USGA Agronomists: The Unsung Heroes Of Our National Championships
Oct. 14, 2009
By John Steinbreder
USGA agronomist Dave Oatis chuckles when he recalls the rain-soaked U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course last June and the reception he received one day from spectators sitting in the bleachers around the fourth green.
“I was measuring green speed, and the crowd really got into it,” says Oatis. “Every time I raised the Stimpmeter to release the ball, they slowly raised their voices the way football fans do before a kick-off, and then held them. As soon as the ball rolled onto the green, they all cheered. They did that a few times, and then I decided to have some fun. I let them raise their voices again, only this time, I held the ball longer, to see if they would stay with me. They did and, when I finally let that ball go, they went nuts.”
Pat Gross is one of many USGA Green Section agronomists who play a major role in setting up a course for a national championship. (John Mummert/USGA)
It is not unusual for a New York crowd to go a bit crazy at sporting events. But what is rare is a USGA turfgrass specialist receiving any attention for his work. Even though they are ultra-important contributors to each USGA national championship, they normally toil in obscurity. To be sure, you may see one flash across the TV screen during news coverage from a particularly wet event, squeegeeing water off a soggy green. But that is it and, as a result, few people have a real sense of what these course experts do.
Oatis was one of three USGA agronomists at Bethpage Black, and it’s worth considering all he did away from the roar of the crowd on No. 4 during a U.S. Open that was extraordinarily difficult from a course conditioning and maintenance standpoint. Like starting work at 3:30 a.m. every day and staying on the job long past sunset each night. Like monitoring mowing heights and manning sump pumps between torrents of rain. One time, Oatis jumped into a golf cart to lead a flotilla of fairway mowers through muddied crowds so the grounds crew could take advantage of a break in the weather. He ate his meals on-site, and usually at odd hours. Lunch at 10:30 in the morning and dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon. Every once in a while he caught a catnap on an air mattress in the maintenance building. And he regularly rotated between his three rainsuits, only one of which was truly waterproof.
There wasn’t anyone clapping for Oatis when he was inspecting a water-logged green in the early morning dark or checking the state of bunkers that threatened to become wading pools. But that’s the way it always is for the USGA’s 18 agronomists, at least one of whom attends every USGA championship or team competition. And that anonymity is too bad, because they are, in the words of Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of Rules and Competitions, “unsung heroes.”
Perhaps few things are as unappreciated as the advance work those heroes do before a championship is even contested. For starters, they get involved in the site selection process, visiting potential venues in their regions and providing feedback to the Championship Committee on the ones they know well. And once a venue is chosen, the agronomists begin collaborating with superintendents to get the courses in their areas ready for the championships themselves.
“Congressional Country Club just re-grassed and rebuilt the greens in preparation for the 2011 U.S. Open,” says Davis. “And Stan Zontek, director of our Green Section’s Mid-Atlantic Region, worked with the club on that project every step of the way. He was at Congressional at least once a week during construction, helping with the selection of grass types, for example, and the grow-in itself.”
Zontek also started working with the superintendent at Saucon Valley Country Club four years before it hosted the U.S. Women’s Open this past July. “A crew from Tom Fazio’s group did the course renovations, and we advised them throughout that process,” Zontek says. “Then, we worked with the club on different areas of preparation, whether it was putting new sand in the bunkers or developing a grassing scheme for the greens.”
As a rule, USGA agronomists visit championship sites about a year before the actual events with Davis and Jeff Hall, the Association’s managing director of Rules and Competitions. They listen as Davis and Hall lay out their course setup plans, covering everything from rough heights and fairway widths to green speeds and hole locations. Then, they begin implementing the specific plans in the time left before the championship begins.
Oftentimes, USGA agronomists encourage superintendents to conduct trial runs the year before the event, so they can see how the course holds up during a comparable period of time. “It’s a sort of mock-up that gives us all a good sense of, say, how the greens will handle double-cutting that time of year,” says Bob Brame, director of the USGA Green Section North Central Region and the lead agronomist at the U.S. Senior Open at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., last summer. “The idea is to avoid any surprises.”
For the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open, Zontek stopped by Saucon Valley about a month before the championship, making sure that heavy spring rains had not made the rough too thick in places and that certain tees and areas of the practice range were not being used. A week before the start of play, he relocated there with two other agronomists, remaining at Saucon Valley through the championship. One of those was Darin Bevard, senior agronomist from Zontek’s region, and the other Keith Happ, a senior agronomist from the Pittsburgh area, where next year’s Women’s Open is being held, at Oakmont Country Club. “For our major championships, we always bring in the agronomist who will be in charge of the next one so he can see how it’s done,” Zontek says. “It’s a way of ensuring continuity.”
Once a championship begins, USGA agronomists really get to work. Usually, that means fine-tuning the layout as the competition gets under way, operating as a liaison between the superintendent and competition officials like Davis and Hall and doing whatever troubleshooting is needed. For example, Zontek and his fellow agronomists helped the grounds crew at Saucon Valley prepare the course each morning under portable light towers, getting four holes ready before the sun came up. During the 2009 Walker Cup at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., which Zontek also worked, it rained so much the Friday before the Match that officials canceled the flag-raising ceremony. “But we never closed the course completely and were able to keep seven holes open so the teams could still practice,” he says.
Only this time, there were not any crowds cheering his work, which is usually the case for a USGA agronomist.
John Steinbreder, based in Redding, Conn., is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usga.org.