Rather than a conscious decision to pursue a career in turf management, for Natasha Repinskaja it was luck that landed her from her native Estonia onto the hallowed turf of the Home of Golf: St Andrews Links. One can almost hear the collective sigh of the golf world: “If only I could be so lucky…”
“It wasn't my decision. It basically was luck,” she said in a Skype interview recently.
After finishing secondary schooling in Estonia, in 2006 Natasha applied for a visa to work out of the country. “I knew I was being sent to Scotland, but I didn’t know at first what I was going to be doing,” she recalled.
Estonia and Scotland have a long history of trade, dating to the wars of independence in Scotland in the 14th century. During the resulting famine, Estonian crops are credited with keeping the population of Scotland alive. Ports on the east coast of Scotland in particular are known for trading with Baltic countries. An Estonian tartan was commissioned in 2005 to further mark the relationship between the two countries.
Natasha soon learned she would be going to St Andrews Links to work on the divot filling crew.
“I had no idea at the time what that meant,” she said.
She spent the next five years filling divots until deciding to “try myself as a greenkeeper”, she explained. “Jon Wood, who used to be a deputy (assistant) on the Old Course, trained me and also helped me get my SVQ Level 2 certification.”
Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ levels 1-5) are certificates of vocational that are based on standards of competence that describe someone’s ability to work in real conditions. Level 1 includes basic, routine and repetitive skills, while Level 2 expands to include non-routine activities and individual responsibility.
That early training led to a seasonal position as a greenkeeper, and ultimately to a full-time job that she has kept for the last eight years, working on the Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove courses. She is currently the only female on the full-time greenkeeping staff at St Andrews Links.
Natasha has since completed her SVQ Level 3 certification (which includes supervisory skills) through nearby Elmwood College, a campus of Scotland’s Rural College that is known for greenkeeping and turf management programs.
In addition to her routine duties, Natasha has been asked to join the Old Course team to work two Opens, one Ladies Open and ten Dunhill events. The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is the only major professional tournament played every year at St Andrews.
Natasha has been asked to join the Old Course team to work two Opens, one Ladies Open and ten Dunhill events.
Sandy Reid, Director of Greenkeeping for the St Andrews Links Trust, summed up Natasha’s contributions to the team. “From her early years as a seasonal divot filler here at St Andrews through to her current role as an assistant greenkeeper, Natasha has always put her best foot forward in all aspects of her work,” Reid said. “She is committed to improving her knowledge and skills, has excellent attention to detail and is a first-class member of the team. She is also very proactive in the environmental management of the Links at St Andrews and has been behind some excellent environmental initiatives.”
Every year the R&A invites a greenkeeper from the courses on The Open rotation to work on that year’s venue. This year Natasha got the nod to join the team at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
“The opportunity came my way and I grabbed it with both hands,” she wrote in a post on the St Andrews Links blog. “I’ll admit, it was a little daunting for me to go to Northern Ireland and stay with six strangers. However, I looked forward to this new experience. I knew that I would not only be representing St Andrews Links and the Eden Greenkeeping Team but also women in the industry.”
Not only were her six housemates strangers, but as expected all were male.
“I was the only girl in the house, but it was great,” she recalled. “I was outnumbered again but the boys were great, and the atmosphere was brilliant.”
Natasha started at Royal Portrush the week prior to the event, so was there a total of two weeks, hand-mowing greens… usually starting in the dark.
“This experience gave me confidence because I didn't really know what it'd be like going to a different country, different golf course, and I knew I'd probably be outnumbered again. But it actually gave me so much confidence and made me realize that I can do it, and it's a great feeling. I really enjoyed it and want to go back!”
Sandy Reid commented on Natasha’s experience at The Open at Portrush. “Whilst Natasha has been involved in a few tournaments at St Andrews, the size of the team across our seven courses means that for some staff their involvement isn’t as intense as it is for the staff based in the Old Course. She was very keen to have greater involvement at the biggest golf championship there is,” Reid said. “She wanted to test herself and gain more knowledge but also felt that if she had the opportunity to go to Portrush that she would be outside her comfort zone (such as sharing a house full of strangers) and that she would gain all the more from it. That really showed me how much she wanted to gain from the experience and how good an ambassador she would be for St Andrews Links. It was great to see and hear about experiences during and after the Open. She did herself and St Andrews proud.”
Gender bias has never been an issue for Natasha.
“I did realize at the start of my career that I’m in the minority,” she said, “but I was never treated any differently. If anything, I'm easily remembered at conferences or when I'm meeting new people, so in some ways it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage.”
“Every person on my team is unique and brings something special to the team,” Natasha commented. “Even though some may say that women can multitask better or have more attention to detail, my gender doesn't deliver any more or less than the boys. I view myself as an individual who complements the team. I am one of the team. I am a greenkeeper, so gender does not stop me in any way.”
... I view myself as an individual who complements the team. I am one of the team. I am a greenkeeper, so gender does not stop me in any way.”
Seeing a female on the greenkeeping crew does cause the occasional double-take on the part of passing golfers.
“It makes me laugh when a golfer goes past and says, “Good morning, boys’ and then sees me and adds, ‘Oh, and girl’. They're used to seeing predominantly boys on the course. It just makes me laugh and I don't see it as a disadvantage to be a female,” she commented.
In addition to the early help from Jon Wood, Natasha credits her manager, Kevin Muir, and her deputy manager, Richard Devlin, with encouraging her to keep learning about greenkeeping and golf course management.
“Gordon Moir, recently retired director of golf, also gave me a lot of support. Those are the people who really helped me love my career,” she said.
Working at St Andrews Links is motivation in itself. “It’s a great honor and motivates me to know that I work for such an important place,” she said. “It's a bucket place for golfers to come and play at St Andrews. So, I do my job with pride.”
Words of advice for other women considering a career in turf? “Don't be afraid of the male dominated industry,” she said. “I know there are other countries, like Spain, that have quite a lot of women in this kind of industry, but certainly we don't have enough girl power in greenkeeping. Don't be afraid! You will love it. I always say, ‘I don't go to the gym, I get paid to exercise’. It's a great job and a great career to follow.”