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Open Championship Agronomy Round-Up

NLU staff agronomist David Marcucilli is back with a round-up of the agronomy at Carnoustie this week:


COURSE STATISTICS AND HEIGHTS OF CUT

Avg Tee Size: 400 sq meters

Avg Green Size: 690 sq meters

Sand Bunkers: 112

Water Hazards: Barry Burn – 10th, 11th, 16th, 17th, 18th

Tournament Stimpmeter: 10 ft

Greens Moisture Percentage: 15% – 25%

Greens Firmness Rating: 120-140 gravities

Tees: Poa, fescue, bentgrass @ 6mm

Fairways: Poa, fescue, bentgrass @ 9mm

Approaches: Poa, fescue, bentgrass @ 6mm

Collars: Poa, fescue, bentgrass @ 6mm

Greens: Poa, fescue, bentgrass @ 4.5mm (weather dependent)

Native: Poa, fescue, bentgrass


TOURNAMENT RUNDOWN

The best part of watching The Open Championship year after year is the ability to see the golf course conditions change with the weather throughout the week. The R&A allows the golf course and the weather conditions to dictate the outcome of the tournament by setting the course up to be fair under the worst weather conditions while still showing it’s teeth under optimal conditions. Each April when we go back to Augusta the golf course looks exactly the same as it did the year before regardless of weather conditions; the maintenance practices there are designed to do so. The USGA has historically tried to setup a golf course that plays to a particular score, only to be proven that Mother Nature is in control of the score. The R&A have learned that regardless of advances in technology and equipment, Mother Nature always wins and it is best to prepare the golf course for the worst and hope for the best.

This year, Scotland is experiencing a dramatic heatwave and lack of rainfall that is leaving golf courses baked out and giving new meaning to the term “firm and fast”. Rather than try to beat the drought conditions, the crewmembers at Carnoustie are embracing the weather-related challenges to provide the best golf course they can for the world’s best players. I had the chance to connect with Craig Boath, Head Greenkeeper at Carnoustie, to briefly discuss his approach to course management this week. For starters, Craig agrees that life would be too easy if the weather laid down and didn’t provide him and his tournament staff of 47 any challenges to handle. They will be monitoring the wind and other variables closely during the week and adjusting their practices as necessary. As of now, winds are expected to hover around 15-20mph throughout the week. Those wind speeds won’t be detrimental to the condition of the golf course because the crew can hand-water overnight to replace the lost soil moisture. The crew at Carnoustie does not expect to be rolling their greens throughout the week and they only plan to mow fairways twice. At a standard PGA Tour event, you might see fairways being mowed twice daily and greens being rolled at least once a day – just to showcase the different mentality in greenkeeping across the pond. We’re too connected to our irrigation controllers and clipping yield rates to go into tournament week prepared to only mow fairways twice. Ask your local superintendent how many times they mow greens and fairways throughout your three-day member/guest tournament; you’ll be shocked at the response.

 

The R&A works with the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) to prepare their golf courses for tournament conditions. STRI begins preparations for each venue years in advance collecting as much data as possible relating to greens speed, firmness, moisture, and overall performance. Their goal is to gather as much information as possible so they can provide and maintain turf health and uniformity on all greens as closely as possible under varying weather conditions. The R&A and STRI have determined that greens firmness ratings of 120-140 gravities will provide the test of golf they desire under expected environmental conditions this week. STRI has provided firmness guidelines stating that a rating of 100-150 gravities is ideal for links golf courses, while ratings of 85-110 gravities are more in line for parkland style golf courses. The higher the unit of measure indicates higher levels of firmness. The tool used to evaluate firmness is the Clegg Soil Impact Hammer. It is a vertical cylinder that drops a weighted hammer through the cylinder and onto the surface being tested. The indentation left on the surface is measured for depth and calibrated to be read in ‘gravities’.

The Clegg Soil Impact Hammer in use

Here in the States, golf course superintendents and tournament setup staff regularly use Stimpmeters, soil moisture meters, and firmness meters to have a better understanding of how the golf ball will react on the greens during tournament play. Speed readings, moisture percentages, and firmness ratings tell superintendents and agronomists how the golf course is reacting to current maintenance practices and environmental conditions, as well as provide insights into what can be done to achieve optimum playing conditions. On the other side of the Atlantic, R&A Greenkeepers and STRI agronomists add another tool into the mix to monitor their greens performance, the Trueness Meter. The main objective of the STRI Trueness Meter is to understand how the golf ball will react in motion on the greens relating to vertical and horizontal deviation. A Stimpmeter tells half the story as it measures greens speeds only; the Trueness Meter gauges the smoothness and uniformity of the greens surfaces to determine how a ball will react once it is put in motion. This device really is the missing link in American agronomy as we live and die by Stimpmeter and soil moisture readings. Our members and customers tell us they want fast conditions and we push our turfgrass to the limits to provide that for them, pumping our greens with expensive soil and foliar applications to keep the turf alive and green. We might be able to get our greens stimping north of 13 feet, but how well is the golf ball staying on its intended line? Rolling fast or slow is an irrelevant concept when our greens surfaces might be inconsistent and untrue. We should be focused on providing consistent rollout and optimizing turf health before we start to get hung up on greens speed. Trueness Meters take 50,000 automated readings in a 10-meter run and provide an extraordinary amount of information to the tournament setup staff. The Trueness Meter detects imperfections in putting greens surfaces, large and small, from disease scars to patches of undesirable meadow grasses.

Trueness Meter collecting data for prior Open Championship.

While course setup and weather conditions are a hot topic this Major Tournament season, consider the “safety first” approach employed by the R&A. The crew at Carnoustie is currently mowing their greens at a safe 4.5mm and they have no intention to roll the greens. If we look back at Shinnecock, the greens were mowed at 0.100” or 1/10 of an inch and when temperatures rose and winds picked up a couple of hole locations were criticized by players and spectators alike because the greens became extremely fast and nearly unpinnable when they dried out. At Carnoustie, the current plan to mow greens at 4.5mm (0.177”) is almost double the height of cut we saw on the greens at Shinnecock. This will allow the crew to manage the performance of the greens even under the worst conditions, as the turf will be more resistant to injury and damage at a higher height of cut.  In addition to higher greens height, the crew is irrigating the greens daily so they can maintain their desired moisture content of 15%-25%, prior Open Championships sought a moisture content of 10%-15% so we should see greens that are more receptive to incoming shots through the air.

As we enjoy another four-day journey to the dunes of Scotland, take notice of the culture behind the game over there compared to American golf culture. Carnoustie will never host an event larger than the tournament we will be watching this week and the fairways and surrounds look like they have all but been given back to nature. I couldn’t imagine a world where PGA Tour Agronomists allowed TPC Sawgrass to bake out everywhere only irrigating greens by hand following a drought and heatwave leading up to The Players. It’s a simplified game overseas, as a player and as a course manager, reevaluating the “business” of golf would go a long way for the long-term fitness of the game stateside.

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