Takes on Industry Happenings

It has been about a month since Martin Kaymer won the Players Championship.

The most dramatic moment of the tournament came on Sunday when Kaymer, playing in the last group, rolled in an up-and-over snaking putt of more than 28 feet on the 17th green to retain his one-shot lead.

The condition of the 17th putting surface was stellar. Kaymer’s golf ball covered the distance from putter to hole with nary a bobble. The turf looked perfect in the late afternoon Florida sun. It was a credit to the work of the golf course superintendent at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, Tom Vlach, as well as his crew and volunteers.

More than a month before the Players, five greens at Sawgrass were in trouble. L.B. (Bert) McCarty, professor of turfgrass science at Clemson University, was brought in to determine what caused the damage and how to rectify it.

It was a cold and wet spring in the Jacksonville, Florida, area. The MiniVerde grass on the greens was just sitting there, as it’s wont to do when soil temperatures just below the surface are in the 50s. The story goes that a spray was put down to jump-start the bermuda. That resulted in areas checking out on the five weakest greens.

Superintendent magazine contacted the PGA Tour to get a comment on what happened, and was told on Tuesday of tournament week, “Commissioner Tim Finchem will address this issue in his press conference today at 1 p.m. That is the one and only time that the topic will be addressed officially by the PGA Tour.”

Finchem didn’t really address the issue in large part because no one asked pointed questions during the press conference. Finchem did explain some of the cause. The three worst greens on the golf course, which were closed for the practice round, are the smallest on the course and have shade issues, he said.

Finchem talked about possibly moving the date of the tournament in the future to avoid another situation like this year. Until seven years ago, the Players Championship was held in March on an overseeded golf course.

What Finchem didn’t address, but McCarty did, was the heart of the problem. The situation in late March was not just about temperatures; it was also about the annual maintenance regime of the golf course, which is dictated by money rather than agronomy. The PGA Tour is big business. One way it makes money is by selling lots of expensive tee times at the Stadium Course. To maximize its earning potential, it appears that the course is not aerified as often as needed in order to reduce the number of days of lost revenue

Here’s McCarty’s opinion.

“The bermudagrass had insufficient root structure. This is from the excessive thatch, high traffic levels and compaction,” he wrote.

He later detailed how to fix the problem: “Aerification and cultural practice strategies need to be more aggressive. These need to be increased and allowed to be completed throughout the summer. This will help remove the excessive organic matter, decrease surface-water holding capacity and alleviate compaction … I suggest deep-tine aerifications in June followed by regular aerifications approximately six weeks apart.”

He also addressed reducing rounds prior to the event.

“I suggest ceasing daily play in mid-March to allow sufficient time for greens to heal,” McCarty wrote.

Put in perspective, that is a month longer break than this year, an additional 30 days of lost golf revenue. In his report, McCarty said the layout averages about 130 rounds a day, which works out to 3,900 rounds over a month. This time of year midweek tee times at Sawgrass are $400. Take away 3,900 rounds at $400 each and that’s $1,560,000 in lost revenue. This doesn’t even factor in lost or reduced-price green fees because of summer aerations.

That’s a lot of money in anyone’s book, but the PGA Tour has to make a decision on whether or not to follow McCarty’s advice. Having the bottom line dictate agronomics isn’t working, nor will it work. Doing so means that in years of wet winters and/or cool springs there will be issues on greens.

My fear is that someone will have to pay because of the conditions that the greens were in this year. The money guys, not the grass guys, caused the problems, but the money guys are safe, rest assured.

It has been about a month since Martin Kaymer won the Players Championship. I’m just glad Tom Vlach still has his job.