Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Course Preparation for a USGA National Championship

      Oh what a beautiful morning! That was always the first thing that ran through my head while I was driving into work at 3:45 am each day during our hosting of the 2013 US Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. It takes a certain level of organization, a great sense of humor and a positive attitude to be able to host Championship golf. With the USGA conducting 13 National Championships a year and the PGA, LPGA and Senior PGA Tours conducting a certain number of tournaments and championships a year, not everyone in this industry gets to experience the hosting of these special and prestigious events. 

      We are extremely fortunate, in the sense, that we have hosted two USGA National Championships in the past 4 years!  Having hosted the US Amateur Public Links Championship previously in 2009, we were much more prepared when we were asked by the USGA to host the 2013 US Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. 

What most people do not realize, is the high level of turf maintenance required to conduct such Championships. Below is an article written by Robert Vavrek (USGA Agronomist) that was featured in the USGA Green Section Record in April 2013. This article explains what host clubs do to prepare their clubs to challenge the best golfers in the world.

   Course Preparation for a USGA National Championship — What’s All the Fuss?

      The high level of turf maintenance required to conduct a U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, or any other USGA national championship may surprise the casual player as much as the hardcore golf enthusiast.

      Golfers raved about course conditions after the recent club championship. The greens were smooth — slick as ice. And how about those impossible “never been there before” hole locations? Fairway striping patterns rivaled the intricate mowing patterns of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Bunkers have never been firmer or more consistent. Perhaps you hear the ultimate compliment in the clubhouse . . . “We could have hosted the U.S. Open today!” Assume the playing surfaces could indeed challenge the cream of the world’s professional and amateur golfers. Could you sustain this high level of course conditioning throughout an entire week of competition? Before answering, let’s discuss the scope of maintenance practices associated with hosting a typical national championship. To put it another way, just what is so 
special about course conditioning for a USGA national championship and why?


      In general, well-conditioned golf courses mow greens every day and roll two to three times per week during peak months of play. Collars, tees, fairways, approaches, and intermediate roughs are mowed three times a week, usually Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Roughs, green banks, and bunker banks will be mowed once or twice weekly, depending on turf growth rate. Bunkers will likely receive some attention each day.

      No doubt, there will be a higher level of expectations and more intense maintenance for a special event at any public or private golf facility. Those additional hours spent grooming the course will probably be spent “burning in” the intricate striping pattern across fairways and producing the firmest bunker conditions possible. Extra rolling and mowing will certainly produce the highest green speed of the season, and, maybe, just maybe, the rough will be allowed to grow a half-inch higher. In contrast, most facilities will find it 
necessary to increase the frequency and intensity of maintenance operations throughout the week of a USGA national championship. Granted, maintenance standards for daily play at a few elite facilities may already meet or exceed some of our expectations for course conditioning, such as green speed or bunker maintenance. However, any attempt to maintain a golf course at the peak of championship 
readiness would be unsustainable from both a turf health and economic perspective.There is no “one size fits all” set of course conditions for all U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur Championships. Green speed, the firmness of greens, fairways and approaches, mowing frequency, the establishment and maintenance of a graduated rough, and many other broad and specific aspects of course conditioning for the competition will be determined and documented in cooperation with the host venue during site visits made by the USGA’s staff person in charge (SIC) in advance of the championship. The SIC will be assisted by USGA Executive Committee members, other members of the USGA Rules and Competitions staff, the regional USGA Green Section agronomist, as well as the golf course superintendent, golf professional, and other representatives 
of the host venue. The course preparation memorandum generated from site visits will serve as a road map 
for course maintenance in the years, months, and weeks leading up to the event.


      Go no further than practice facilities to find significant differences between priorities for daily play versus a championship. Most golf facilities prepare the course for daily play first and then allocate equipment and labor to practice areas at their convenience. In contrast, practice greens, tees, and short-game areas must be ready at first light to accommodate players who have early tee times at a championship. Having lights on at least some of the maintenance equipment is a bonus when mowing is required before dawn. In fact, facilities that host championships often use transportable banks of lights to illuminate practice areas for extra-early morning maintenance; it is that important. On the other hand, you won’t find many guests anxious to putt while the crickets are still chirping during the club invitational, unless, of course, they happen to still be on the property after the previous evening’s clubhouse festivities.It is no surprise that golfers who compete for a U.S. Open Championship are more likely to be familiar with the host venue versus golfers competing for a U.S. Amateur Championship. However, some of the field at a championship will be playing the course for the first time during practice rounds. Consequently, the USGA strives to provide the entire field a consistent level of course conditioning from the first practice round through the final day of competition. Practice rounds need to be meaningful and representative of conditions experienced throughout the competition. Practice rounds are not the time to ratchet up green speed by two feet or grow an inch of rough. No doubt, some minor adjustments to the course will likely be necessary during practice rounds, but generally the overall play-ability of the course should remain consistent throughout the competition. Furthermore, playing conditions in practice bunkers, the height of cut on practice tees, the firmness of chipping greens, and the speed of practice greens should represent what players will experience on the course. The practice facilities are going to get a workout, so hole locations on practice greens need to be moved daily, and a similar high level of maintenance will be necessary on practice tees as players rotate to new turf each day. There will be no shortage of divots and debris to remove and divot holes to repair on short-game areas. For some players it may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete for a national championship, and the goal is to make it the best experience possible for the golfer. 


      Putting surface maintenance schedules will usually need to be modified prior to practice rounds to achieve a predetermined level of speed. In general, greens will be double cut and rolled daily to maintain a smooth, consistent surface. An evening mowing operation, when labor and time are more available, can help maintain green speed without adding to the stress of completing multiple maintenance operations across the green complex ahead of morning play. Mowing frequency, heights of cut, and rolling operations will be adjusted up or down depending on the rate of turf growth, weather conditions, and other factors that may affect the health or play-ability of the putting surfaces. Green Section agronomists work closely with turf managers regarding growth regulator applications and ancillary maintenance practices, such as brushing greens, that may be useful before and during the competition.Collars and the first cut of rough adjacent to collars will be mowed each day. Many find that mowing the first cut of rough with rotary push mowers to be the best option for minimizing mechanical stress to turf on green banks and bunker banks associated with a more intense level of maintenance. 

      Fairways, approaches, and intermediate roughs will be mowed daily during a championship. Fairways can be mowed during the evening after play to accommodate staffing or equipment limitations, but they will have to be dragged to remove dew in the morning before play. Divots will be removed and divot holes leveled with an appropriate repair mix — often a combination of sand, soil, and peat — between each round of play.

      Any tee that may be used for the competition will be mowed every day. The course preparation memorandum will document which holes have options for alternate tees. In addition, netting is needed to protect the prime areas of turf before and during practice rounds on any championship tees where the use of irons would cause significant loss of tee space. Netting may also be needed during and before practice rounds to protect turf in localized areas of fairways that have a history of excessive divots, such as in collection areas, due the unique architecture or topography of the course. 

      Bunkers will be raked daily, preferably during the morning just ahead of play. Rakes are to be positioned outside of bunkers, parallel to play, and preferably along the outer edge of the bunker where they are least likely to come into play. 

      A challenging rough that places a premium on shot selection and execution from the tee is an important aspect of setup at all USGA championships. In recent years, the concept of a graduated rough has been adopted. Graduated rough employs incremental increases in mowing height as the distance away from the fairway increases. This provides more options for players who hit a slightly errant shot to advance the ball, whereas players who miss fairways by wide margins face increased difficulty. The specific width and height of each graduation for each hole will be determined at site visits made well in advance of the championship.Presenting golfers with a well defined graduated rough requires additional maintenance equipment and labor compared to mowing the entire rough at one height. Slightly lowering the rough is a fairly straightforward procedure, but raising the height of a semi-dormant, non-irrigated rough would be a challenge and is perhaps impossible to achieve during midsummer, especially at facilities that utilize cool-season turfgrasses. Consequently, most facilities establish championship-length rough during spring when the turf is growing vigorously. Daily play may be inconvenienced before the event, and the use of carts in the rough will need to be curtailed, more so in the weeks just prior to the competition.

      When the weather cooperates, every effort will be made to present players with a firm, fast golf course from tee to green by limiting the amount of irrigation applied to the turf. Depending on the event, the firmness of some or all greens will be measured at least once a day using the USGA TruFirm device. TruFirm values will be used to determine when and where water will be applied to putting surfaces. Constant vigilance of TruFirm readings and adjustment with hand-watering will help ensure similar levels of firmness between greens and prevent greens or portions of greens from becoming excessively firm.Ideally, the firmness of approaches will equal or exceed the firmness of putting surfaces to provide the option of run-up shots to the putting surface. Firm playing surfaces provide maximum reward for well-executed golf shots. The standard practice of using automatic irrigation to water the golf course at night will usually be suspended 
during the week of the championship. Greens, tees, approaches, and fairways will be sparingly hand-watered as needed to maintain healthy turf. Extensive areas of excessively dry turfcan be watered with automatic irrigation during the evening when hand watering is not practical. However, any automatic irrigation will need to be carefully monitored by the maintenance staff and manually cycled on and off to minimize the potential for sprinkler malfunctions. No doubt, a week of drying out and firming up the golf course for a USGA 
competition will be a unique challenge for most golf facilities. The importance of developing a comprehensive cultivation and topdressing program to prevent excessive thatch accumulation well before the event cannot be overemphasized. Equally important are the timely use of plant growth regulators and wetting agents. 


      Play will begin from the first and tenth tees during practice rounds and for at least the first several days of the championship. USGA staff will meet the hole-changing team on the first and tenth tees to set tee markers and then proceed to greens for final determination of hole locations. All course maintenance will have to be completed ahead of the USGA staff as they proceed hole by hole, in order, on each nine to set up the course for competition. Keep this in mind when determining the appropriate amount of equipment and staffing to have available at the event.Weather is the wild card at any championship. Lightning is the most common problem to cause play to be suspended for an extended period of time. The worst-case scenario is the need to prepare the course the next morning for a shotgun start to finish a suspended round and then complete a 
change in course setup prior to starting the current day’s competition. It is wise to plan for the worst and hope for the best, so have a contingency plan for this situation and an estimate of how early the course could be ready for a shotgun start should a suspension in play occur. Knowing when the course can accommodate golfers after a suspension is important to the media, spectators, the USGA, and, most of all, the players. The best way to anticipate and address the unique challenges of preparing any golf course for an U.S. Open or U.S. Amateur Championship is to schedule a dry run of maintenance operations a year prior to the competition. Schedule the dry run as close to the same week as the competition to experience similar weather conditions and day length. Document how long it takes to complete each task and take into account increased travel time associated with unfamiliar or circuitous routes employed to avoid galleries, concessions, or any other hindrances related to a specific competition. In addition, it never hurts to have several key course maintenance staff attend at least a few days of the previous year’s championship.

      In summary, this article is not meant to define an all-encompassing set of best maintenance practices (BMPs) that prepares your golf course for a USGA national championship. Every 
facility and competition poses unique challenges that require unique solutions, which is why a considerable 
amount of time is spent visiting host sites in the years prior to an event. In the end, it comes down to producing fair, challenging conditions capable of identifying a national champion, while also fulfilling the once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone who qualifies for the competition.