2004: The Masters - Masters’ maintenance practices make perfect

Augusta, Ga.

On the surface, it would appear to be the poster child for the over-manicured golf course. Each spring during The Masters, spectators and television viewers gawk at the flawless conditioning of Augusta National Golf Club. The flowering shrubs are in glorious full color. Each blade of grass is crystalline green. The blinding white bunkers seem edged with laser sharpness. There’s not a weed or blade of Poa annua in sight.

The result is a powerful set of expectations for perfect golf course conditioning. It’s best known as “The Augusta National syndrome.” Advocates herald it as the highest achievement of an industry’s collective expertise. Critics dismiss it as indulgent and economically wasteful.

The differences in opinion notwithstanding, one thing is clear about course maintenance at Augusta National. The entire program is undertaken with meticulous attention paid to sound ecology and cultural management practices.

A rare peek into the club’s maintenance practices reveals an environmental commitment that far exceeds industry standards. Environmentalists quick to dismiss Augusta National – and golf in general – as ecologically wasteful would be in for a rude awakening if they examined its day-to-day operations in detail.

Senior director of golf course and grounds Marsh Benson and superintendent Brad Owen preside over a 365-acre site, yet only 140 acres of it is under close turfgrass cultivation management. Some 55 acres are kept as natural woodland. The club engages in modest tree management in order to enhance agronomy, and it also plants upward of 120 trees per year – including three dozen pines on the right side of the fairway at the par-4 11th hole for this year’s tournament.

All 35 acres of public parking ground are left unpaved and kept, instead, in native grasses that provide habitat for birds, most of it unmaintained. Contrary to public impression, the club does not use potable city water. Instead, its 2,500 irrigation heads spray raw, untreated water from the Savannah River that is then returned, via surface and subsurface drainage.

The two-acre maintenance quarters just west of the par-3 fourth hole is a superintendent’s dream come true. The mechanic’s quarters are hospital clean. Every rake is hung. All fuel and oil is stored in underground tanks that exceed state-mandated requirements. For lubricant, the club relies on organic, food-grade grease that is not petroleum-based. Biodegradable hydraulic fluids are used where equipment will allow for it. All mowers are meticulously rinsed off at a wash station that isolates the debris and recycles all of the water; the station, installed in 1992, preceded any legal requirements for its design and remains state of the art.

Fertilizers and pesticides are stored in a separate building on the far side of the employees’ parking lot. The 1,800-square-foot building includes polyurethane-lined shelves, each with a catch tray to contain spills or drips from individual containers, and an automatic air filter that turns on as soon as the door is opened. In front of the building, a freestanding mailbox labeled “FOR FIRE DEPT” contains updated, detailed inventories and schematic diagrams that could help officials if a fire broke out.

Augusta National has a full-time risk and safety officer on hand. Randy Register’s job includes running risk evaluation and safety classes for all club employees, including the 65 crew members who work in the three major maintenance-related departments of buildings, golf course and horticulture. All outside contractors who do work on the course – 2,000 since 1997, according to Register – also are required to take the class.

Augusta National follows a surprisingly lean maintenance regimen when it comes to herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. The approach is curative, not preventive. The club also follows systemic cultural practices. For example, instead of spraying for mole crickets, the club treats one of their favorite infestation sites, namely bunkers. During the summer, when the course is closed, the crew covers the bunkers with sealed plastic liners that prevent mole crickets from establishing themselves. The strategy also facilitates weed control by eliminating the possibility of seeds settling in and taking root.

The club maintains a fairly sparse fertilization program. Critics of over-fertilization point to the smelly mosh pits that sprang up following heavy rains at the last two Masters. Benson dismisses such accounts, attributing the odor to a “green manure smell” that develops when heavy pedestrian traffic grinds green leaf blades into wet soil.

For monitoring the chemical and nutrient composition of its turfgrass, the crew has its own soil lab, replete with a near infrared reflectance spectroscopy monitor that provides detailed tissue analysis.

No doubt, budgetary resources provide Augusta National a level of maintenance that is unsurpassed in the industry. What’s crucial to note is that much of the effort is applied to monitoring technology and cultural practices designed to influence the growing medium and microclimates in a nonpolluting way.

That’s especially the case in the low-lying area of Amen Corner, where Nos. 11-12-13 are located along Rae’s Creek and a smaller, unnamed tributary.

Greenside monitoring devices have been built into the 12th and 13th greens for measuring temperature and other indicators at various soil depths. 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 a notoriously shaded area. And all of the greens have been equipped with SubAir, a subsurface airflow technology devised by Benson.

In the aftermath of last year’s Martha Burk controversy, the club is sensitive to how it is publicly portrayed. Although club officials feel their course hasn’t gotten enough credit for its environmental stewardship, they are reluctant to publicize their efforts.

The irony is that what Augusta National does places it at the forefront of American golf facilities. It also makes theirs one of the best-managed open spaces in the city of Augusta. On a street – Washington Road – that is chockablock for miles in both directions with tacky commercial development, fast-food outlets and paved parking lots, the club’s 365 acres provide a much-needed, ecologically diverse niche for flora and fauna.

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