Open on The Brink

June 27, 2005
June 27, 2005

Table of Contents
June 27, 2005

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: SI Adventure
Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: Life on and off the field
SI Players
U.S. Open
NBA Finals
Jermaine Ewell
Inside Track and Field
Inside Baseball

Open on The Brink

A year after "losing" Shinnecock, an unrepentant USGA unveiled a new setup paradigm at Pinehurst: Take the course to the edge early in the week and keep it there

The sun was peeking over the treetops as a half-dozen purposeful men fussed over the 6th green at Pinehurst No. 2 the day before play was to start at the U.S. Open. Course superintendent Paul Jett had a putter in his hand. Mike Davis, a USGA official, dropped a couple of golf balls at Jett's feet. The noise they made on landing, to the untrained ear, was like marbles hitting cardboard. Or fingers thumping a denim-covered thigh.

This is an article from the June 27, 2005 issue

"Nice sound," Davis said.

Jett, a scratch golfer, rolled a couple of putts to the hole from 15 feet. The second toppled in, making that familiar rattling noise. As he handed the balls back to Davis, Jett was asked what sonic profile he was working toward. What is a ball landing on a U.S. Open green supposed to sound like?

"It's more of a thunk than a thud," he replied. "If it thuds, it's too soft."

Too hard, he could have added, can also produce a thud--like the loud, echoing one that USGA officials made at last year's U.S. Open when they let hot, dry winds bake the 7th green at Shinnecock Hills. That put Jett, who had nothing to do with the Long Island debacle, in a curious position last week. He had to convince the players (given to paranoia) and the media (given to hysteria) that No. 2's greens would still have grass on them by the time the final putt fell on Sunday.

"For whatever reason, the media attention is at a whole new level," said Jett, who was at the helm in Pinehurst for the 1999 Open, during which the course drew rave reviews. "I do not remember spending this much time fielding phone calls, doing TV sound bites, posing for magazine covers. I certainly never had anyone following me around for a day or two."

By Monday the crazy carnival had moved on, allowing Jett and his crew of 30 full-time workers to start turning No. 2 back into a resort course. The notices, meanwhile, had come in mixed, leaning to favorable. "It's a good, hard, fair test.... I love it" (Phil Mickelson). "It's the fairest, most draining course I've played in a while.... It's been fantastic" (Lee Westwood). "The only complaint I have ... is the bunkers. There's way too much sand" (Sergio García). "I think you give credit to the USGA. They've made it quite playable, unlike last year" (Michael Campbell).

"The areas around the greens are nowhere as good as they were in '99.... It's not as manicured, not as perfect" (Tiger Woods).

No. 2's greenside banks were, indeed, marred by sod lines and sandy patches, the unavoidable consequence of a cold spring. But the rough--over which there had been much hand-wringing right up to tournament week--thickened at the last minute and wreaked the appropriate havoc on wayward drives. ("You know you have some great rough," Jett said, "when the marshals have to mark the balls with flags.") The fairways were firm and narrow, the lies tight. Most important, the greens played as designer Donald Ross intended, accepting well-hit shots and repelling mishit ones.

That's not to say that Open week was a snooze for Jett. He was working, after all, under the direction of USGA director of rules and competitions Tom Meeks (the man blamed by many for the Shinnecock shenanigans) and Meeks's designated successor, Davis. The USGA men stoically accepted responsibility for past misjudgments but pointed out that tournament greens have to be pushed to the brink to make the action compelling. "What we try to do," said championship committee chairman Walter Driver, "is set it up to make the course the most difficult test in championship golf."

The fellow with the most to lose was the genial and respected Meeks, a tanned bureaucrat with 120 championship course setups to his credit. Like a cornerback who knocks down a hundred passes before giving up the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, Meeks will no doubt be remembered for Shinnecock and for the unputtable hole placement on the 18th green at the Olympic Club for the second round of the 1998 U.S. Open. Understandably, he wanted Pinehurst 2005 to be controversy-free. Jett, for his part, did everything he could to assure Meeks that No. 2's greens would not wilt, scorch, brown, wither, mildew or burst into flame before the conclusion of play. "There's no reason for concern," he told Meeks during a practice-round inspection of the 5th green. "We'll check all of them before putting a mower on them."

"Check" was an understatement. Parents with 24-hour-surveillance cameras on their child's crib look like unfit guardians when measured against the scrutiny Jett gave his greens last week. "Greens don't dry out uniformly," he explained, "so we're looking at specific spots that suffer drought stress." During the second round, for instance, one of the many staffers assigned to watch the greens called him out to look at a patch on the 15th green that was slightly off-color. "G2 bentgrass reacts to stress by turning a light purple," said Matt Boyce, Jett's top assistant. "If you step on it and you can see the outline of your footprint, you know the grass has lost moisture. It doesn't have vigor." The prescription: syringing, which is grounds-geek-speak for a quick watering by a man with a hose. "Just a light mist," said Boyce. "You don't want water to get into the ground. You're simply cooling off the plant."

Some of the golfers could have used a spritzing too, if only to keep them from obsessing over harbingers of turf doom. ("Without rain," warned Mickelson after a practice round, "we have the potential for 18 holes that could be like number 7 at Shinnecock.") No one seemed to catch the USGA's pitch--possibly because it was not accompanied by an orchestral fanfare--that its approach to greens management had changed. The old philosophy called for putting surfaces that were relatively soft and receptive in Round 1, and then, as sun and wind did their inevitable mischief, firmer and faster greens on the weekend. The new paradigm calls for the desired green speed and firmness to be reached during the practice rounds and kept at that level until the end of the tournament.

Thus the heightened vigilance at Pinehurst. The target speed for No. 2's greens was a Stimpmeter reading of 11.6, and that's pretty much how they played all week. Jett, in fact, spent so much time with his Stimpmeter that he began putting with it during his dawn patrols. ("I can putt much better with this than I can with my putter," he said, watching a 20-footer drop on the 8th green.) Another component of greens performance, firmness, was monitored by a two-man team with a new gizmo called the Turf Tester. This device, which resembles a bicycle pump tethered to a handheld computer, measures the degree of penetration achieved when a rod dropped from the top of the cylinder hits the ground. "We know a lot about green speed," said the man with the computer, USGA research engineer Matt Pringle, "but we're trying to understand more about the bounciness of turf."

Jett clearly welcomed the USGA-generated data, saying, "We learn more about growing grass every day." But he also made it clear that his familiarity with No. 2 was as important as any probes, prods or sensors that might be employed. "I've been superintendent here for 10 years, since the day these greens were dug up and reseeded. The only difference this week is that 20 million people are watching on TV."

The only difference? Was Jett forgetting the spectators who asked him for autographs during his daily rounds? The food tent set up to serve his staff and 60-odd volunteers? The convoy of gang-mowers, utility carts and sand pros that he deployed before dawn each morning? His own 18-hour days?

Jett looked out at the long afternoon shadows and nodded. "That's true," he said. "If the U.S. Open were at Pebble Beach, I'd be out of here by now." The fundamental difference, he added, was that reporters kept asking him about his work ... about his recovery from testicular cancer ... about his recent marriage and upcoming honeymoon. "If you polled 500 superintendents, you'd find our dominant trait is that we're introverted. We like to be left to ourselves." He shrugged. "But if it helps promote our profession, I'm more than happy to run with the ball."

A superintendent's celebrity, sad to say, lasts about as long as a six-pack of beer in a dorm refrigerator. By the weekend practically everyone recognized that Pinehurst No. 2 was playing precisely as it should play for an Open--firm and feisty. Television stopped showing pictures of men in blue shirts with orange hoses. Jett's cellphone rang less frequently. On the other hand, players continued to insist that No. 2's greens were slower, faster, firmer or softer than they had been the round before. "I'm sure that was their perception," Jett said at the trophy presentation on Sunday evening, "but the numbers tell a different story. Day in and day out we had 11.5 to 11.9. We nailed it all week." He added, "I'm really thrilled for Tom Meeks that his last U.S. Open was this one and that the golf course was what it was."

Outside the USGA's party tent, Meeks shook hands with dozens of well-wishers, most of whom said they were happy to see him going out on a high note. Asked if he thought his team's experiment with consistency had gone as well as anyone could have hoped, he said, "It went better. The Open had this tradition of getting harder every day, but I think we proved this week that there's a better way. We have a really nice formula here, and we would be silly not to duplicate that formula every year."

In the euphoria of the moment Meeks didn't stop to consider how that might affect the players. One imagines an already taciturn Vijay Singh, deprived of bromides such as the one he delivered on the eve of the tournament--"There's still a lot of grass on the greens, but I don't think it's going to stay that way long"--having nothing to say at all.

Back on the 18th green Jett stood off to the side and watched as dignitaries in blazers assembled for a group photo. He watched, that is, until a harried functionary in a polo shirt brusquely asked him to get off the green. "That's all right," said the green's full-time keeper, exiting without complaint. "The more people we get off it, the better."

Jett wasn't thinking about Stimpmeters or Turf Testers. He was simply looking forward to Wednesday, when the greens fee golfers would flock back to No. 2. Ka-ching is a nice sound too.

"THERE'S NO REASON FOR CONCERN," Jett told Meeks during a practice-round inspection of the 5th green. "We'll check all of them before putting a mower on them."
Like a cornerback who knocks down a hundred passes before giving up the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, MEEKS WILL NO DOUBT BE REMEMBERED FOR SHINNECOCK.
"I've been superintendent here for 10 years, since the day the greens were dug up and reseeded," said Jett. "The only difference this week is that 20 MILLION PEOPLE ARE WATCHING ON TV."
COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Fred VuichHOSED All 18 greens were regularly syringed, which is grounds-geek-speak for a quick light watering. THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred VuichTOOLS OF THE TRADE A Turf Tester (above) checks firmness, while a level (top) and a Stimpmeter measure a green's surface.THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred VuichSHOP TALK After addressing his 30-man staff (left), Jett conferred early and often with the USGA's Davis (top) and Meeks.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Fred VuichON CALL Pinehurst super Jett worked 18-hour days.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Fred VuichCUT ABOVE A convoy of gang-mowers, utility carts and sand pros was deployed before dawn each morning.