PINEHURST, N.C. – It’s 5:15 a.m. at Pinehurst No. 2 on the last day of practice and already they’re mowing and rolling. Equipment operators have little headlights on their machinery, and they’re doing their best not to run into each pother. Some of them even have lamps on their helmets. Whatever it takes to steer clear of another mobile piece of rattling iron. The walkie-talkies are crackling with instructions, as if pilots are listening to air traffic controllers. It’s all part of a daily choreography: getting the country’s toughest set of greens ready for the world’s best players.
Chris Hartwiger, the USGA’s director of course consulting services, is coordinating one aspect of the process – data collection on all the greens. He has teams of agronomists on each nine recording green speeds, moisture levels and firmness. It’s all entered into an app that the maintenance crew and the USGA have access to.
“If you want to manage it you have to be able to measure it,” says Hartwiger. “Otherwise you’re just guessing.”
And what the numbers show this morning is very encouraging. Green speeds on the No. 2 course are all in the range of 12.7 to 13.1 That’s after double mowing and a single roll. Of course those numbers will change during the day. It’s called “bounce back,” the tendency of freshly cut and rolled turf to emerge from its morning treatment. If mowing is like a haircut, rolling is like ironing. In both cases, there’s a natural response – the turfgrass springs back. During the course of a day’s play there could be a shift of three-quarters of a foot in speed. If the morning groups play greens that start at 13 on the Stimpmeter, the last groups will be putting on greens measuring around 12.3.
The ideal is not to water during the day and to allow the greens to take their normal healthy course. Which they can if they are not on the verge of death. That’s why the crews turned on the sprinklers last night – for all of a 3-minute showering of the greens. They’ve also hand-watered from hoses to specific spots, as directed by staff in the morning.
There’s no set of greens quite like these at Pinehurst. Many of them are convex in shape – to say turtle-backed would not be an exaggeration. And structurally, that poses problems for players, since just about any shot hit to the side or deeper than half way is landing on a surface that’s tilted out and away from the ideal line of play. And with the greens exceptionally firm, even well-struck shots landing on up slopes are bouncing forward, not spinning back. So getting an iron shot close to the hole becomes a carefully calibrated matter of playing it with just the right strength into the upslope – or running it up through a minefield of bunkers so that it rolls out on the surface and not over.
If the greens get too firm they’ll never hold a shot at all. If the greens get too fast they’ll be virtually impossible to putt on. And with all of their slope, it’s tough finding a hole location where a putted ball will come to a stop. All of which requires considerable precision in making sure conditions are just right and the greens don’t go “over the edge,” so to speak.
Thus the morning ritual of mowing, rolling and measurement. All with an eye skywards to see whether the day will bring more searing dry heat or the likelihood of rain showers.
“Twenty years ago,” says Hartwiger, “we were doing it by feel. Now we can be more confident that we can make it through the day.”
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Pinehurst, at a glance
Grass: A1/A4 Bentgrass
Avg. size: 6,388 sq. ft
Biggest: par-5 10th hole, 7,692 sq. ft
Smallest: par-4 16th hole, 5,542 sq. ft.
Mowing height: 0.110-inch
Stimpmeter speed: 12.5 +/-