COURSE CARE
A Retrospective Look September 7, 2010 By Larry Gilhuly

Much of the United States suffered through one of the worst weathers this past summer, and the Pacific Northwest Region was blessed again with a normal summer without excess rainfall, heat or humidity.  At the same time, the grounds staff at Oakmont had to struggle with weather to complete the U.S. Women’s Open, and both the U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur were concluded in weather conditions that were challenging, yet helpful in achieving the desired goal of firm and fast.  But what exactly is firm and fast?

 The U.S. Senior Open was conducted at Sahalee CC in late July.  To achieve firm and fast conditions in this heavily treed situation required far more than just the 30 maintenance staff, expertly led by Rich Taylor.  It also involved another 20-30 volunteers who gave countless hours of assistance throughout the event.  However, it was in the area of water management where Mr. Taylor and his staff truly hit the firm and fast home run.  A combination of shutting off the automatic irrigation system and switching to precision irrigation (hand watering) minimized soft areas on the fairways, approaches and putting surfaces.  The USGA TruFirm, along with the Spectrum 3000 moisture sensing unit, were used twice daily to apply suitable amounts of water over nine quadrants of each green.  As the greens began to dry, USGA officials observed ball reaction early in the practice rounds, with a penetration value of 0.345 - 0.360 inches, the desired range for the four rounds of the championship.  At the same time, the USGA Stimpmeter was used and a desired speed of 12’6 inches was determined to be perfect for the hole locations selected for the four rounds of the championship. 

 So, how close did the maintenance staff come to hitting the target of firm and fast?  It was a bull’s-eye, with all four days averaging 0.350 inches and the greens average from 12’3 – 12’9 inches.  Players were positive, and turf loss did not occur. Mr. Taylor and his staff deserved the highest of accolades for the presentation of the golf course.  This, then, led to Act II of the firm and fast Pacific Northwest play with the U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay in late August.

 As opposed to Sahalee, Chambers Bay has one tree on site.  It is links-like golf with the ground dictating the action, and a place where lofted wedges are best left to rust.  Again, Superintendent Dave Wienecke and his staff of 40 were not enough to maintain this type of championship, so nearly 50 volunteers from all over the Pacific Northwest assisted the maintenance staff.  With nearly 90 acres of sand to rake daily, this site was dramatically different from Sahalee. 

 As with the Senior Open, the automatic irrigation system was shut down, yet earlier than the Poa annua dominated Sahalee site.  The near-dominant fescue at Chambers Bay, with regionalUpdateContenting depths beyond six inches in the greens, and more than a foot on the fairways, required far less water.  This exceptional drought tolerance resulted in a off-color and dormant golf course, yet is the essence of “firm and fast” that is so desired for links golf.  The same tools used at the Senior Open were applied to Chambers Bay.  During the prep week, USGA officials determined quite different values at Chambers Bay compared to Sahalee.  In regard to green speed, it was decided that the heavily contoured greens at Chambers Bay could tolerate an average speed of 11’6 inches.  The same held true for firmness, with the perfect ball reaction noted at the very low penetration value of 0.250-0.260 inches without wind, and 0.260-0.270 inches with wind.  So, how did these values equate to the play of this longer lasting championship?

 Green speeds were consistently 11’-11’6” during practice rounds, qualifying rounds and the five days of match play.  When heavy winds were forecast, greens speeds were slowed down slightly to keep balls from rolling off the greens.  Players and USGA officials alike had no concerns in regard to the fast part of the firm and fast equation.

 On the firm side, significant information was discovered that will be useful in preparation for the 2015 U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay.  The wind at Chambers Bay has a major effect on the surface of the greens when they are dried down well in advance of play.  When qualifying rounds were over, eight minutes of water was applied to the entire golf course (firmer greens received slightly more) to replenish moisture in the 100% sand profile.  The response was immediate, with softer-than-desirable firmness noted on some greens during the first round of match play. The next day brought even softer readings, as water wicked to the surface.  Regardless of this interesting result, the three staff persons responsible for both late-afternoon and early-morning precision irrigation nailed the firmness that was desired for this unique site.

 The superintendents and their staffs at both championships produced exactly the type of firm and fast playing conditions desired by the USGA.  At the same time, there are take-home messages that golfers need to understand if you try to do this at your home course.   

  1. You need a major increase in labor.  This is especially true when it comes to precision irrigation compared to automatic systems.
  2. The dormant nature of fescue does not translate well to other cool season grasses.  Most other cool season grasses just turn around and leave town.
  3. The vast majority of golfers are nowhere near the playing level of the best senior professionals and rising amateurs.

 

 The concept of firm and fast is superior to what you get on a totally green golf course, and they are far less expensive to maintain.  Some turf loss on fairways and roughs may occur with this philosophy, but most golf courses would be better off with a philosophy of playing-surface first, and color second, rather than the opposite approach.  I, for one, hope firm and fast will last.

  Source:  Larry Gilhuly, lgilhuly@usga.org, 253-278-2766