U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Herculean Measures This Week Keep Shoal Creek Playable June 2, 2018 | Shoal Creek, Ala. By Julie Williams

The USGA's Darin Bevard and his team have worked closely with Shoal Creek's staff throughout the week. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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A detailed weather report is issued three times daily during U.S. Women’s Open week. Shoal Creek superintendent Rex Davis and Darin Bevard, the USGA’s director of championship agronomy, review it, then distribute the small army of greenkeepers accordingly.

In golf course-care lingo, this is called sequencing. There’s an art to making maintenance moves in the proper order when a subtropical depression dumps more than 4½ inches of rain on your facility in a four-day period as you are hosting the national championship.

In between bouts of rain, Shoal Creek’s maintenance facilities looked a lot like a treehouse fit for the lost boys. Staff, volunteers and USGA officials met the colossal effort of keeping Shoal Creek playable while maintaining good spirits.

“We just literally sat around, played cards, had cornhole boards, everybody watched television,” Davis said of the waiting periods between breaks in the storm. “It’s almost like we’re going to show Mother Nature. Everybody has done it with a smile on their face.”

Scoreboard aside, the numbers surrounding the 73rd U.S. Women’s Open are staggering. The task of battling a subtropical storm to keep an Open venue afloat is riddled with contingency plans, but that’s the nature of a USGA championship.

“It’s just a matter of how deep you have to go in the playbook,” said Matt Sawicki, championship director for the USGA, whose job encompasses everything outside the ropes at Shoal Creek.

The work of Sawicki  and his staff at a USGA event often looks like the invisible work of elves. It starts long before fans arrive – think traffic patterns, volunteer uniforms, merchandise and general fan experience – and continues long after they leave. Rain forced at least the temporary closure of every parking lot on the grounds at Shoal Creek, plus the creation of gravel roads and bridges to manage traffic. Sawicki organized the mid-week distribution of 17 truckloads of mulch in high spectator-traffic areas around the golf course, often spread by pitchfork after dark because the wettest areas of the course couldn’t support machinery.

How do you find that amount of mulch at a moment’s notice? Sawicki works area resources, including the phonebook, if necessary.

With heavy rainfall on Wednesday morning, it took a huge effort to ensure that the field could practice that afternoon. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

The week could have played out very differently. Davis noted that 15 days before the championship, Shoal Creek was playing firm and fast. The greater Birmingham area had seen limited rainfall.

“The golf course was playing the way we intended it to play,” Davis said. “Then Mother Nature threw us a curveball and we had to adapt.”

New greens went in at Shoal Creek in the fall of 2016. Given the moisture, they haven’t been as fast as Davis would have liked, but the drainage has helped to keep the championship close to schedule. Shoal Creek’s new greens drain at a rate that is four times faster than the old greens.

As Davis eyed the approach of subtropical storm Alberto, he started making preparations. Shoal Creek staff mowed the fairways seven times and the rough three times in the week before the championship, also applying growth regulators to the grass. Knowing the golf course might take on large amounts of rainfall, Davis had crews clearing pine straw and other ground cover from every place they anticipated that water would run through the property. Shoal Creek is situated in a valley, so maintenance crews know this drill.

“I’m like, ‘Guys, this is just a Tuesday,’” Davis joked during that clearing effort. Hosting a championship meant that there were more bodies to put on every project.

In fact, help came out of the woodwork. There are just over 35 people on the Shoal Creek maintenance staff, but roughly 75 volunteers support that crew, with an average of 30 on-site at any time. Help comes in the form of superintendents to sales people from turf companies to friends Davis made at previous golf-course gigs. Even contractors who had worked on Shoal Creek’s clubhouse facilities dug backpack blowers out of their garages to come out and help.

On Wednesday afternoon, when the rain lifted shortly before noon and crews set out to make the course playable and practice facilities usable, it took 30 back-pack blowers only 5½ hours to clear the course. Davis called that a remarkable feat.

By Friday morning, fairways were too wet to support mowers, so two-man teams picked up 100-foot hoses and dragged the fairways by hand to remove the dew.

“We had to make sure we fed them some protein after that,” Davis said.

There had been similar “Macgyvering” on Thursday evening after 156 players had worked their way around Shoal Creek. Bermudagrass divots tend to explode, leaving behind frayed turf that can create uneven lies. Running a mower over the fairways presses the divots down to the point that you can’t even tell they were there, but Shoal Creek was still too wet after the first round for the mowers. Instead, workers went out with squeegees to compress those divots and put the course back together again.

The USGA’s Bevard kept going back to bodies.

“I don’t think any of it is rocket science, it’s all just basics and thinking through all of your options,” he said of the contingency plans. “The biggest thing is having the number of people to be able to do so.”

Despite Round 2 weather delays totaling more than five hours, the U.S. Women’s Open remains relatively on track.

“If we would have gotten any more rain Wednesday night into Thursday, it would have been really challenging to start on time,” Bevard said. “The golf course has to be at a level of playability that’s acceptable to conduct a women’s Open championship.”

Players appreciated the effort, effusively praising the course after the first round – particularly the greens.

“It’s incredible that we played today and got a practice round in yesterday,” said Michelle Wie, the 2014 Women’s Open champion, on Thursday. “I mean the greens were perfectly fine. The fairways are fine. You would not have known that it rained that much.”

Sawicki, who was a caddie and a USGA volunteer before he began organizing championships, lives for the moments when he runs into fans years after a USGA event he has helped bring together, sees them sporting a logo from the event and hears a story about the experience. There will be those moments, of course, after the week plays out at Shoal Creek, but the teams that are fighting off the weather will also have war stories long after the USGA signage goes away.

Before the championship began, Bevard was asked whether he’s a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of guy.

“Well, in life, I would say half-full,” he replied. “But inside the ropes, I look at how much water is in the glass and I make the decision accordingly.”

It has been that kind of week.

Julie Williams is a Florida-based freelance writer.

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