2004: Features - Winning the ball-mark battle

Verona, Wis.

At the University of Wisconsin golf course, called University Ridge, the starter hands a traditional ball-mark repair tool to every player.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the starter, “but you’re passing out a lethal weapon. This tool will damage your greens.”

He looked at me like I was from Mars, a look I’m not altogether unaccustomed to.

“This will help the greens,” he countered. “That’s why we do it. We want to get rid of ball marks.”

I slashed my drive into the rough – one of my specialties – and another adventure had begun. Four and a half hours later, I could say two things with certainty:

One, the University of Wisconsin has a fascinating golf course with two nines whose personalities are about as far apart as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the front nine is located in a meadow, the back nine in deep woods).

Two, the huge University Ridge greens have more circular, brown-and-yellow ball-mark spots than any greens I have ever seen. They have an acute case of acne. They should be declared a ball-mark war zone.

Don’t get me wrong. The greens are smooth enough, and it’s fun to play this course. It’s just that the putting surfaces look like hell.

Such is the fate of many modern greens. Ball marks, along with our misguided attempts to fix them, have turned our greens into a battleground of dead and dying grass.

If you think I am exaggerating, you probably don’t play much golf on greens with A1, A4 and L93 bentgrasses. These fine-bladed contemporary grasses come with a set of contemporary problems: ball marks are more pronounced than ever before.

Thankfully there is an antidote. I have been testing the short-pronged GreenFix tool on a variety of greens, and I can tell you it works. This is the way to win the war.

When I visited Columbia (S.C.) Country Club, where the South Carolina Amateur was being played, a competitor told me the GreenFix tool cannot be used on topdressed Bermudagrass greens. This is nonsense. Topdressed greens are softer and more fragile, but the pushing motion still works. It is important to use the proper technique.

The basic idea here is to avoid cutting, snipping or ripping the grass. When golfers refer to fixing ball marks with the old tool as “gardening,” they aren’t far off. Some golfers seem to dig enough turf to plant corn.

Out in wheat country, I played the magnificent Hallbrook Country Club in Leawood, Kan., and realized all over again the importance of greens in the general perception of any course. At Hallbrook, a Tom Fazio design that opened in 1988, the course was closed down for a year while the severely sloped greens were recontoured and regrassed.

If greens are this crucial to the overall game, then eradicating ball marks should be part of the maintenance equation at any course. Yet Hallbrook, which reopened this spring, has a supply of traditional tools that don’t begin to address the problem.

If you ask me, someday we will look back in wonderment and muse, “You mean we really used those long things to perform surgery on ball marks?”

The comparison with nonmetal spikes is inevitable, and I believe GreenFix will be every bit as instrumental in golf’s future. Long-tonged tools will go the way of metal spikes: Going, going, gone.

I have been distributing new tools to golfers wherever I go. It’s not that I owe any favors to Danny Edwards, the GreenFix founder. Rather, I perceive an opportunity to improve our greens.

Exhibit A is the storied Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, where old green tools have been banned in favor of GreenFix. I spent a day there, and what I saw knocked me off my block. The greens were absolutely stunning.

I felt I was glimpsing the future.

Look, mom, no more acne.

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