Watching Grass Grow (Closely)
Thursday, July 5, 2007
It's like babysitting, Mike Giuffre said. And the hotter it gets, the more he must keep a watchful eye on his charge -- the 7,204-yard Blue Course at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.
Giuffre, the director of grounds and golf maintenance at Congressional, and his staff of more than 60 people can only react to what Mother Nature throws at them as they work to ensure that the greens are appropriately fast and the rough properly punishing by the time the first player tees off today in the AT&T National.
"To make sure the grounds peak at the right time, we're getting into the heavier maintenance routines," Giuffre said, explaining that as different weather fronts brought cooler temperatures last weekend, crews began cutting the greens three times a day and passing over them with rollers.
"It's being patient as much as anything and planning based on the weather forecast," he said. "We don't put too much stress on them too early. You want to bring them in at the right time for that desired green speed so you can maintain it."
Tournament officials are aiming to have Congressional's undulating greens rolling at an 11.5 on the Stimpmeter, a device that measures the speed at which balls roll. The Stimpmeter ratings when Steve Rintoul, PGA Tour advance rules official, arrived June 25 were about 9.5.
"People like to think the faster the better," Rintoul said. "But the faster the greens, the more you lose the ability to use hole placements. If you want to use a certain area for a hole, you have to consider what's a considerable putting speed there."
According to Rintoul, Tiger Woods, the tournament host, expressed a desire for a more difficult course than the one the players faced at the 2005 Booz Allen Classic, the last time Congressional hosted a PGA Tour event. He wanted something closer to the conditions Congressional will feature when it plays host to the 2011 U.S. Open.
Part of bringing the Blue Course to that standard was changing it from a par 72 to a par 70. The sixth and 11th holes have been reduced from par 5s to par 4s, with epic lengths of 488 and 489 yards, respectively.
Another significant change is Congressional's infamous 190-yard par-3. In the 1997 U.S. Open, it played as No. 18. At the AT&T National, it will start the back nine -- and play in the opposite direction.
"The new 10th hole is going to go down as one of the finest par 3s in the country," Rintoul said. "It's just majestic. We're excited about seeing how it plays. When you have to play a very difficult par 3 at No. 10 and then No. 11 to start your second day, you're going to have your hands full, and that's just fabulous."
Although Rintoul said he expects the Blue Course to challenge the players, the routing of this week's tournament and the future major will be completely different. He also resisted comparing the course's level of difficulty with that of Oakmont Country Club, the site of last month's U.S. Open and a course widely considered to be the most difficult Open track in memory.
"It's not going to be presented like it would be for the Open," he said. "It's not going to be on that edge. . . . I think [the golfers] like challenges without 5 over being the winning score."
Original concerns about holding a PGA Tour event in the Washington area in July look to be gone. The recent heat and humidity haven't affected the course's playability. To the contrary, the weather has helped the rough sprout up to its pesky best, and the muggy conditions have kept the turf hydrated.
Giuffre and agronomist Dennis Ingram, the PGA Tour regional director of golf course maintenance, said they wouldn't mind a little rain to take the pressure off workers and hand-held hoses, but, please, no gully washers. As they stressed repeatedly, with golf courses, it's a balancing act, "dialing it in" but not overworking it.
"It's like having a young child," said Ingram, who meets with Giuffre several times a day to discuss any area of the course that might pose a problem. "Or a baby that's not old enough to say, 'Mommy, my stomach hurts.' Grass can't talk to you. You have to physically look at it, feed it, water it, and unfortunately, it can die on you very quickly."