The mission statement of the U.S. Open identifies the tournament as “the toughest test in golf.” Evidently, the signature phrase is aimed at the people who tend the fairways and greens as well as everyone who plays on them.
At Shinnecock Hills, the staff was presented with the equivalent of the bar exam, having been asked by the U.S. Golf Association last year to remove wide swaths of fairway grass on 14 holes and roll in thousands of yards of fescue rough. In the USGA’s estimation, the venerable club in Southampton passed with flying colors.
“They did it almost overnight,” said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA. “As someone at the club said, it was like a military exercise. When all is said and done, it looks tremendous. It fits your eye because these are the appropriate grasses.”
The purpose of the massive project, which was completed in a week late in September, was to make the fairways narrower for the Open June 14-17. Those target areas still will be wider than they were for the previous three Opens in the modern era — in 1986, 1995 and 2004 — but slimmer than they had been after the club’s recent restoration project.
“Some of the fairways had gone to 60 yards wide. It was great fun to play,” Davis said, adding that the average width had been 26 yards in 2004. “What we’ve done is come back and say, ‘You know what? You’re going to have to tighten it up some because accuracy is part of the test.’ ”
It became a priority last summer for USGA officials, who saw that the spacious proportions of Erin Hills, a first-time Open course in Wisconsin, were no match for today’s pros. So, the association got Shinnecock to agree on a plan that seemed as ambitious as moving heaven and earth. Literally, there was a lot of the latter.
Shinnecock Hills superintendent Jon Jennings said three contractors were hired, bringing nearly 100 workers at a time to the property. “Delea Sod Farms used a big roll harvester to cut the sod, roll it up and position it off to the side,” he said of the Long Island firm. “We actually saved a great deal of the fairway sod. It’s presently in New Jersey, being taken care of, so if we want to put it back in fairways, in places where it was narrowed, we have the option to do that.”
LaBar Golf Renovations, a New Jersey-based turf specialty company, put the new sod in place. Leibold Irrigation, which has offices throughout the country, worked side-by-side with the other groups.
“It was not only moving the fairways, it was adjusting the sprinklers as well. When you narrow a fairway area, you have sprinklers on the outside, throwing out to the native rough areas,” Jennings said. “It was a massive undertaking. It was really a well coordinated effort from everyone.”
Some of the fescue that serves as the new rough was taken from the par-3 course on the property. Other large patches were transplanted from parts of the main course that are scheduled to be covered by corporate or service tents during the Open.
A reasonable person might ask why they had to go through all of the trouble. If they wanted more rough, why not just let the fairway grass grow higher along the sides? Darin Bevard, director of championship agronomy for the USGA, said that greenskeepers have done just that at Shoal Creek in Alabama, site of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. But there, he said, the fairways and rough are similar. “You just let the Bermuda grass grow taller and it works out great,” he said.
Trying to do that with the combination of poa annua, bent grass and rye grass that compose Shinnecock’s fairways would create a condition that would be beyond brutal. “If you grow that to two inches, you almost can’t get a club through it,” Bevard said. “It’s so thick and matted because it grows almost as much sideways as it does up.”
Fescue, in contrast, is wispier. Jennings said, “It presents more of a progressive penalty, meaning the deeper into the rough you go, the harder it is to get out.”
Making golfers try to avoid the rough is part of the new, and old, tactical philosophy at Shinnecock. Davis said that the membership has made a major effort in recent years to restore the feel of the course that architect William Flynn built in the late 1920s, after Suffolk County extended Sunrise Highway through the layout that had hosted the 1896 U.S. Open.
Jennings said, “William Flynn’s architectural design is based on angles: hitting angles off the tee into the fairway and then off the fairway into the green. The work by Mike and the USGA, where we brought the fairways in, really accentuated the angles and makes them more robust. It brings features back into play that might have been lost in the modern game, based on how long people are hitting the golf ball these days.
“People are going to come out here and they will see a golf course that they’ve never seen before,” the superintendent said. “It is going to show the best it has ever shown for the championships.”
And it will be the pros’ turn to face a test.