It’s 4:45 a.m. Wednesday when Darin Bevard’s smartphone rings.
The sun is still half an hour from peeking over the Cascades, and the only people on the Chambers Bay golf course on the biggest week of its existence are what Bevard calls the “grass fairies,” an all-star grounds crew that’s assembled for the U.S. Open in University Place.
A phalanx of 15 red Toro mowers growls across the first fairway as Bevard pulls his golf cart over to take the call.
Bevard, director of championship agronomy for the United States Golf Association, listens for 30 seconds.
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“If it’s that firm, get some water on it,” he says into the phone.
The green at No. 3 apparently is not up to USGA standards for Wednesday’s third and final practice round.
He hangs up.
“We take the playing conditions very seriously,” Bevard says.
FIRST UP: STRONG COFFEE
The day begins early for the 150 or so people working to keep Chambers Bay in tip-top condition for the world’s best golfers, who have descended on University Place to vie for the nation’s golf championship.
By 3:45 a.m., the volunteer tent near the course’s maintenance facility is humming with activity. The breakfast buffet is mostly picked over. The smell of strong coffee fills the air. One of the three TVs hung from the wall is tuned to the Golf Channel.
Chambers Bay superintendent Josh Lewis mills about with a who’s who of golf-grass gurus. Superintendents from some of the nation’s top courses, including Shinnecock Hills in New York and Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach, California, are on hand to offer assistance.
Bevard chats up a number of people, roughing out what needs to be done.
“We exchange a bunch of numbers and data,” he says. “We communicate back and forth about what we’re going to do.”
About 4:15 a.m., Lewis addresses the group.
“Bunker crews and rollers can head,” he calls out.
Ten minutes later, everyone else is out on the course.
GETTING GREENS JUST RIGHT
As USGA’s chief championship agronomist, Bevard is in charge of making sure the Chambers Bay grass is fast enough and firm enough to challenge the world’s best.
The Maryland native, who now lives in Pennsylvania with his family, has a Master’s degree in agronomy and crop science from Penn State University and has been with the USGA for nearly 20 years.
When he was growing up, he says, his family owned a sand-and-gravel operation, something he says makes the Chambers Bay course, a former gravel mine, appealing.
“It’s awesome,” Bevard says of Chambers Bay.
Equipment, nearly $2 million worth, ranges from industrial mowers to simple push brooms.
Each morning, fairways are trimmed, greens manicured and bunkers raked. Crew members wear hoodies under their U.S. Open pullovers to ward off the morning chill. They use gasoline-powered leaf blowers to clear debris from approaches and putting surfaces.
Justin Smith, 25, is an assistant superintendent at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon who’s volunteering on the U.S. Open ground crew this week.
Smith says people have no idea how much work goes on behind the scenes to get the course ready every day.
“You’d be amazed how many people think the grass just grows this short,” he says.
The greens require particular attention. USGA officials want them firm and fast, but not too firm and fast.
Bevard and others use contraptions called stimpmeters and TruFirms to gauge green speeds and firmness. Each is assigned a number that Bevard would not share. That’s information the USGA keeps secret, he says.
The third green remains on Bevard’s mind. He decides to go take a look himself.
THEY DO THIS DAILY
A tug pushing a barge through the Narrows Strait chugs past as Bevard takes a few readings with the TruFirm, which roughly resembles a bicycle pump with a pressure gauge attached.
He then runs a few golf balls, Titleist Pro-V1’s, down the stimpmeter, a sort of a ramp marked off with distances, and uses a tape measure to assess how far the balls travel.
He isn’t happy with the results.
“Don’t know if it’s too firm or not,” Bevard says, “but we’re going to put some water on it to make sure it doesn’t get too firm.”
Bevard, who spends more time on his smartphone than a teenager, makes a call.
Not long after, two men show up in a work truck. One gets out, attaches a hose to an outlet concealed in the green and begins to water. Bevard directs him around the green.
It’s close to 7 a.m. now. The sun is up, and the first golfers of the day are beginning to make their way to the No. 1 tee.
Bevard, unhurried and unworried, takes a few more measurements.
“This is what we do every day,” he says. “What we’re doing today, we’ll be doing tomorrow and Friday and Saturday and Sunday.”
So, will the course be in shape to provide “a good test of golf” on Thursday when the practice rounds are over and the actual competition begins?
“Absolutely,” Bevard says.