ERIN, Wis. – It’s 4:06 a.m. and superintendent Zach Reineking has been up all night. Almost two inches of rain inundated Erin Hills overnight, and there’s more to come. A spreadsheet that Reineking and his three assistants had worked out for each day of the week had to be revised. They have a two-hour window to mow greens and rake bunkers, but the course is too wet for fairway mowing.
Now it’s time for the daily meeting in the crew tent – 165 assembled laborers, 50 of them full-time employees on the maintenance team, another 115 serving as volunteers. Among the latter group are third assistants at area clubs, legendary greenkeepers slated to hold future U.S. Opens and a world-famous turf grass professor with a hobby as a pig farmer. All are here for one reason; to work like crazy the entire week to get the course in shape so that the world’s best golfers don’t complain about conditions.
Reinekeing doesn’t even use a microphone to address the group. His presence leads the crew to quiet down enough, then he gives them a quick run down of the plan. Two by two, three by three, they peel off into discrete teams and head off.
This is a new course for the players, unusual in its scope, with 652 acres and massive hills to negotiate, as well as dense fescue in the wide roughs. The players are quick to mock its depth. Lee Westwood has already posted a video of his caddie, Billy Foster, crawling out of deep rough with a ball in hand, declaring “I found it.”
The video doesn’t show that the fairways are 50-70 yards wide. If you hit it that far off line you have missed it by a very long way. Still, the U.S. Golf Association is sensitive to criticism and is adjusting some of the peripheral mowing lines by cutting down the heaviest fescue in places.
That kind of work will have to await the course drying out, however. After heavy rains Monday night and another good dousing Tuesday morning before play started, the grounds are soaked.
Coming into the week, the course was not quite up to speed thanks to a cold, wet spring that kept the fescue quiet and on the ground on the soft side. The fairways are not rolling out like they should. Green speeds are fine, in the range of 12-plus on the Stimpmeter, but the surfaces are just a bit more receptive than desired. USGA agronomist Elliot Dowling confirmed this while out on the first green early Tuesday taking firmness measurements.
With all that rain, many courses would have seen their bunkers wash out. That’s not as big an issue at Erin Hills, thanks to a style of bunker placement and construction that reduces the amount of water pouring into the cavity.
The angular sand has locks in place and tends to hold its ground very well. But there are plenty of other issues to attend to this morning: debris from trees along the woodland periphery of the third and fourth holes; standing water on walk paths; and only a two-hour window to mow and roll the greens before the next deluge – already visible on weather apps in the form of a dense cell approaching the golf course.
It’s what it takes to get the golf course ready.