COURSE CARE
Don’t Do This At Home July 17, 2012 By Larry Gilhuly

Courses that host USGA Championships often have far more resources available to them (at least on a temporary basis) including equipment and the staff to operate it.

Before going to your course demanding championship conditions similar to the recently completed U.S. Senior Open, pause and ask yourself these important questions. Who do you want the course prepared for? Is it for the best players in the world or for average players with double-digit handicaps? Can your players handle the very fast and firm greens, narrow fairways and tall roughs found in championship golf? Before answering these questions, please note the following quote from Mr. Tom Phillips, a top senior amateur in Washington and participant in the 2012 U.S. Senior Open. “An AVERAGE Champions Tour player will beat me by five shots a round on my home course if it’s played at Champions Tour yardages and rough levels. On a course set up for a U.S Senior Open, the difference is 7-8 strokes per round.” 

Let’s take a closer look at the course setup for the recently completed U.S. Senior Open as an example of the type of conditions most courses cannot and should not try to emulate. For the sake of this discussion we will focus primarily on the greens.

The U.S. Senior Open was conducted at Indianwood G&CC near Detroit, Mich. from July 12-15. This exceptional venue offered everything the best senior tour players needed to challenge their games. The severe slopes and mounding on the greens allowed the selection of difficult hole locations requiring precise approach shots in order to have a chance at birdie. Less accurate approach shots (hit by the vast majority of regular players) resulted in putts over and around features that were very difficult to navigate challenging even the best putters. Finally, green speeds were matched to the severity of the contours with 12’-12’6” maintained for all four days of the championship.

The greens were also very firm. Competitors had to hit their approach shots from the fairway in order to spin the ball enough to hold the greens. This put additional pressure on tee shots to the already narrow fairway landing areas. Many daily players do not fully appreciate the relationship between the conditioning of the fairway and the subsequent ability to stop a ball on a firm green. Firm, fast greens require firm, dry fairways.

Such conditions cannot be produced overnight. Beginning months before the championship the maintenance of the golf course changed greatly and the members felt the impact of championship conditioning. Quoting Mr. Phillips again, “The course for normal play is a par 70 at 6900 yards that has a course rating of 74.9 and a slope rating of 135. The head professional told me that the membership played the course with 3 inch rough (cut at 4-5 inches for the Sr. Open) leading up to the tournament beginning in May and the average member’s handicap went up by 4 shots.” 

The summer has arrived in the Pacific Northwest with Poa annua dominated surfaces beginning to show the signs of moisture stress. Trying to achieve the type of conditions found on a bentgrass dominated golf course such as Indianwood can result in a significant loss of turf, even if your course has the benefit of 30 to 40 extra staff members volunteering their time. So the next time you watch a championship and long for your golf course to have the same playing conditions remember that it cannot be done without a significant increase in labor. Regular maintenance can and should be done with less water and fertilizer to create firmer playing surfaces, but the difference between “championship” and regular playing conditions is a wide chasm. Unless you have comparable resources as the championship you watch on television, attempting to create comparable course conditions can result in putting your course under so much stress that major losses of turf are likely. So in other words, don’t do this at home! For more information on this topic read, “So You Think You Want To Play Championship Conditions All The Time?” by Derf Soller.

Larry Gilhuly would be happy to come to your “home” golf course to discuss this and other agronomic and playing issues as part of the USGA Turf Advisory Service. He can be contacted at lgilhuly@usga.org with Derf Soller (dsoller@usga.org) also available in the Northwest Region.