There will be intense pride on display at Hazeltine National Golf Club for the 41st Ryder Cup held Sept. 27 through Oct. 2 – and we’re not just talking about the competing teams.
Hazeltine Golf Course Superintendent Chris Tritabaugh says the buildup of excitement and anticipation among his staff and members has been palpable. The club joins Pinehurst No. 2 as the only facilities to host the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur, PGA Championship and now the Ryder Cup.
“The club was built for events like this,” Tritabaugh says. “The members are fully involved and engaged in helping run this event. They are ready to show off their course. My staff feels the same way. They have worked hard. I have never had a more in-tuned team.”
Tritabaugh keeps an even keel when talking about his preparation, but admits he would be lying if he said he wasn’t excited about being the host superintendent for an event of this magnitude. A native of Albany, Minnesota, he has spent his entire life in the land of 10,000 lakes, with assistant stints at St. Cloud Country Club (2001-02) and Town & Country Club in St. Paul (2002-06) before becoming the superintendent at Northland Country Club in Duluth (2006-12).
Hazeltine’s calling card as a host of high-profile events is its length, which stretches to 7,628 yards, and narrow fairways that are further pinched in the landing areas by bunkers and water hazards. Throw in relatively small greens, and Tritabaugh says there will be plenty of trouble for those who “cannot hit it long and straight off the tee, or are wild on their approach shots.” He has been working closely with PGA of America Chief Championships Officer Kerry Haigh to produce a setup that will create a test, but still offer good scoring opportunities.
“Hazeltine is a course with one of the best championship pedigrees anywhere,” Haigh says. “It has always delivered in challenging the game’s finest players. There’s an excellent mix of holes well-suited for match play, which will elevate the excitement of the matches. We are delighted by the care, conditioning and teamwork by Chris and his staff. Minnesota has never hosted a Ryder Cup before, but we anticipate that Hazeltine will produce one of the most memorable in history.”
That means the players and viewers should not expect a U.S. Open-type setup, but the course will offer more defense than one usually sees in an NBA All-Star game.
Tritabaugh knocks on wood saying the conditions have been “virtually perfect” for growing grass coming out of winter and through the spring and summer. The surfaces include bentgrass greens (Penn A-4), tees and fairways (Dominant Xtreme 7) and bluegrass rough. The only downside has been there has been no rest for the course, which has been in demand to play by members and for outside events. To compensate, beginning on Aug. 4, all shots hit from the short grass areas have been played off 8-inch by 18-inch artificial turf mats (an idea the Hazeltine staff borrowed from the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club). The course was closed to all play on Sept. 6.
“We are really pleased with how the course looks and plays,” Tritabaugh says. “The divots are beginning to heal, and it’s playing fast and firm. Now it’s a matter of fine-tuning.”
Weather should not be a concern in late September as it is typically the dry season in the Minneapolis region, according to Tritabaugh. He says the staff will need to balance its nutrition and growth regulator applications. There is the potential for frost, but Tritabaugh says a plan is in place to compensate. If the forecast calls for frost, mowing will be done the night before and irrigation will be turned on to eliminate it.
There has not been significant work done to the course since it was lengthened by adding new tees in 2005. The course also added some bunkers and new tees in preparation of the 2009 PGA Championship. In 2015, after spending $50,000 in each of Tritabaugh’s first two years on bunker repair, the Hazeltine membership made the decision to install Better Billy Bunker liners and filled them with Ohio Best Sand in 2015.
“That has been the best thing we have done,” Tritabaugh says. “The bunkers would not drain, and we could not do any detail work. The smallest of rains would destroy what we had just done. They play much more consistently now.”
An interesting aspect to the setup will be the rerouting of holes for the first time at Hazeltine. What are normally hole Nos. 6, 7 and 8 will be Nos. 15, 16 and 17 for the Ryder Cup. The new route will help facilitate the movement of crowds and help Tritabaugh’s staff stage maintenance activities. United States’ Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love is looking forward to the setup, but notes a potential danger.
“The challenge of Hazeltine is that it’s just a big golf course,” Love says. “If it’s cool and windy, it will play very long, with long par-3s and long par-4s. Our goal is to make our players feel as comfortable as possible with the course.”
Although he has never been to a Ryder Cup, Tritabaugh has received plenty of support from previous hosts Steve Cook at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Curtis Tyrrell at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois. In addition, he’ll have 100 volunteers on hand the week of the event. Two-thirds of those will be from Minnesota with the remainder from other regions of the world. He chuckles that he “might have a few volunteers supporting the enemy” during the week.
Tritabaugh, an admitted avid golfer who hasn’t played much this year, caught the Ryder Cup fever in 1995 watching the competition at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, on television. He remembers the excitement of watching Minnesota’s favorite son, Tom Lehman, tee off on the final round. Lehman will serve as Love’s assistant captain this year.
Tritabaugh isn’t one to make predictions on the outcome, but he says the the course will offer a great platform for the competition
“I’ve heard it said they would like to have an atmosphere like Sunday at The Masters,” he says. “That would be something. I could see that happening.”