Bringing Chambers Bay Back to Life

By: Tony Dear




To most eyes, it looked like Chambers Bay had been taken to breaking point last week for the U.S. Amateur Championship. However, though concerned at times, superintendent David Wienecke felt comfortable his course would survive its first test under the national spotlight.

It wasn't dead, not completely anyway, but it certainly looked like Chambers Bay had had most of the life sucked out of it for the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship. Severely dehydrated, it appeared that the Pierce County-owned facility was taken to the very limit of what it could endure. And while Superintendent David Wienecke acknowledges there were moments when he wondered how much the course could take, he was for the most part comfortable with what the USGA asked of him.

The course was just as 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.

"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%. They have different turf at Sahalee - poa annua which doesn't cope with a lack of water nearly as well as fescue, but still the difference was significant."

TruFirm readings (Trufirm is a device developed by the USGA that measures the firmness of a surface) were in the 0.2 to 0.25 range meaning pitch mark repair tools were totally unnecessary, and Wienecke says that in areas that were not irrigated he had to go 24 inches down into the soil to find any evidence of moisture.

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 uneasy when Mike Davis, the USGA's Senior Director of Rules and Competitions, arrived at the course on the Tuesday preceding the event and asked if he could push it a little more.

"When Mike asked if we could hold off watering completely then I was a little concerned," he says. "The irrigation system had been turned off for nearly a week already at that point, but we had been hand-watering the greens. Having worked so closely with the turf for so long, I knew it would be okay, but at the same time I was worried that drying the greens out any more might cause a problem. I thought there was a possibility some holes might become unfair because good shots would not be rewarded, and I was concerned we might lose some hole locations."

Wienecke is quick to point out that Davis never urged him to do anything he wasn't entirely comfortable with or that he didn't think could be remedied once the tournament was finished, but this was the first time Chambers Bay had been pushed this far, so Wienecke was naturally apprehensive.

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 two o'clock in the afternoon," Davis admitted. "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 relatively generous dousing, but Wienecke and his crew still had to be extremely careful when cutting new holes. "We watered the area around where the new hole was to be cut fairly heavily to prevent the turf from coming loose," he says. "Then we filled the new hole with water. On fescue greens in the summer, this method of ensuring cleanly-cut holes is not uncommon."

The greens were what Gilhuly referred to as a 'spritz' of water between one and six times each day thereafter, and held up admirably even though one local superintendent was convinced they had been taken too far. Kelly Donaldson, the man in charge of the turf at the Home Course at which everyone in the field played one of their two stroke-play qualifying rounds, visited Chambers Bay on the 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 a story from two years ago when he detected a problem with one of the course's water pumps. "When the problem became apparent, 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 now turned 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. "A good deal 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. He was conscious of what was happening at the Amateur obviously, but he was also thinking ahead at the same time."

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 to recover. "I've given the course 900,000 gallons of water the last three nights which is about normal for this time of year when not preparing for a major tournament," he says. "The moisture level is back up to 11%-20%, and there is some give in the ground. The turf went into a sort of numbed shock last month, but it is already beginning to show some vitality again just as I expected. It's important to note, the health of the plants was not compromised during the Amateur Championship. Larry and I noticed that turf given little or no water during our preparation showed signs of stress followed by a slight recovery as it adapted to the new conditions. If we didn't see this slight recovery, however, we knew we needed to give it additional water. It was quite amazing to observe this happening."

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. What those tweaks could be isn't clear and there are no guarantees all parties involved in Chambers Bay would agree to them anyway. But if changes do indeed need to happen, it's likely Davis would like to see them made sooner rather than later.

It's likely too that one of the areas the USGA would look at 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 championship 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 anything between two and four hours' sleep a day during the two weeks leading up to the event, 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 12 to 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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