Q&A With Patrick Gross, U.S. Open Agronomist
California-based Patrick Gross is the director of the USGA’s Green Section Southwest Region and will serve as the championship agronomist for the 110th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. Gross, who also served as the championship agronomist for the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, recently chatted with USGA communications staff writer David Shefter about agronomic preparations for the upcoming U.S. Open:
How are things looking for the 2010 U.S. Open?
Gross: Fantastic. They’re in great shape [and] ahead of schedule. We’re really comfortable with all the preparations and programs.
Said Gross: "What’s so nice about working with these
courses several years in advance is that even last year,
[Pebble] had a special tournament in June and I came out
soon afterward." (John Mummert/USGA)
Was there any unforeseen weather conditions or other issues that left anyone concerned about the prep work for the U.S. Open?
Gross: Not at all. Their worry every year – and it’s not just for the U.S. Open – is the waves crashing against that sea wall from the winter storms along the 18th fairway. It will kill grass on the tee and affect the fairway, but they are prepared. They’ve done different things to counteract the situation, and they go in the late winter/early spring and sod any damaged areas.
How do they prevent the coastal erosion from the sea?
Gross: They re-engineered the sea wall along 18 and created an angled wall to to redirect the waves. They’ve also stabilized the area and utilized engineered rock, and it looks natural. If you went out there, you couldn’t tell which one was fake and which one was natural. The other interesting thing they did several years ago under the previous superintendent Tom Huesgen, was used a sub-surface air evacuation device. They put in pipes that can be hooked up to a vacuum. So when the seawater is going onto the fairway they turn on the sprinkler to dilute that water and then they have that drainage suction system to evacuate it and minimize the salt and sodium damage. It was put in around 2003.
What are some of the agronomic procedures being done between now and the start of the Open?
Gross: April is a big push month. This is the month that all of the aeration gets done on greens, tees and fairways. This is also the perfect time, temperature-wise, to stimulate the turf and get it growing with a good fertilizer application. Then in the middle of the month, they will start growing the rough. That’s a delicate balance because they are open for resort play and if we were to start growing 3-inch or 4-inch rough, it just isn’t golfer-friendly and it would slow the pace of play. They bring it up gradually, and to the point where we can make progress through the month of May and then into June.
Is it easier to do it at Pebble because of the weather versus a Northeast or Midwest site that is coming off of several months of dormant activity?
Gross: Yes, we can depend on good weather throughout the spring. The issue is controlling the height so that it is golfer-friendly. The other thing they did, starting back in November, was re-contour the fairways according to the plan and narrow the fairways where necessary. That work has all been done and is being refined. [Senior director of Rules and competitions] Mike Davis has had a few suggestions once they started doing the cuts. I was there in March and we’re adjusting a few areas. It’s the position of where the intermediate cut starts and then you build upon it from there.
You are also not dealing with harsh winters at Pebble Beach?
Gross: Pebble gets hammered in the press during the AT&T in February because that’s the rainy season for this area. You are going to see a completely different golf course in June.
Is the course starting to firm up?
Gross: As of March no because we’re still getting rain. ... I’ll spend four days in a row [this month] out there for their Swallows Tournament and that’s going to be a dry run. They have a chance to go through a dry down and a firm up and then get a good feeling of what is needed moving into June.
What kinds of turf does Pebble feature?
Gross: [The rough] is a combination of Poa annua and perennial ryegrass. The same with the fairways. The tees are primarily ryegrass and they’ve all been sodded. The greens are all annual bluegrass (Poa annua).
So it’s pretty similar to Torrey Pines?
Gross: As far as the greens, yes. The mix of grasses out at Torrey was kikuyugrass. Kikuyugrass fairways and bermudagrass tees.
How is it different to prepare a course like Torrey with kikuyu than a course like Pebble with a different type of turf?
Gross: Kikuyugrass requires a different management program; a lot of emphasis on vertical mowing and controlling the growth and growth-regulator applications, and carefully managing the fertility; verything very light and frequent. Ryegrass and Poa annua are different; it will take more fertility to retain the color and a good, solid mowing program, but you don’t have to be as aggressive with it. You don’t need vertical mowing or anything like that.
Are there any environmental programs going on at Pebble Beach that the public should be aware of?
Gross: Pebble Beach has been out in front of environmental issues for a long time. They hosted the Golf and the Environment Conference in the mid 1990s when [superintendent] Ted Horton was there. All of their courses are certified in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. They are carefully monitored as far as their pesticide program because of being so close to the ocean. They are very careful about their herbicide use and don’t apply herbicides during the winter or rainy season that could possibly wash off into the creeks or ocean. I think the Pebble Beach Company is committed to recycling programs.
Some other things that they are doing is using electric maintenance equipment. They use hybrid electric greens mowers that offer a dual benefit. There’s some electric power, but also they can control the speed of the reel independent of the travel speed. So they can speed up the reel and get a better quality cut independent of the walking speed. Usually if you want to increase the reel speed, you rev up the engine and you had to walk faster to do it. This allows for a different adjustment.
Our more clubs using that type of equipment?
Gross: It’s an emerging trend. A few other courses are trying it, but not everybody is real satisfied with it. [Pebble] has excellent equipment support.
What is your timetable between now and the Open? How many more visits do you have to make?
Gross: I’ll be there [this month] for four days and return again at the end of April. In May I’ll attend Media Day and then be back up there two weeks later. I move [for the championship] in on June 4.
Is it all shaping up for the firm and fast conditions the USGA desires?
Gross: That shouldn’t be a problem. What’s so nice about working with these courses several years in advance is that even last year, [Pebble] had a special tournament in June and I came out soon afterward. One year in advance they went through a dry down and firmed it up to get a feel on how far they could push it and what they needed to do. Each time they do this dress-rehearsal routine, they learn a little more. Those guys are pros and this is not the first time they have hosted an Open so they are familiar with the process.
Does the brown is the new green philosophy work for Pebble?
Gross: At Pebble, you can’t just turn off the water because Poa annua and perennial ryegrass don’t go brown and then come back. When they go brown, they are dead. So the key is finding a balance to create firm and fast conditions while maintaining a healthy stand of grass. As it dries down you’re probably going to see a silvery cast or some slight wilt in areas. The staff I am working with, [superintendent] Chris Dalhamer and his crew, they are all on board with the firm and fast conditioning, and that’s what they want too.
The wind often plays an important factor at Pebble Beach, doesn't it?
Gross: That’s true, and there have been some interesting discussions with Mike Davis. We’ve got to be very careful and have a good game plan for the greens so that they don’t get too fast. If the wind kicks up, we don’t want balls moving on the greens. What this translates into from Chris’ and our perspective is getting the programs right for mowing, rolling, and growth-regulation on the greens.
So it sounds like you’re ready for the final homestretch?
Gross: It’s just a matter of following through with the programs and avoiding mistakes. What’s wonderful about working with [Pebble] is that they are so cooperative and so accommodating. You throw out an idea and they are all over it. You suggest a change in mowing and it’s done that afternoon or the next morning.