Forgive me, but I’m still stuck on the U.S. Open. I’m disappointed how this tournament turned out from an understanding-of-agronomics perspective.
University Place, Washington-based Chambers Bay, the first course to host a U.S. Open in the Pacific Northwest, was pummeled by the national media, which went Clubber Lang on the course, particularly for its lumpy, inconsistent and splotchy-colored fescue greens. When golf icon Gary Player said Chambers Bay was the “worst golf course I might’ve ever seen,,” it seemed every media outlet was there to Tweet his statement. And, after Player’s diss, everybody and his bad-golfing brother began to pile on Chambers Bay.
A lot of players and people couldn’t understand why the United States Golf Association (USGA) picked Chambers Bay with all its fescue and sand to host the U.S. Open, and they didn’t hide their disdain for the choice. After his final round, Billy Horschel ripped the greens for being inconsistent, noting that he had lost respect for the USGA and the tournament.
I don’t fault the players for feeling the way they do. The greens at Chambers Bay were bumpy and looked downright dead in some spots. But the fact is that professional golfers and armchair golf fans weren’t ready for a links-style course like Chambers Bay, carved from a former sand and gravel pit, to host a U.S. Open. It’s just too different a course from what they are used to playing and seeing.
Which brings us to golf and sustainability. Mike Davis, the executive director of the United States Golf Association, is a big proponent of sustainability, which is a reason he was excited about Chambers Bay hosting the tournament. Davis sees the big picture of golf, which a lot of others don’t. It can be summarized in two words: fewer inputs.
In the months preceding the U.S. Open, Davis spoke more than once about his fancy for Chambers Bay’s all-fescue design. “Not only doesn’t it need a lot of water, it doesn’t need a lot of nutrients, which makes it, from a sustainability standpoint, a wonderful grass,” Davis said.
I salute Davis for wanting and pushing for golf to be more sustainable. Frankly, the industry needs more people like him to tout sustainability. Davis realizes that golf courses need to use less water and more drought-tolerant grass varieties to be more environmentally friendly. He knows golf courses need to spend less on conditioning to keep the game affordable so more people can play it. Davis also knows that doing these things may result in a rougher-looking golf course with a few imperfections, like bumpy greens.
But clearly, after the reception that it received, the golf world isn’t ready for a course like Chambers Bay to be in prime time. Players and fans don’t understand, or are unwilling to accept, the agronomic implications of a more sustainable turfgrass like fescue, like that it’s not durable to a lot of foot traffic and can lose its color in warmer weather. Throw in the threat of Poa annua, which can play havoc with a golf ball’s roll, and the putting greens just might not perform like you expect. Incidentally, Chambers Bay’s greens experienced a moderate Poa invasion about a month before the tournament.
Of course, the USGA’s set up has an impact on condition and playability. Usually, a U.S. Open course isn’t nearly the same beast as it is the rest of the year. The USGA likes a firm and fast setup, to the hilt.
Perhaps the USGA awarded Chambers Bay a U.S. Open too soon. Not because it is “the worst golf course that Gary Player might’ve ever seen,” but because it is ahead of its time. (Player, by the way, being the so-called water-saving advocate that he is, should applaud Chambers Bay for what it represents in that regard.)
What bothers me most about this year’s U.S. Open is that Chambers Bay’s golf maintenance team, led by Director of Agronomy Eric Johnson and Superintendent Josh Lewis, maybe didn’t get the due that they deserve. These guys are pros and should be commended for the hard work they put in to stage the tournament, not to mention their knowledge of the course’s nuances.
I’m sure Johnson and Lewis felt the sting from some of the media’s comments, but hopefully they embrace the magnitude of their accomplishment and feel proud – for having staged one of the world’s greatest sporting events.