The U.S. Open has long been defined by slick-as-kitchen floor greens and thick-as-hay rough. When the tournament begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, the United States Golf Association, which stages the event, is worried about whether either will be in the proper condition.
“To be honest, we’re behind,” said Stan Zontek, the USGA’s agronomist who has worked closely with Congressional director of golf course maintenance Mike Giuffre in preparation for the Open. “I’m not sure we can make up for lost time.”
There are several reasons behind the concerns. The exceptionally hot weather the previous two weeks put the grass on the greens under extreme stress, “like when you sit outside on a 100-degree day, your body is put under stress.” A lack of rain hasn’t allowed the rough to grow properly, and Zontek says it hasn’t been mown in a week — and still isn’t growing.
Plus, less than two years ago, Congressional tore up its greens and completely rebuilt them, switching from poa annua — which struggled in the summer heat — to a sturdier bentgrass. The move was made not just for the Open, but for the long-term health of the greens. But it may be having ramifications now.
“We were pushing the envelope on holding a U.S. Open on greens less than 21 months old anyway,” Zontek said, “and then the weather set us back a week or a week and a half. We just don’t have enough time.”
USGA officials had been hoping to get the greens to roll to a rating of 14 or 14.5 on the Stimpmeter — a device used to measure the speed of greens — an exceptionally fast number, even for an Open. But in order to do that, the greens would have to be mowed extremely close and rolled. Because the turf has been under such stress, that could cause significant damage. There were brown patches visible Tuesday on some greens, which were rolling in the low 12s. USGA officials met Tuesday afternoon and decided to err on the side of caution.
“We tell clubs when the weather’s like this to be conservative and lower their expectations,” Zontek said. “Well, we’re going to take our own advice.”
Players have generally praised the condition of the course, including the greens.
“I think the course is in great shape,” said Dustin Johnson. “The greens are rolling good. At a U.S. Open, they always stress the greens a little bit.”
The other issue is the rough, which, as in other recent Opens, is graduated with several different cuts. Though the longer grass has been irrigated, “you can never replace natural rainfall,” Zontek said. He described it as “semi-dormant.”
“We actually may be disappointed, slightly, in the rough,” he said. “The golfers are probably going to love it. We may not have some of the traditional U.S. Open rough.”
Zontek said the fairways are “almost perfect,” and said that had Washington experienced a typical June, there would be no issues.
“No matter who you are, what organization you are, you can’t do anything about the weather,” he said.
President Obama, an avid golfer himself, invited three players to the White House for a meet-and-greet Wednesday afternoon. Through the PGA of America, the organization that stages the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship and has a heavy presence in promoting the game on Capitol Hill, Obama reached out to Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Davis Love III.
Given that Mickelson has won four majors, Watson is searching for his first and Love’s only major came 14 years ago at the PGA, this might seem like a random group. But perhaps not. Love will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2011, so his inclusion seems appropriate. The other connection: Obama plays his golf left-handed; Mickelson and Watson are the most accomplished lefties on the PGA Tour.
Mickelson will be accompanied by his wife, Amy, and Watson by his wife, Angie, for the 4 p.m. meeting in the Oval Office.