews to GCSAA. They are on display at the association’s headquarters in Lawrence, Kan. Photo by Howard Richman

Woods cherished and respected U.S. superintendents, and he leaned on several of them, including GCSAA past presidents Mel Lucas, CGCS Retired, and Charlie Tadge, CGCS. “The American superintendents had higher standards and faced more demands and were much more qualified than I was at that time,” Woods said of when he started at the Old Course. “Yet, in many ways, they were exactly the same as me — they were looking for education and they were looking for ways to improve their association and how to improve the standards of all greenkeeping.”

He would go on to say, “I was so inquisitive. I must have been hellish to listen to because I asked so many questions. But I learned so much from those fellows and made a lot of friends.”

Woods continued to give to the profession after his retirement, including donating historic maintenance equipment to GCSAA headquarters in Lawrence, Kan.

“Walter Woods was a true icon of our profession whose impact was felt not just in the U.K., but among superintendents all over the world,” says Rhett Evans, GCSAA CEO. “Through his long affiliation with St. Andrews, he was someone closely associated with our game’s history and legacy, but he was also forward-thinking — someone who cared as much about promoting the industry and securing its future as he did about its past. He was a worthy recipient of GCSAA’s Old Tom Morris Award and had become a great friend over the years, and he will be greatly missed.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.

Filed to: Europe