It will also be on the tees, fairways, greens and in the rough of the municipal golf course located about 10 miles southwest of Tacoma, Washington, and overlooking Puget Sound.
The U.S. Open, June 18 to 21, will mark the first time a men’s or women’s major outside the British Isles will be played on a course where fescue is a dominant turf type.
The U.S. Women’s Open was played on Newport (Rhode Island) Country Club in 2006. Newport has no fairway irrigation and the predominantly Poa annua fairways are overseeded with fescue.
Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects designed Chambers Bay. Jason Blasi was the project architect.
Chambers Bay isn’t the first fescue golf course with which Jones is associated. In 1987 the Links at Spanish Bay opened on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Jones, former United States Golf Association (USGA) Executive Director Sandy Tatum and professional golfer Tom Watson designed the course. When it opened, the fairways were 100 percent fescue, but overwatering in the ensuing years led to Poa taking over.
It’s doubtful that Chambers Bay, which opened in 2008, will see the same fate.
According to Blasi, the original mix on Chambers Bay’s tees, fairways and greens contained 5 percent Colonial bentgrass by weight. The rough was 100 percent fescue. Eric Johnson, the director of agronomy since July of 2012, says overseeding of greens is done with 100 percent fescue. Fairways and tees have a blend of fescue and Colonial, partly, according to Blasi, for the look. Golfers who see their ball resting on straight fescue for the first time sometimes are uncomfortable about the turf’s unfamiliar color and texture.
In many locations throughout Chambers Bay, the rough is part Colonial due to realigning of the original hole corridors.
“Most of what was fairway is now rough on a lot of holes,” says Josh Lewis, Chambers Bay’s golf course superintendent.
ACCORDING TO BLASI, IT WAS the RTJ II design firm’s intent from the very beginning to go with fescue for the links-style layout. The design team, including Robert Trent Jones II and Bruce Charlton, the president and chief design officer, visited the Bandon Dunes resort multiple times to see what the agronomic team had learned after having grown in and maintained four fescue golf courses.
As Bandon expanded from the original course to Pacific Dunes, Pacific Trails and, ultimately, Old Macdonald, the percentage of Colonial in the seed mix dropped until Old Macdonald was planted as straight fescue.
Colonial often is included in a fescue mix because it acts as a nursery crop. Although fescue germinates quickly, it’s slow to tiller and mature. Meanwhile, Colonial establishes to outcompete weeds. In theory, over time, by maintaining for fescue, the fescue will out-compete the Colonial to the point that very little Colonial survives.
Although the Jones team wanted to use a primarily fescue mix from the start, it was John Ladenberg, the Pierre County executive during the creation of Chambers Bay, who made the final call. The county owns the course that cost about $22 million to build.
“This project was his vision,” Blasi says.
The design was predicated on the fact there would be no golf cars, since fescue can’t handle the wear and tear of the vehicles. It was Ladenberg who made the decision that Chambers Bay would be walking only, Blasi says. Kemper Sports, which manages the facility, backed the RTJ plan, he adds.
“There were a half-dozen spots on the golf course where cart paths wouldn’t work, holes set in big dunes,” Blasi says.
“It would have been certain failure with motorized golf cars,” Johnson says.
One obstacle the project encountered during grow-in was the difference in the winter soil temperatures between Bandon and Chambers Bay, with Chambers Bay being 5 to 9 degrees cooler.
“That’s enough for the grass to keep growing or not grow,” Blasi says.
The lower temperature meant it took longer than anticipated for coverage.
JOHNSON AND LEWIS PREVIOUSLY worked at Bandon prior to coming to Chambers.
Johnson was the superintendent at Bandon Dunes and Old Macdonald. He came to Chambers Bay in 2012. Lewis was an assistant at Bandon Trails, then Old Macdonald, before going to Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, California, an Alister Mackenzie design. He has been at Chambers Bay since November 2011.
Even without golf cars, the approximately 38,000 rounds Chambers Bay hosts in a year can be taxing on fescue, especially in the coldest months. Leading up to the U.S. Open, rounds were reduced in the winter to preserve turf.
Johnson says one way to cut down on wear on greens is to be “mindful of hole locations.” Giving golfers various routes on and off the putting surfaces protects the turf.
Mowers are closely managed on the putting surfaces to reduce wear, Johnson explains.
“A lot of it is not turning on the edge of greens,” he adds.
Areas with high golfer traffic are managed with stakes and ropes.
For Blasi, Chambers Bay provided a tutorial about player movement. In one case it meant a partial redesign of the fourth green to accommodate how golfers entered and exited the putting surface.
“You learn the power of traffic patterns,” Blasi says.
As Johnson likes to say, “Poa goes where traffic was.”
THE CHAMBERS BAY AREA rarely gets below freezing and, come spring, conditions are ideal for Poa. In early April of this year, temperatures were 50 to 55 during the day and in the 40s at night.
“Right now there’s nothing we can do,” Lewis said at the time. “It’s just about a perfect climate for Poa annua.”
The good news is that hardly a drop of rain falls from early July through the middle or end of September, – and that’s when Chambers Bay fights back against Poa as temperatures average 60 degrees at night and 90 during the day.
“Our goal through the summer is to drought out as much Poa as possible,” Lewis says.
It’s then that Chambers Bay becomes the links-like course the designers envisioned.
“That’s when you see the beauty of the architecture,” Lewis says.
Because the course can be open 12 months a year, feeding of the turf is constant.
According to Johnson, fertilizer is applied about 10 times a year.
“Typically, we apply about 0.10 to 0.20 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per application,” he says.
Leading up to the U.S. Open, there will be a concerted effort to make sure the fescue rough is dense enough come tournament time.
Johnson says ammonium sulfate is applied at a half-pound to a pound of product per 1,000 square feet. The ferrous sulfate is usually applied at 0.125 pound per 1,000 square feet, sometimes less.
“Most of these applications were in rough areas lagging behind in growth and were spot-treated with a rotary spreader,” he says. “Our rough fertility is on target for growth and density. Seedheads are emerging, and we are down to monitoring and treating a few areas for additional growth.”
All of Lewis and Johnson’s effort has received support from the county and the management company.
“We’ve never had a pushback on what we do to keep the grass growing,” Johnson says.
IN THE FIRST FEW YEARS OF Chambers Bay’s existence, the coverage of turf was not as dense as desired. Architect David McLay Kidd has a theory as to why this happened at Chambers Bay and other layouts built in recent years that grassed with the suddenly trendy fescue.
According to the Scottish-born designer and the architect of Bandon Dunes, it’s caused by under-feeding and under-watering during the grow-in.
Kidd says the fairways at Bandon received 8 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet and says the layout was “verdant green” in its first year. Also, the mix had more fescue to Colonial by weight, but more Colonial than fescue by actual seed count.
The object of the high nitrogen application and the dominance of the Colonial, according to Kidd, was to have a fast germination that held back the weeds and formed a layer of thatch a quarter- to a half-inch thick.
“Grow-in fertility has to be aggressive. You’ve got to fill in and out-compete,” Kidd says.
He also points out that, at Bandon, the greens are now 100 percent Poa, and he commends superintendent Ken Nice for making sure they still play firm.
In March, Kidd’s latest design, Gamble Sands, opened. He says he took much the same tact during growing it in that he did at Bandon.
Located in Brewster, Washington, Gamble Sands is a predominantly fescue golf course. Nitrogen was put down at a rate of 5 pounds per thousand square feet, with the desired results occurring. Chip Caswell, the superintendent at Gamble Sands, was in charge of the grow-in.
In the July-August 2009 issue of the USGA Green Section Record, Robert Vavrek’s article on fescue recommends the strategy that Kidd touts.
“Fine fescue has the same critical needs for timely irrigation and fertilizer during grow-in as bentgrass, Kentucky bluegrass or any other cool-season grass species,” Vavrek wrote. “Do not limit inputs of water and nutrients during establishment. Fescue germinates quickly but is quite slow to tiller and mature. Reduce water and nutrients only after the stand of turf has become well-established.”
Kidd says it’s possible that some American superintendents heard that they were supposed to maintain fescue “lean and mean” with little water and nutrients and “misunderstood” that those guidelines were for after the turf had established.
Kidd also has some advice, courtesy of his father, as far as taking care of divots, a problem on fescue golf courses, because of the slow growth.
He recounts how he and Bandon’s then-director of agronomy Troy Russell had approached Bandon owner Mike Keiser about reducing play on the first Bandon course so the divots weren’t as much of a problem. Keiser called in Kidd’s father, Jimmy Kidd, the well-respected, longtime head greenkeeper at Gleneagles in Scotland, to get his opinion.
“My dad told us, ‘Grow up and get with the program,’ ” the younger Kidd recounts with a laugh. “He said, ‘If it takes more guys to fill divots, then do that.’ “
COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNITED STATES GOLF ASSOCIATION