Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Guest commentary: US Open Conditions – what does it take?

By Mary Armstrong/For the
Sun-News Posted: 06/16/2011 08:14:53 PM MDT
If you’re watching the U.S. Open on television you may have heard about how Congressional Country Club was surgically renewed and then manicured and pampered into the stage for America’s greatest golf championship.The course was originally designed by Devereux Emmett, but there’s little about this course that resembles any of the layouts that I’ve seen by Emmett – and I’ve seen plenty.

Not long after the course opened in the 1920’s, the layout was tinkered with by Donald Ross before the depression years took its toll and the Club was desperately hung on until World War II. The war brought an offer from the OSS (predecessor to the CIA) to lease the property as a training ground. The $4,000 monthly rent and lack of any operating expenses put the Club back on its feet then it resumed operation amongst barbed wire and bomb craters after the war.

In the 1950’s Robert Trent Jones re-designed the back nine and later the
front nine. In the process, he established Congressional’s infamous 18th hole – a par 3 over the lake to a green next to the Clubhouse. The overhaul led to several impressive tournaments, including the ’64 U.S. Open, but the USGA didn’t like the par-3 finish. Instead, for the ’64 Open and other tournaments to follow, they borrowed two holes from the bordering “Gold” course, so the finishing hole would be the members 17th – a very difficult par 4 to a peninsula green.

When the USGA returned the Open to Congressional in 1997, they agreed to give the par 3 finishing hole a try. The result only confirmed their opinion that par 3 finishing holes are anti-climactic – even with the lake and picturesque clubhouse in view. The real drama was on the 17th where Tom Lehman’s second shot bounced into the Lake – no one remembers winner Ernie El’s play on the par 3 18th.

Tiger Woods brought the AT&T National to Congressional and with it, a
decision to solve the routing problem permanently by reversing the 18th hole and making it the 10th. The new par 3 hole is far more demanding than the old 18th, but this again has spurred some controversy as some of the pros have whined about needing to hit a 220-yard iron shot over a lake at 7 a.m. as groups will go off of both nines on Thursday and Friday. The dollars spent for the renovations were indeed exorbitant. But, that’s only half the story.

By now, most of my readers probably understand that golf course maintenance is demanding and fickle. Our best golf course superintendents combine science and art with keen observation to get us the best conditions and they rarely have the tools necessary to duplicate the conditions we see on TV.

So what does it really take to set up and maintain U.S. Open conditions? If you browse the Internet, you’ll find lots of figures – greens at .10 (less than 1/8) of an inch with 14 to 14.5 stimpmeter readings, primary rough at 2.75 to 3.25 inches depending on the length of the hole, fairways at .345 (1/3) inches to etc., but the real tale of the tape is in the labor involved.

Watching the tournament on TV sometimes leads to players wondering why they can’t have those same or similar conditions for their Club or City Championship. Without the help of equipment loans from equipment manufacturers and countless hours of highly skilled volunteers from the turf maintenance field it wouldn’t be possible to produce the near perfection you see on television.

Congressional has a current maintenance staff of 55. Your local golf course will be fortunate to have 10. In fact, I’ve been told by a reputable source that all eight 18-hole courses in Doña Ana County probably don’t total that many employees. I recently heard that the 9-hole North Course at the University of New Mexico is being maintained by three full-time employees. This on a course of some historical significance as in 1947, in its original 18-hole configuration, it was the first course in America to break the 7,000-yard barrier.

For the tournament, there will be 120 volunteers on the maintenance staff. Most are golf course superintendents and assistants from around the country. Following a split shift of 4 a.m. until 8a.m. and then 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. they return to their quarters at nearby American University. No napping during the day though. All volunteers are required to stay on property throughout the day in case of rain. All meals are prepared by the Congressional Country Club chef for the staff and volunteers. If I was there, despite the exercise, I’d probably still gain weight.

The major turf equipment manufacturers provide many pieces of equipment on loan. The extra equipment that will be on hand includes six walking greens mowers, four walking collar mowers, eight turf rollers, four walking tee mowers, 19 five-plex fairway mowers, five rotary rough units configured for six- and nine-foot cutting widths, two mechanical bunker rakes, 22 maintenance carts and 36 squeegees.

All areas in-play are mowed each day. Greens, tees and fairways are mowed mornings and evenings. Congressional’s new greens were equipped with an underground water evacuation system. I couldn’t find anything about the specifics of the system, but I imagine it works using a vacuum principle.

If you’ve been paying attention to my column, you might remember an article I wrote a few months ago about the USGA’s emphasis on “Firm and Fast” conditions. In that article, I mentioned they would be using a measuring device to determine if their intended firmness was being achieved. This U.S. Open will feature firmness measurements on the greens (morning and evening) with maintenance adjustments if necessary to meet the intended conditions.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.

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