Fescue grass part of what makes Chambers Bay unique

When golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. began listing the finer details in his bid to become the Chambers Bay designer, one of the critical points of his proposal was the type of grass he wanted to plant all over the abandoned sand and gravel pit.

He was adamant about choosing fine-leaved fescue — arguably the best grass for links golf.

And Jones didn’t want to just make fescue the tall, wispy rough on the course. He wanted the whole Scottish links-style course to bloom in it, including fairways and greens.

“Fine fescue only thrives in a maritime climate as a turf grass — like here in the Pacific Northwest,” said Jones, who has designed more than 230 courses on six continents. “We had a sandy site. It is a droughty grass. That is why it turns colors in the summer, but it is playable.

“Finally, as a player, it allows for the links game — the bump-and-run shots, and the rollout shots — to react like it is on a trampoline. Your clubface kind of bounces through the shot. And you don’t take big divots, but little divots. You cannot put much spin on it like you can on a softer grass. Fescue is hard, like hitting off a table.”

Over in the United Kingdom, particularly in the British Isles, that type of surface for fast-and-firm conditions is referred to as “fine turf” — made up primarily of thin-bladed, deep-rooted, water-and-salt- resistent fine fescue and bent grasses.

But in the United States, fine fescue is rarely found as a playing surface. According to a Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) national survey of approximately 15,000 courses, fine fescue is used on 2 percent of course fairways — and less than 1 percent on greens.

Which makes this U.S. Open championship so different. This will be the first time the national open will be played fully on fine fescue.

“It is going to show that there is a lot of different ways to condition a course for championship golf,” said Darin Bevard, the director of championship agronomy for the USGA.

The thing about a sensitive, slow-growing grass such as fine fescue is you can’t just pour seed out of a bag and expect it to flourish long term.

To find the best mixture, officials at Pierce County and KemperSports contacted Eric Miltner, a then-associate research agronomist at the Washington State University-Puyallup campus, to conduct sand-based plot testing.

“The grass species they were interested in were fine fescue and colonial bent grass,” Miltner said. “We took the idea (of mixture) from Bandon Dunes, and updated with a new variety that tested best in Puyallup.”

Using Chambers Bay sand, Miltner and his researchers built 33 separate plots —12 for putting greens mixture (chewing fescue, slender creeping fescue), 15 for fairways and tees (chewing fescue, slender creeping fescue), and six for the outlying rough areas (hard fescue, sheep’s fescue, blue fescue, strong creeping red fescue).

Starting in May of 2005, their testing ran a full year.

In his conclusion, because bent grass provides better density than fescue, is better for lower mowing heights and does better in wetter environments, Miltner recommended that 10 percent of the overall mixture consist of that.

Course managers countered they wanted more fescue seeds in the mixture. The end result was 94 percent fine fescue, and 6 percent colonial bentgrass.

“It goes back to plant ecology,” said Miltner, who was a volunteer at the 2010 U.S. Amateur — the first USGA national championship brought to Chambers Bay. “When you plant just one species, you are more suspectible to disease.”

Dave Wienecke, the first Chambers Bay superintendent, resigned in 2012 after six years. In came a pair of Bandon Dunes products to replace him — director of agronomy Eric Johnson and superintedent Josh Lewis.

Johnson originally got into turf study to manage baseball fields. He soon became exposed to fescue grass when he got a job at Bandon Dunes in 2001.

“I got involved with it when you saw it as rough,” Johnson said, “and not a playing surface.”

Then one day while playing golf at the Oregon resort, a buddy pulled out his putter — for a shot from 170 yards away from the green.

“Try doing that on rye grass or blue grass,” Johnson said.

The problem with fescue care, especially back in the early 2000s, was there wasn’t much available literature on the topic. Starting in 2006, Johnson and a few of his staff members started attending fescue grass conferences in England to learn about it.

While it is not self-sustainable in all but a few maritime climates around the world, fine fescue does not require a lot of water or fertilizer — which is vital for cutting down maintenance costs.

But in the end, isn’t it about if good golf can be played on it?

England’s Paul Casey said for quality links golf, fine fescue has to be the preferred surface.

“Fescue naturally skids, and rolls,” Casey said. “It is awesome. It is like carpet.”

USGA Director Mike Davis said he thinks it will be a wonderful grass on which to stage this year’s national open.

“It’s a great grass to play golf on because it doesn’t have any tackiness to it. It’s a thin blade of grass ... so when the ball hits it, where a lot of grasses will grab it, on fescue, it skids,” Davis said. “And what that means is, when you’re playing golf, you’ve got to think about what happens when your ball hits it — where it’s going to bounce to and roll to.”