After The Open

After The Open

GCI'S Bruce Williams goes back to Merion GC to find out what happens to a tournament venue when the champ is crowned, the spectators have all gone home, and all that's left is the turf.

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October 28, 2013
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This past June the world watched as the best golfers on the planet vied to win the 113th US Open.  The venue was Merion Golf Club which was not a newcomer to the main stage and hosting a Major.  The lead up and preparation to the event was covered by just about every media outlet you can imagine. 

The week of the tournament saw outstanding conditions but sometimes Mother Nature can throw you a curve ball.  With over 7 inches of rain the announcers and writers were forecasting a very soft golf course and some extremely low scores at Merion.  I guess they didn’t know what Matt Shaffer and his team were capable of.  In the end Justin Rose was victorious but one over par is hardly what the pundits expected.

The right team, the proper strategy and enough resources to turn things to the advantage of the golf course was quite a challenge.  It was an exciting finish watched by many around the world.  As we saw, Justin was victorious and it was a fight right up until the last few holes.  So as the day of his victory drew to a close we saw a new champion crowned and great compliments for Matt Shaffer and his team.

As we might imagine, there is more to an event than holing the last putt and awarding the trophy and the check at the end of that Sunday.  The TV cameras stop filming and the media then focuses on the champion and forgets about the golf course and what lies ahead to bring the golf course back to the playing conditions the members deserve and expect.

GCI took the readers inside the ropes and now will give you a peak at the final steps to restore a great golf course.  No rest for the weary but Matt Shaffer doesn’t sleep that much anyway.  Just like the preparation and setup of the course for the event there is a plan for restoration and all plans have a timeline and set of expectations for the finished product.

In an interview with Matt Shaffer I had to ask what kind of feelings, both physical and emotional, were felt by Matt and his team.  Of course they were all a bit tired but riding on a high of energy as the final holes were played.  The staff and volunteers that had put in so much work and energy into the event were let down a little bit when it was over.  But Matt knew there was no time for rest and reflection as they all had a mega project on their hands in the months ahead. 

Matt told me he was absolutely euphoric as the event came to an end.  He felt that way because he felt he had a great plan and even though Mother Nature threw a curve ball with 7-plus inches of rain it all turned out as great as he could have ever imagined.  Matt was “managing on the fly and wanted to make sure Merion would have an opportunity to host another US Open if they wanted one……and a final score of -10 would have been a killer.”   Matt is thankful it all turned out well and is very pleased and thankful to be back loving life growing grass and not worrying about being under the magnifying glass of the golf world.

Most would think that the heavy rain would create major problems during and after the event.  Matt indicated that in preparation for an event of this magnitude he had the support of Merion GC to apply thousands of tons of sand in the years prior to the tournament.  That can’t be done at the last minute so prior planning for tough weather came in handy and will benefit the golf course for many years to come. 

Even though the greens were a bit thin they were very smooth and quick so the players loved them and it made for great golf. Even with 7 inches of rain they firmed up quite quickly as evidenced in the number of scores over par during the event.

Fairway walkways took a beating due to the rain and concentrated traffic during the tournament.  The same was true for the rough.  That is to be expected with galleries and it is only exacerbated with rain.  Those areas can best be described as dead and muddy and would need total renovation.  Seeding took place in the first week and now are starting to look pretty darn good according to Matt.

While some might consider it a miracle, Matt said his plan was to have the course open to member play in 6 days.  If you know Matt he meets or exceeds his timeline estimates and the course opening was no exception.  “By late fall anyone would be hard pressed to know we had a championship” said Matt.  He also shared that the native areas will take a little longer but they are all seeded and that seed has germinated and should take hold before winter.

While the course is open for play there will be some additional modifications made in late October.  Member and guest rounds will keep the course extremely busy until then and the membership has given their course up for this prestigious event so any bunker work, restoration of fairway lines and removal of the large putting green will be put on hold until then.

Merion GC is considered to be a bit of a rustic course so it is easier and quicker to get it back to normal than a course that is finely manicured from fence line to fence line.  Matt let me know “that his members are exceptional and understand how hard it is to grow grass in Ardmore, PA so getting the course back to 85 percent of normal is fantastic a month after such event and with patience it will only improve in the months ahead.”  Through repetitive mowing and height of cut reduction the rough has been trimmed from 6 inches back down to 2.5 inches but it wasn’t easy after all the rain and the 90-degree temperatures that the Philadelphia area is accustomed to.

When I asked Matt to be candid about his plans during the event he left no stone unturned in telling me, after the fact, what his plan of action was during the tournament.  In Matt’s words “I had myself prepared to go no holds barred even if in the end it cost me my job!  You only get once chance to make history, so I pulled out all the stops and cut stupid low and rolled and rolled and rolled.  Our Equipment Manager, Robert Smith, in my opinion is the best in the land.  I was talking to him and him only setting up mowers with down pressure and wiehles on super wet greens.  The greens held anything and still were crazy fast.  We had just enough grain and our crazy breaks were all they could handle or not.  We worked 20 hours a day and I couldn’t sleep the other 3!  I have a crazy approach to growing grass and it paid off when we put a pounding on them.  I always say at Merion we prepare our surfaces for championship conditions every day and the grass still lives most of the time.  I am a firm believer in the fact that grass acclimates to the way you grow it!  I beat it and once again it lived!”

Every time I spoke to Matt about the event and the course he had plenty of praise to pass around for those around him.  Course Superintendent Aaron McCurdy has now moved on to a great job at Metedeconk but he was instrumental in the preparation and course conditions during the event.  Matt gave a big shout out to Mottin Golf and told me that Doug Mottin and his guys worked all night putting out mulch and straw during the event and then had it all cleaned up in 5 days after the event was over.  Matt’s advice is to not host a big tournament without these guys if they are in your area.

Even though the weather was a challenge the staff and volunteers were up to the task.  Matt said that “he is always amazed at volunteers and how hard they work under normal circumstances but this time they went the extra mile and pulled through with extra-long hours…..and most importantly LOVED IT!

As the course heals from the scars of event it was only fitting to get Matt’s last take on the event.  He indicated that he took quite a bit of criticism from the membership for his aggressive fairway sand topdressing program.  The members did not like the way their divots exploded.  Actually by staying on course with the sand it ended up being one of the best decisions Matt had made.  His dear friend, Stan Zontek, defended that position and my guess is Stan was looking down with a smile as the 7 inches of rain fell and the course took it better than can be expected. 

Never one to be constrained to thinking only inside the box, Matt knew there were more than a few raised eyebrows with the new technology that Matt and Sal Rizzo  worked on for developing fairway rollers.  Interesting that those rollers were instrumental in the fairways not having a single mud ball after 7.5 inches of rain.  The fairway roller got the job done efficiently and effectively so guess we can see some new technology headed to the golf world as a result of the concept that Matt and Sal developed.

When I asked Matt if he was ready for some rest and relaxation our conversation turned to a mutual interest of fly fishing.  I asked if he was ready for some time on the water.  His response was “soooo ready to go to Florida and fly fish for big old hoggin bass in the high grass as the sun comes up on Okeechobee!”  As you can tell he is never far from grass and if he is half as competitive and confident fishing as he is at holding the US Open……..fish need to be real scared!

Bruce Williams, CGCS, is principal for both Bruce Williams Golf Consulting and Executive Golf Search. He’s GCI’s senior contributing editor.