In the pre-dawn darkness, a dedicated and gritty crew arrived with yawns and coffee. They mustered hours before the competitors, the fans or even the sun arrived for the U.S. Amateur golf tournament.
The 4:30 a.m. gathering Thursday was the start of a daily, behind-the-scenes ritual for this week’s tournament. The job enlists 50-some Chambers Bay employees and about 55 tournament volunteers, many of them superintendents at golf courses throughout the Northwest.
Chambers Bay superintendent David Wienecke quickly went over assignments listed on a whiteboard: mow 70 acres of fairways to 0.4 inch; mow 4.5 acres of greens to 0.195 inch; mow approaches and surrounds to 0.35 inch; rake 90 acres of bunkers; roll greens; fill divots; set up the flags and signs; irrigation; and place ice chests at tees.
The routine was starting to get familiar. They do it every day the tournament is in town.
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Tee signs were to be moved on 11 holes. All the flag locations were moved, and the edges of each cup were neatly trimmed by hand.
Wienecke praised the group’s diligent work and noted that the TV broadcasters had mentioned how the course was firm and fast – just as the USGA likes conditions for championships.
The first golfers would tee off at 7:15 a.m., leaving about 2.5 hours to groom the course to precise standards of consistency.
Workers were deployed. Engines revved and headlights blinked to life as a cavalry of mowers, rollers and rakers sped away into the rolling dunes above Puget Sound. High above it all, an eagle perched on a TV camera crane.
KEEP IT RUNNING
Equipment manager Greg Butler’s job is to make sure the machinery is always running. That means he’s always running.
He’s a sturdy man who wears tan boots, navy-blue work pants and a shirt with his first name written on it. He carries a cell phone, three radios and a carabiner full of keys clipped to his belt. He joined the crew at Chambers Bay four months before the course opened in June 2007. He’s a jack-of-all-trades. A bunker rake with an innovative design is named after him.
Early Thursday, one triplex mower blew a hose. Butler raced his John Deere utility vehicle to the scene and worked by flashlight to try to fix the problem.
“If you’re not prepared with extra parts and the equipment that you need, then you can be down,” he said, wiping his hands on a blue rag. “And this is not the time to be down.”
“That’s a brand-new mower, and you never would have expected that to happen,” he said.
The problems with the mower persisted, and it had to be replaced.
Back at the maintenance shed, the mower’s driver, Renee Mitchell, waited while Butler and another mechanic worked to get a new mower set up.
“Even though we’re tired, we’re hyped for the challenge of getting everything done before the players show up,” Mitchell said.
“As a player, I never knew the preparation that went into it,” said Mitchell, who played tournaments for 20 years and won the Washington State Open in the late 1980s. “I had no clue the amount of work it takes. The maintenance crews are out there hours and hours before you tee off.”
The new mower soon was ready for her.
“Thank you, boss,” Mitchell said to Butler.
She gave him a fist bump.
“Go get ’em,” Butler said.
Butler returned to his office to order a spare part. Tacked to the wall was a Feb. 8, 2008, cover of The News Tribune announcing the coming of the Amateur in 2010 and the U.S. Open in 2015. He has been preparing for two years.
The tawny appearance of the grass is intentional. It’s a color that’s traditional for Scottish links-style courses, although it looks greener on TV than in reality.
Chambers Bay, which is entirely fescue, wasn’t watered in the weeks before the Amateur. This was done to make it more challenging for the golfers.
“We just don’t have the green like people think,” said Derf Soller, USGA agronomist for the Northwest Region. “That’s the nature of fescue grass: It’s not dying, it’s dormant.”
“Firm and fast is a term we like to use for championships, and this golf course was built for that,” he said.
USGA officials measure the speed and the firmness of greens to ensure uniformity. If a green is too slow, it is rolled again. Sometimes twice. If a green is too hard, it is hand-sprinkled with water. Measurements are taken in nine places on every green, twice a day.
“We make sure we have consistency from hole to hole, because that’s what it’s all about,” Soller said. “These guys have had the course pretty dialed in all week.”
Larry Gilhuly, USGA green section director for the Northwest Region, said the greens started to get a little too firm Monday afternoon, but crew members had to leave them that way for Tuesday’s rounds to ensure that all players faced similar conditions on each day of qualifying.
Tuesday night, the course received its first drink in two weeks: eight minutes of water.
Gilhuly said that softened things up just right for the first day of match play.
Gilhuly, who lives in Gig Harbor, has been working with course officials for two years. He said he often received questions about whether the course would be ready for the big tournament, but he never had doubts.
“I knew the staff,” he said. “I knew what they’re capable of.”
John Ellis, an assistant superintendent at Chambers Bay, credits the camaraderie among the tight-knit association of superintendents in the Northwest. Some took vacation this week to volunteer for the tournament. Volunteers arrived from Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia.
“The coolest part is all the volunteers who have come out to help with the turf and the preparation of the golf course,” Ellis said. “The stuff we’re doing for this tournament, we couldn’t do with the staff on hand. It would have been impossible.”
By 7:30 a.m. Thursday, as the first golfers began to make their way around the course, most of the workers had begun the short drive back to the maintenance shed, where breakfast awaited. Some would catch a nap during the middle part of their split shift. Most will be at the course until 10 each night.
Butler, the equipment manager, said he enjoys golfing in his spare time but hasn’t played Chambers Bay in more than a year.
“I’ve been so busy,” he said. “You put in so many hours that when you’re done, the last thing you want to do is walk around the course.”
Cole Cosgrove: 253-597-8267 firstname.lastname@example.org