By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009
When the galleries travel up River Road and file, by the thousands, onto the grounds of Congressional Country Club two years from now, the greens of the famous Blue Course will look just as they will this Thursday, when the club hosts the AT&T National. Take a picture this week, snap another in two years at the U.S. Open, and there will be no difference.
During the time in between this tournament and the 2011 Open, though, will come a major overhaul, even if no one but the shrewdest golf course experts will be able to tell. Next Thursday, one week after the Washington area's annual PGA Tour stop begins, workers will descend on the greens of the Blue Course and start tearing them up. They will, eventually, remove all the sod. They will take away the soil below, and the gravel below that. They will install new ways for water to drain. And then they will rebuild it all, so it looks exactly the same way, a fundamental change that won't be noticeable to the naked eye.
"It's a very complex thing, but it's also necessary," said Mike Giuffre, Congressional's greens and grounds maintenance director, the man who will oversee the project. "But it comes down to the fact that that grass has performed poorly for us in the summertime the last six or seven years. It hasn't putted like we'd like it to. We need a change."
Golf course management might seem like glorified lawn mowing, but Congressional's project shows that it is very much a science, and a developing one at that. Congressional is making the change not just in preparation for the 2011 U.S. Open -- the third Open the Bethesda club will host -- but because the greens were being taken over by a strain of poa annua, a low-growing grass that can perform well -- and be a proper putting surface -- in cooler climates, but is more unpredictable in the heat and humidity of the mid-Atlantic.
Congressional's greens are actually seeded with bentgrass, which holds up better in Washington's climate, and they were rebuilt only 20 years ago. But there have been significant changes, both in the science behind the grasses used and the structure of the greens themselves, over the past two decades. Because there is new technology available, and because the United States Golf Association, which stages the Open, wants the course in the best condition when the Open arrives, USGA agronomists and officials will work with both the club and its architect, Rees Jones, in monitoring the project.
"We're very interested," said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, who will be in charge of setting up the Blue Course when the Open arrives in 2011. "We're glad the club is taking this step, because it will be good for them and good for us and our championship. And we're going to work closely with them the whole way."
That will begin during the second week in July, when Davis will make an on-site visit to the club, which last hosted the Open in 1997. But the work will be done by Giuffre's team, and it has already started. Because the club did not want to alter the course despite the tremendous upheaval, it took topographical scans of each green, with different colors representing the range of percentage change in the slopes of the green contours. One color, for instance, would be steep, another slight, and so on. Those images will help Giuffre and his staff rebuild the greens exactly as they were.
Perhaps the major factor behind this overhaul: drainage. The putting surface is only the frosting on a very complex cake. Below that lies 12 inches of what laypeople might call "dirt," but which Giuffre and golf agronomists refer to as a "greens mix," a mixture of organic material and sand that makes it easier for water to drain through. Greens mixes, over the last 20 years, are drastically different.
"They've improved dramatically from 20 years ago, when these greens were first rebuilt," Giuffre said. "They improve the drainage in the greens complex, and that means you can have bentgrass growing more healthy."
That's essential, because slowly but surely over the last two decades, poa annua has taken over Congressional's greens. That would be fine in a northern climate. For instance, Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh is famous for its poa annua greens, which were exceptionally fast during the 2007 Open there. But in the mid-Atlantic climate, poa can be more of a nuisance. It is a low-rooting plant that seeds heavily, making it hard to control.
"It competes with the bentgrass, and in many cases it will out-compete the bentgrass," Giuffre said. "And every poa is different. There's so many different kinds, and because these greens are 20 years old instead of 120 years old, it's a younger strain."
With better drainage, the bentgrass should thrive, Giuffre said. The drainage system, though, has to be precisely built. Newer sands, with a mixture of small and large pores, help get the right amount of water to the roots without saturating them. Saturation can be a problem in climates like Washington's because any water remaining in the soil then heats up.
"Water is a conductor of heat," Giuffre said. "If you've got a lot of water in the soil, and the sun comes out and it's 95 degrees, you can have soil temps that could be 100 degrees. That's not good."
The layers of greens mix -- including sand -- and then gravel below that must then exactly mirror the contour of the green. There can't be, for instance, 12 inches of greens mix below the center of the green, but 18 inches below the surface near the fringe. If the green surface undulates, the greens mix and gravel below must do the same.
The project will be undertaken in chunks, with only the front nine closing to Congressional's membership initially. Giuffre's crew will work four greens at a time, and he hopes to have all the new surfaces re-seeded by Sept. 15. Depending on the weather, they could be playable at this time next year.
"Right off the bat, they don't respond like a green that's perfect," Giuffre said. "That would be in its second year. It takes a year of maturation before you get to that point."
That, then, would be in time for the Open, when the golfing public will get another look at Congressional and, by sight, have no clue the changes it went through.