Editor's notebook: Great match for the world

Editor's notebook: Great match for the world

Guy Cipriano visits Austin Country Club to see how the agronomy team helps produce a charming World Golf Championship venue.

March 18, 2018

The dates and scope of tasks are jarring when examined reflectively. 

Austin Country Club commenced a major restoration Jan. 5, 2015. Less than four months later, the club signed a four-year deal to host a World Golf Championship event. The course reopened Nov. 1, 2015. By March 23, 2016, superintendent Bobby Stringer and his 40-member had completed the first day of maintenance for 64 WGC-Dell Match Play participants. 

Hearing Stringer describe the 15-month stretch during a clubhouse conversation earlier this year fatigued a visitor. So, imagine how the ACC agronomy team felt March 27, 2016 when Jason Day defeated Louis Oosthuizen for the prestigious title.    

“There was a little naiveté in there,” Stringer says. “We didn’t know what to expect, so we just did it. With that regard, it was good. But by the end of Year 1 with none of us having a tournament here before, none of us realized how burned out we were going to be.” 

The situation has calmed in the last two years. The venerable club, which is on its third location since its formation in 1899, will host the popular event for a third time March 21-25. 

On a Saturday afternoon in early February, ACC brimmed with activity, as members meandered the Pete Dye-designed course and practiced on a range where legendary teaching professional Harvey Penick mentored golfers of all skills levels, including major champions and Texas natives Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. Crews installed expansive tournament infrastructure on the tournament back nine – the front nine for regular occasions – as thousands of cars crossed the Pennybacker Bridge.  

The course featured a pleasant color contrast as dormant rough hugged overseeded greens, fairways and tees. When summer reaches the Hill Country, members contest matches on Bermudagrass surfaces. 
Austin CC has experienced significant changes since moving to its current location in 1984. Once in a sleepy section of Texas’ capital region, the neighborhoods surrounding the course have exploded, helping make Austin one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest cities. The course was constructed to accommodate “no more than 15,000” annual rounds played on bentgrass greens, head professional Dale Morgan says. The club left the bentgrass business in the late 1990s and the course now supports more than 30,000 annual rounds.

A decade into his tenure as superintendent, Stringer, never expected to lead an agronomy team hosting one of golf’s marquee events. The club’s ambitions grew as Austin expanded. Having Dell Technologies founder and CEO Michael Dell in the neighborhood doesn’t hurt, either. The course experienced what Morgan describes as “Pete’s tweaks” in 2008. The Rod Whitman-led restoration in 2015 further solidified Austin CC as big-event venue. Whitman worked as a shaper for Dye when the course was built.  

The par-71 course plays under 7,100 yards from tips, which likely makes it too short for a stroke play event given the firm turf conditions. As a match play venue, it has already produced dozens of compelling moments and a pair of strong champions in Day and Dustin Johnson. Selling every available ticket to the event since the move validates the PGA Tour’s decision to enter the Austin market.

Quarried on site during the original construction, giant limestone slabs create dramatic, elevated tee boxes and snug green sites on numerous holes. Preserving the aesthetic intent requires an extraordinary amount of hand labor. Mowing around the rock isn’t feasible – or safe – and the course features 112 bunkers. 

“The maintenance around the rock tees and green edges and canyon walls is fairly intensive,” Stringer says. “You don’t get to just mow the edge. You have to send out weed eaters to maintain that and clean those areas up.” Stringer adds that nearly every bunker requires fly mowing, a process that takes six workers four days to complete.  

Hand watering replaces overhead irrigation about three weeks before the tournament, making firmness the biggest difference between the course the agronomy team presents for tour players compared to members. Austin CC receives 29 annual inches of rainfall, a total Stringer stresses is a product of a wild Texas weather swings. 

“Last year we had 60 inches, the prior year we had 11,” he says. “We are all over the map and it doesn’t come evenly like it did when I was in the Southeast. You can almost bank on about a half-an-inch there and here you can’t bank on anything.”

After a major restoration and two successful tournaments, Austin CC has settled nicely as a tournament course. Unlike two years ago, resolve engulfs the agronomy team, which played a significant part in establishing a global sporting event in Austin.   

“It’s great for us to be a part of bringing a major event to the city and kind of being the lead people in that,” Stringer says. “And not enough people talk about this, but it’s something that I’m very proud … the charitable dollars that go along with the PGA Tour. We try to use that to get our staff to buy in and tell them, ‘This is why we are doing this. This is what it does.’ I think that’s something that people don’t take into effect.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.