For Chambers Bay officials, more grass needed for green complexes

Josh Lewis gets it: People know U.S. Open greens for how wickedly fast they are for the world’s best golfers in the national open.

So when Lewis, the Chambers Bay superintendent in charge of the course’s day-to-day condition, gets bombarded with the same question on how fast the greens are now, he knows he cannot win with his answer.

Lewis will say the greens are slow, intended for year-round public play.

That response is commonly met with the same look of concern over how these Chambers Bay greens could possibly be ready to roll golf balls like marbles on a table top come June.

Lewis said there are only a few golf courses that could host a U.S. Open on a moment’s notice.

“Everyone else has to prepare for it.” he said. “And in this case, we’ve been doing it for seven years.”

And that points to Lewis’ chief watchdog responsibility at Chambers Bay during the past year: He’s making sure enough grass is growing on these fine-fescue putting surfaces.

“At this point, we are growing a crop, and trying to grow as much grass as we can, and get as much density as we can so when we do cut it down and roll it for the U.S. Open, they will be smooth and consistent,” Lewis said. “If you do not have enough grass, they will be bumpy and thin.”

In October — eight months before the U.S. Open — Larry Gilhuly, the USGA’s Green Section director for the West Region, came out to the course to chart the condition of all 18 of Chambers Bay’s greens.

“No. 18 green was outstanding, so I gave it a ‘10’ grade. And that was my base line,” said Gilhuly, who lives in Gig Harbor. “Eight of the other greens were below an 8 and just were not ready (for a U.S. Open).”

That is when Lewis and Eric Johnson, the director of agronomy at Chambers Bay, began ratcheting up turf-management plans in preparation for the winter.

The green complexes were under constant surveillance. Lewis said he still tours the course daily to take different measurements of all the greens. And throughout the day, a crew of nearly 30 greenskeepers also record data.

“Everybody on our staff has had more than a year experience managing turf grass,” Lewis said.

It has helped greatly that officials from Pierce County and KemperSports Golf Management, including general manager Matt Allen, decided to limit public play on weekdays — and closed off certain greens altogether, Gilhuly said.

“One negative about fescue, it does not do well under (foot) traffic,” Gilhuly said.

Of course, the biggest X-factor has been this winter’s mild climate.

In anticipation of subfreezing temperatures, Lewis and his staff made sure all the greens were covered by a heavy clear plastic, anchored by sandbags.

“When it gets into the low 30s or high 20s, those breathable covers you put over the greens raise the temperature at least 10 degrees,” Gilhuly said.

Gilhuly said that protective measure was not needed as much this winter because there were only 28 days of subfreezing temperatures recorded in University Place since November, according to U.S. Climate Data.

What those heavy plastic covers have allowed under moderate temperatures is an extended growing season for this spring.

“Normally the growing season might start in March,” Gilhuly said. “But this year it started in January, so it gave them an extra six weeks.

“It has made a massive difference. When I came out in February, they were mowing twice a week. You don’t normally mow this golf course twice a week, but maybe once every other week.”

The one green that has required extra attention is at the 15th hole, a par 3 that plays toward Puget Sound. On some spots where championship hole locations will be played, Gilhuly said the USGA wants an abundant amount of grass density.

“For us, it is a feel thing with turf density,” Lewis said. “I will hit a lot of putts, or roll a lot of golf balls on these greens. Everything revolves around turf health and making these greens smoother.”

And faster, of course.