Millions of viewers saw the exotic-looking greens last week at the U.S. Open, greens that were palettes of varied pastels, greens that drew rebukes from the world's No. 1 golfer. Many in the TV audience no doubt wondered whether the greens were unhealthy, dying or just weird.
What people at home might or might not have learned is that the greens at Pebble Beach are composed of an aggressive, finicky type of grass called poa annua - the same grass that makes up the overwhelming majority of greens on Long Island.
"Poa annua happens to be a great putting surface," said John Carlone, superintendent at the Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, adding that it requires a lot of care. "It's all experience. Most superintendents on Long Island have learned to understand how to deal with poa."
Golf course designers don't go out of their way to design greens made from the grass that is indigenous to climates that are cool and moist for at least part of the year. Most greens in the Northeast start out as pure bent grass, but poa, with seeds carried by the wind, manages to force its way in. "It just takes over," Carlone said.
Steve Matuza, the retired superintendent at the Town of Oyster Bay Golf Courrse, said: "Each plant can produce more than 1,000 seeds. When it dies, it proliferates."
Poa annua's seed heads can make the putting surface bumpy, although the seeds can be limited with growth regulators, Matuza said. Poa grass stands upright more than bent grass, which, in keeping with its name, tends to go horizontal.
"It drives me crazy when I watch the telecasts and hear Johnny Miller say, 'That putt was against the grain,' " Carlone said. "There is no grain with poa annua."
Years ago, greenskeepers on Long Island would wait for warm weather and just let the poa annua die. Some superintendents today, at exclusive clubs that have big budgets and little traffic, weed out poa annua as it comes in. At most courses, though, they manage it, which can be a pain.
Poa annua wilts easily but gets marshy when it takes too much water, so crews often have to irrigate by hand with hoses, rather than automatic sprinklers. Also, poa annua greens have to be mowed just right, not too short, or they will wilt.
Tiger Woods, after a poor round, found the Pebble Beach greens to be bumpy and called them "just awful." Wearing his amateur agronomist's cap following a better round, he explained why putting was tougher on the greens in afternoon rounds: "You roll them in the morning, you smash down the poa, and then in the afternoon, the poa comes back up . . . You can see it germinating, it starts turning white, the white heads start coming up."
Long Island's greens experts concede that there was room for criticism because the U.S. Golf Association did put stress on the greens by insisting on a firm, fast course for 156 players. "They took it right to the edge," Carlone said.
On the other hand, local superintendents noticed that other golfers putted very well at Pebble Beach. They also pointed out that a public Long Island course can withstand 300 rounds a day. "I saw the close-ups, I saw the way the ball was rolling," said Gene Contino, superintendent at Eisenhower Park, who learned the challenge of preparing a course for a pro tournament when the Champions Tour played on the Red. "I thought the course was fine. People said, 'Oh my God, it looked dead.' Well, no, no, no, no, no."
Referring to Pebble Beach superintendent Chris Dalhamer, Contino said, "I thought he did a spectacular job."
As for the unkempt look of the greens, Carlone explained that there are many different strains within the poa annua family. "Every one reacts differently," he said. "That's why there were so many colors."
All the controversy, during and after the tournament, was part of the Open's appeal. "Surfaces are all different, that's what makes it such a great game," Matuza said. "You do get a bad bounce once in a while off a ball mark or something else. I always say the ball can bounce in the hole as well as out of it."