Rain this week has taken some of the bite out of Augusta National’s notoriously tricky greens. What a shame, because in the run-up to the 2012 Masters, conditions were ideal for a firm, fast setup that would have put the golfers on a nervous edge in terms of controlling surface roll. World-class players want control of the game, and that usually means the aerial game. The ground game is up to the maintenance and design folks. And, as we are reminded this week, the weather gods.
Until last week, the warmest, driest winter in decades had left the region 7 inches below normal for the year in precipitation. That left the golf course with a firm, consistent and dry coat of turf grass. Unfortunately for TV viewers and for those tournament officials who like to present a multi-colored image of the golf course, it also meant that Augusta National’s famous nursery beds of azaleas, nandia and golden bell (among many other species) had bloomed out early and reverted to monochromatic green. All the icing down in the world can’t fend off Mother Nature. So the course will look duller than usual. No need to adjust the color values on your home TV screen.
As for the greens, the midweek rains that shut down Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest mean that the putting surfaces will be more receptive. Given maintenance practices, there will be virtually no loss of surface speeds. Drainage is so good and the subsurface growing medium so well constructed and aerated that the greens still will roll in the 13.5 range on the Stimpmeter.
That’s a far cry from the Bermudagrass days, pre-1981, when some greens ran at nearly half that speed. Back in 1977, the year of Tom Watson’s first Masters victory, the U.S. Golf Association measured the greens at Augusta National and found them to average 7.9 on the prototype Stimpmeter then in use. Not only were the greens much slower back then but they also varied dramatically from one to the next, with the par-3 12th hole measuring only 6.3 and the sixth green, also a par 3, topping out at 9.5. Arguably, it took more skill back then to adjust to such different putting surfaces. This week, regardless of average speed, the variance across the entire golf course will be no more than plus/minus 3 inches.
The micro-management of Augusta National’s greens is nowhere more impressive than in the notoriously low-lying area of Amen Corner, where holes 11, 12 and 13 are located along Rae’s Creek and a smaller, unnamed tributary. There, 170 feet below the elevation of the clubhouse, air circulation is more limited than anywhere on the course and the area remains marginally cooler and with less sunlight than other sections of the course. A system of pipes allows for warming and/or cooling of these putting surfaces. Grow lights at the 12th green afford a means of counteracting shade. And gradual progress has been made in opening up some corridors in the trees for sun.
All of the greens at Augusta National have been equipped with SubAir equipment. This is the subsurface air-flow technology devised by the club’s senior director of golf course and grounds, Marsh Benson, and now marketed independently. SubAir works only with greens built to the modern specifications for sand-based construction developed by the USGA’s Green Section. It won’t work on old-fashioned, push-up greens because those models don’t have the internal drainage structure created by the tiered structure of porous material that flows down into outlet pipes.
The SubAir unit is basically an air pump that hooks into the outlet drains of the greens. It can be used to pump air out of the green, thereby creating a vacuum effect that draws water or residual moisture out of the green surface – thereby expediting internal drainage. The SubAir pump also can be run in reverse to drive air into the system to achieve subsurface cooling. The machinery is of marginal assistance in drying out greens but cannot replace or compensate for poorly constructed greens. The technology is an expensive indulgence and therefore beyond the reach of most clubs. But Augusta National isn’t like most clubs.
More important than SubAir is simply a sound year-round maintenance program. Mowing alone can’t achieve the speeds they get for the Masters. If you tried to do that, you’d beat the turfgrass into submission and it would quit on you. Instead, the A1 bentgrass greens are readily top-dressed, aerated, rolled and kept as dry as possible. Growth regulators help, as does reducing fertilization going into tournament week
Even with all the rain this week, the surface speeds will be there. But there will still likely be just enough ambient moisture residing in the greens to make them a little more receptive than officials would like. That tends to level out the playing field because it allows less-than-perfectly struck shots to stay. The ideal is for the greens to be firm and hard enough so that only perfectly crisp, well-spun iron shots hold. That would tend to reward only the best play.
One effect of the slightly more receptive greens is to open the door for some players who might otherwise have little chance. Unless, of course, the weather dries out completely by the weekend, as looks possible.
Weather aside, those greens remain among the most compelling in all of golf. At 6,435 square feet in average size, they are just slightly above the norm for U.S. golf. But they have more three-dimensional contour than just about any other quality surfaces that function well. There are courses with more greens contour, but those are over-the-top and out-of-control.
The amazing thing about all of these greens is their internal rolls and swales and their personal characters. The green at the par-4 14th hole is one of those putting surfaces where if you fire it at the pin, the ball always seems to roll away into a spot that leaves you in trouble. You have to know precisely where to hit it from the fairway.
That’s the test of an interesting green; one you need to read from afar. The maintenance program at Augusta National allows the character of those contours to stand out like no others in tournament golf. Start with interesting contours. Keep them firm and fast and as dry as possible with good internal drainage, and you have all the elements of the kind of golf theater that make the Masters the best show in the game.