Bringing Chambers Bay Back from the Brink

By: Tony Dear


The USGA took Chambers Bay to breaking point last week for the U.S. Amateur. Superintendent David Wienecke is now bringing the course slowly back to life.

It wasn't dead, not completely anyway, but Chambers Bay's vital signs looked pretty poor during last week's U.S. Amateur. Severely dehydrated, the Pierce County-owned facility was taken to the very limit of what it could endure.

That's just how the USGA wanted it, of course. Fast and firm, it demanded superlative ball-striking and shrewd strategy, and the best two players in the field advanced to the final - always a good indication of a course's quality. All was well in the end, thankfully, but the story might have turned out very differently had superintendent David Wienecke and the USGA not taken measures to prevent the course from becoming one giant dust bowl.

"It might well have been the firmest course in championship history, certainly American championship history," says Wienecke, four days after the dust had finally settled. "We had a 4 to 6% moisture level in the turf, which is incredible when you consider the moisture level at Sahalee for the U.S. Senior Open was between 15 and 20%."

TruFirm readings (Trufirm is a device developed by the USGA that measures the firmness of a surface) got as low as 0.1" meaning pitch-mark repair tools were totally unnecessary, and Wienecke says he had to go 24" down into the soil to find any evidence of water.

Along with Larry Gilhuly, the USGA Green Section's Northwest Director, Wienecke had spent the two years leading up to the Amateur testing the turf to see what it could and couldn't handle. In effect, he trained the grass to become drought-tolerant.

"We'd stretch it that little bit further every so often," he says. "I could almost sense the grass thinking 'Well, if this is all he's going to give me to survive then I'll just have to make do'' The turf just kept getting better and stronger."

Even so, the 58-year-old veteran became apprehensive when Mike Davis, the USGA's Senior Director of Rules and Competitions, arrived at the course on the Tuesday preceding the event and instructed him to push it a little more. "When Mike told me not to water at all then I got a little concerned," Wienecke says. "The irrigation system had been turned off for nearly a week already at that point, but we had been hand-watering the greens. I was worried that drying them out any more might cause a problem. I thought the course might become unfair because good shots would not be rewarded, and I was worried we might lose some hole locations."

Indeed, on Monday afternoon during the first qualifying round, it became almost impossible for any shot to hold a green regardless of how well it had been struck. "I became a little anxious at about 2 o'clock in the afternoon," Davis said. "But by 4 p.m. the turf seemed to be retaining some moisture, so players could control the ball a little better."

On Tuesday evening, following the completion of 36-hole qualifying, the greens got a fairly generous dousing, but Wienecke and his crew still had to employ unconventional methods when cutting new holes. 'We watered the area around where the new hole was to be cut fairly heavily just to stop the ground from crumbling and breaking up," he says. "Then we filled the new hole with water."

The greens were given what Gilhuly referred to as a "spritz" every evening thereafter, and they held up admirably even though one local superintendent was convinced they were dead.

Kelly Donaldson, in charge of the turf at the Home Course, which hosted one of the stroke-play qualifying rounds over the first two days of the Amateur, visited Chambers Bay on Wednesday and couldn't believe what he saw. "Kelly took one look at it and just said, 'It's dead,' " says Wienecke. "But I told him to get down on his hands and knees and test it. Sure enough, he discovered the fescue had just gone dormant. Even that little bit of water we were giving the greens from Wednesday onwards was enough to stimulate growth. This grass is very hardy."

To illustrate the point, Wienecke tells the story of the course's faulty water pump. "We had a pump break a few months ago, so I called our repair guy and told him to get out here," he says. "He said he'd be out as soon as possible, certainly by the end of the day. I replied, 'You don't understand, the grass will survive, take your time.' "

Naturally, Wienecke's thoughts have turned now towards the 2015 U.S. Open, but it was clear from his meetings with Davis last week that the USGA had been looking ahead to that event long before the Amateur had even begun. "I'd say 50% of our discussions focused on what we might do for the U.S. Open," he says. "Mike wanted to move the tees around quite a bit to see how each hole played from various distances. It was almost as if the Amateur was already over."

Now that the tournament is over, Wienecke's role is to get the course back in shape for regular everyday play as soon as possible. But once the fescue goes dormant, he says, it takes a while for it to recover. "I've given the course 900,000 gallons of water the last three nights," he said four days after Peter Uihlein beat David Chung in the final. "The moisture level is back up to 11 to 20%, and there is some give in the ground. The turf went into a sort of numbed shock last month, but it is beginning to show some vitality again. It might be the end of September before it's fully back to normal, however."

As far as the USGA is concerned, Wienecke's task for the next four and half years will not only involve continuing to strengthen the turf, but also oversee what design tweaks might be necessary. Lead course designer Robert Trent Jones II and his associates, Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi, are already working on making minor changes, but Pierce County, the course's owner, will have to complete a cost analysis and then decide what it is prepared to pay for. "If the county does decide to go ahead with the alterations it will have to do it fairly soon," says Wienecke, "because Mike has said he'd like to see the changes carried out sooner rather than later."

What those changes might be isn't clear right now, though one issue the USGA will certainly need to address is crowd safety as several people fell on the steep and slippery dunes during the Amateur in an attempt to follow the action. "It was tragic that some people have hurt themselves," Wienecke told the Tacoma News Tribune. "It's a very real concern and there will be a great discussion following the tournament this week."

The 13-acre practice range, which was seeded just a few weeks prior to the Amateur, will also need attention. "The range wasn't quite ready," says Wienecke. "We seeded it in July and it didn't quite mature in time for the tournament. Ground conditions really need to be consistent within the next couple of years. The turf on the range will need to be in exactly the same condition as that on the course by the time the U.S. Open arrives."

Until then, Wienecke can at least get some proper rest. Operating on between two and four hours' sleep a day during U.S. Amateur week, he says he is still completely exhausted and that his wife became quite concerned with his health. "The crew and I were at the course for 16 hours a day," he says. "It was incredibly hard work. But I think we did okay."

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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