Part two of three
I recall the last time I drove down Magnolia Lane, heading towards the clubhouse at Augusta National….. I wish!
With the playing of the first of this year’s majors just six days away, the second of this three-part series takes a peep inside the ropes at Augusta National Golf Club. Exactly what does it take to have the course fit to host the Masters? How do green staff look upon their roles? And why is the end result so special that tens-of-thousands of US residents have their names on a certain Augusta National waiting list? After some time, like between seven and ten years, the average Joe Blogs might get lucky and join 50,000 others to… wait for it… watch the practise rounds.
Those who have written about their real-life experience of Augusta National invariably refer to it is a memory much cherished. That the 300 metre drive from the entrance-way down under the magnolias is but the start of a wondrous visual experience. While I am sure the spectacular display of flora is breathtaking, especially when you’re close enough to smell it, what would interest me more is the grass, especially the Bentgrass on each of those putting surfaces. As many an expert will attest, their nuances hold the key to triumph or disaster.
It is not just about how one plays Augusta’s greens that can invite trouble, it is also about how one describes them. In 1956, CBS was first awarded TV broadcast rights to the Masters, but only for a period of one year. That 12-month contract has been renewed every year since. Most broadcasters offer mega-bucks to secure long-term rights to show golf’s majors, but Augusta National is hardly likely to be swayed by money. What they do want is a presentation that fits their image of how Augusta should be viewed, and spoken about.
It appears that image was compromised when regular CBS commentator, Gary McCord, remarked that the greens at Augusta were “smoothed with bikini wax” and that body-bags were located behind a certain green for players who missed their approach shots. Did such “outrageous” remarks cause offense? We don’t know for sure, but McCord, whose long career with CBS continues to this day, has never covered another Masters since his calamitous faux-pas. This happened in April 1994 – a time when blacks were allowed, but only as caddies, and women were barred from membership.
The club has moved on since then. There is a now a black member or two, and in 2011 women were admitted for the first time. In fact there are now two women amongst the meticulously chosen membership of circa 300, with one of them, Condoleezza Rice – George Dubya’s ex Secretary of State – being black. Progress indeed.
Controversies related to Augusta’s relationship with its broadcaster include limitations on how announcers may describe certain aspects of the course. The gallery, for example, should be referred to as “patrons” rather than mere spectators or fans. Announcers are also required to refer to the area off the fairway as “second cut” as opposed to “rough”, as Augusta National does not have such a thing. To be fair, this second cut is substantially shorter than that seen at other courses, and in perfect trim to boot. In fact some courses we play would call Augusta’s second cut fairway, pine straw included.
Other restrictions placed on CBS include minimal commercial interruption, currently limited to four minutes per hour – a lot less than the US norm of 12 (some offshore viewers may not get the benefit of this). Unlike other courses that host majors, Augusta limits those permitted inside the ropes to competitors, caddies and rules officials only. When watching a Masters broadcast, you will see little evidence of cameramen, microphone jockeys, sign-bearers or reporters. And coverage showing messy cabling on the ground – well, that is completely forbidden.
These and many other restrictions exemplify the fact that CBS’s broadcast of the Masters is always subject to compliance with Augusta’s requirements. And in case the broadcaster forgets their place in the scheme of things, they are reminded, every 12 months. This is a major reason why the Masters is, year in and year out, television’s best presented golf tournament.
Critics of Augusta National are legion. The club has had its run-ins with various individuals and organisations, questioning its selective exclusivity, its refusal to reflect contemporary social norms. Whether it has been remiss in this area in the past may be a matter for debate. What has never been doubted, however, is its forward thinking and inventiveness in the study and application of turf management principles, especially those relating to its putting surfaces.
As you will read, the challenge of green staff is to take these surfaces to the very brink of playability, yet never lose them. This means restricting their receptiveness so that only perfectly crisp, well-spun approach shots hold. If the greens retain excess moisture – if it rains for example – then players who would otherwise struggle could start to become competitive. Can they control the effects of rain to such a degree, and if so, how?
Regardless of what aspect most takes your fancy, the presentation of the entire golf course, whether in real-life or on TV, is a sight to behold. I have often wondered how Augusta goes about its agronomic challenges, how it manages to have the dogwoods and azaleas flower just so, at the right time, every year. And those greens – how do they have them so wickedly fast yet still able to grip a ball that has been crisply struck, thus rewarding the good golf shot but penalising the not-so-good?
Let’s look at a year-in-the-life-of the Augusta National Golf Course, starting immediately after the completion of a Masters Tournament. The members and their guests have just a month before the course will close for renovation and maintenance work over the summer. It will not re-open until October. That’s right; Augusta National does not permit play from late May through to October.
During this time the greens will be subjected to continuous coring, and top-dressing if appropriate. This is a period where the weather is at its hottest and most humid, with the threat from disease a real concern. Shade tents and fans are installed on the greens to supplement the internal cooling systems – a system of pipes that allows for warming or cooling through what is known as SubAir equipment.
SubAir is the brainchild of Augusta’s senior director of course and grounds Marsh Benson, and is now marketed independently. It is a subsurface air-flow system that works in tandem with the green’s outlet drains. Used to pump air out of the green, it creates a vacuum effect drawing water or residual moisture out of the green surface, thus promoting internal drainage. Put in reverse mode, SubAir drives air into the system to achieve subsurface cooling.
The putting surfaces are A1 Bentgrass (the fairways are a mixture of 419 couch and Celebration couch), and are noted for their three-dimensional contours – their individual breaks, roles and swales. And therein lies the test. It is not enough that one’s approach shot lands on the green. It’s where on the green it comes to rest that matters. Regardless of green size, the ideal target can be as small as a few yards square. The pros and their caddies know this, as the maintenance programme allows the green’s characteristics to express themselves during the three days allocated to practise. That is the challenge of this golf course – have the greens full of interesting and subtle contours, ensure they are firm, fast and as dry as possible, then sit back and wait for the drama to unfold.
Back to the year-in-the-life-of programme, as summer comes to a close, any major reconstruction and up-grade has been completed and preparation for the September over-seed starts. When completed, a tinge of green heralds the start of spring and the commencement of a new growing season. The following month the arrival of members signals the start of the playing season.
Exactly what green staff do and how they go about their duties is subject to a confidentiality agreement signed prior to employment. This prohibits staff divulging certain aspects of the club’s turf management during employment and for the ten-year period following. But let’s assume the normal activity of mowing greens, raking bunkers, attending to margins, tees, common catchment areas, watering, debris blowing and fairway mowing – are done early so all 30-odd members (my uneducated guess) enjoying the course on a given day are not disrupted. Remember, any major re-construction work would have already been completed during the summer’s no-play period.
As March approaches the maintenance programmes intensify. The mowing regime is increased to produce the most pure ryegrass and bent surfaces possible. Green speeds are closely monitored ensuring consistency, day to day and green to green. The results are recorded and maintenance practices are modified to achieve ‘membership speeds’ or ‘tournament speeds’ – which are a closely guarded secret. It has been assessed by notable experts watching the Masters over recent years, that variance in speeds over all eighteen greens rarely exceeds four inches on the Stimpmeter. To those who know a little about greens maintenance, this is a phenomenal statistic.
Bunker maintenance also starts to gear up about 60 days out. All bunker sand depths are checked, both greenside and fairway, and they are edged, cleaned and reshaped on a daily basis to ready them for the championship. They are raked with leaf rakes when dry and with another type of rake if wet, to fluff them up. Bunkers and their appearance play a major part in the presentation. I understand that caddies from the Eastern Seaboard have been invited to attend an expenses-paid Augusta Bunker Raking Course, scheduled for 1 April, next year.
Sixty days out also signals the time when greens go to hand watering and tissue testing starts. Tissue testing is done fortnightly to monitor the nutritional status of the Bentgrass. By this time, all staff and volunteers are aware of their specific duties leading up to and during tournament week. Staff will be working longer hours, with no days off during the lead-up period. A significant number of volunteers are added to staff, and the equipment fleet may double or treble to cater for the extra attention.
The fine-tuning of the turf signals the time to erect the television towers and spectator stands. The main spectator entrances are prepared and security checkpoints put in place. During this time, the nursery crew responsible for all the trees and shrubs – there are 1600 azaleas running alongside the 13th alone – are bringing their babies to full bloom, in an attempt to compliment the near-perfect turf. I read an account of ice being placed around azaleas one year, to prevent them from flowering prematurely.
Just days before the practise rounds start, the ropes and stakes outlining the in-play and spectator – that should read patron – areas are erected. This is the time when green staff start to experience that special tournament feeling. It’s the time when their focus narrows in on to the in-play areas. It’s the time for attention to detail, minute detail.
Staff resources are structured such that each of the two nines is the responsibility of separate teams. An Aussie green keeper, Daniel Cook, was put in charge of the back nine greens leading up to and during the 2007 Masters. This post draws extensively on his excellent report outlining his Augusta experience and published in Australian Turfgrass Management.
He relates his feelings when first informed of his increased responsibilities; “Words can’t describe how proud I felt when I was told I was being given this role. The feeling was one of approval and trust. It was also a major test of my abilities to see whether I could handle the pressure. I had done so at the US Mid-Amateur but this was the Masters. This year it was dry and warm heading into the Masters so we had a great dry down. The greens were monitored all day leading up to the event with syringing where required. Most of the hand watering took place at night to make the greens as good as they could be for morning play.
“The fairways and second cut were also extensively hand watered to keep as firm and fast as possible without losing colour. We also carried out routine checks for disease outbreaks, constantly checked the mowers for quality of cut, as well as repaired and dusted ball marks and checked old plugs.
“This year’s tournament was one of the toughest in recent history and it was also one of the driest. We dodged some pop up showers during the practice rounds and enjoyed producing firm fast playing conditions. The weather though was much colder than normal. We had two frost delays on Saturday and Sunday morning of the tournament and if the cold was not enough the wind blew too. Fortunately we didn’t have to worry too much about plant health as far as water was concerned but we did always have to consider playability and receptiveness. We didn’t want good shots to be punished.
“It was an amazing experience to take greens that far and not go over the edge. The pressure was immense and anything less than perfect was unacceptable. It was an awesome experience and I am definitely one of a privileged few.
“I will take many things away from my time at Augusta. While the agronomics were second to none, the most important lesson I learnt was that it’s the small things that count. Attention to detail is what separates the excellent from the exceptional. Sometimes these can be so small that you don’t even recognise them. I also learnt that planning is the cornerstone of success.
“It was a sad day to walk out of Augusta National for the last time. It was very emotional to return my keys and credentials and know that I didn’t have access to the amazing facility that is Augusta National. I will always smile as I embark on my challenging new role back in Australia with the experiences at Augusta strongly in my memory. The road to Augusta National and beyond has been the experience of a life time.”
It appears golfers are not the only professionals in awe of Augusta National. Indeed, the challenge issued each year to the world’s best golfers, appears also to extend to a dedicated team of green staff. If Daniel Cook is to be believed, the motivation for Augusta’s agronomists to perform is every bit as strong as it is for the pros.