Extending the major grind
The 18th hole of the Winged Foot Golf Club West Course.
Bradley Klein

Extending the major grind

Bradley Klein observes the scene around Winged Foot Golf Club as it braces for a U.S. Open delayed by COVID-19.

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September 11, 2020

He hasn’t had a day off since early February and he won’t have one until after the U.S. Open.  
That’s normally what you get when you lead the course preparations for a U.S. Open, though the run-up to the 2020 national championship has been unlike anything anyone could have foreseen. For one thing, the U.S. Open was scheduled to be held in mid-June. Delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed that date back three months. Winged Foot Golf Club director of golf courses Steve Rabideau has received that extra time to manage his 36-hole property through a season marked by extraordinary measures for maintaining social distancing. His staff was reduced in the early spring, then even when it was ramped back up to normal levels, the club was handling more than 300 golfers a day on the East and West Courses. And this during a prolonged summer scorcher — what Northeast superintendents normally rue as their “100 Days of Hell.”
 
At least the championship West Course saw no cart traffic. And he hasn’t had to tiptoe his way through a massive, stadium-like infrastructure since public spectating – there were going to be 45,000 fans on site daily – has been banned. That also means fewer people personally viewing his team’s handiwork, which is a letdown for any superintendent. The hope is that the TV audience will at least get to see a pure, uncluttered version of Winged Foot.
 
Since the day he got on site for the 2012 season, Rabideau has been working at a hectic pace. In part, that’s his nature. One of his close friends, superintendent Dave Dudones of Westchester Country Club, calls that incessant work ethic one of Rabideau’s best and worst traits. “He works hard,” Dudones says. “That’s his strength and also his weakness. He loves that place and it shows.”
 
There’s not much getting away for him. His 49th birthday will be the Saturday of the U.S. Open. He stays in close contact by phone with his most trusted colleagues, among them Dudones, Craig Currier and Bob Alonzi — all respected veterans of the Met-area superintendents scene. When he does get out of the office, it’s often for golf trips. Rabideau is an avid golfer: at his peak an 8 or 9 handicap, though his game has taken a backseat of late given all the time he devotes to work. One other thing that defines him: he’s an avid New England Patriots fan, with a season ticket for the last 30 years. “Pre-Brady,” as he is quick to avow.
 
Rabideau, who holds a B.S. in turfgrass science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, worked for years on Long Island at some prominent private facilities – The Seawane Club, Hamlet Golf & Country Club and Wheatley Hills Golf Club – before setting up shop at Winged Foot. Part of the reason he landed the job was because he made no secret of the need for a major infrastructure overhaul of the entire Winged Foot facility. 
 
He wasted little time in relying upon architect Gil Hanse for a restoration consistent with the original 1923 design by A.W. Tillinghast. The plan covered restored putting surface expanses, built to contemporary USGA specifications. Plans also called for bunkers rebuilt with Better Billy Bunker liners. Tree management was another issue. Much of the underground focus was on an extensive drainage plan that would help clear the site of excess water while recapturing it for later irrigation use.
 
The rebuild, involving LaBar Golf Renovations, started in the fall of 2013 on the front nine of the East Course, moving to its back nine in the fall of 2014. The team paused long enough to have the East Course hold the USGA Four-Ball Amateur in May 2016. Work then proceeded to the back nine of the West Course in the fall of 2016 and a year later, the front nine of the West. When it was all done and grown back, members, many of them legendary curmudgeons for their detailed memory of the layout, could discern no change in the prized green contours — though they could certainly tell the putting surfaces got 25 percent larger.
 
So meticulous was Rabideau in wanting to return the course to the membership as if it were untouched that he insisted to a skeptical Hanse that they use the existing sod from the old putting surfaces and that the greens expansion comprise home-grown sod cultivated from cores pulled from the greens. He fashioned a 100,000-square-foot nursery – enough to cover both the greens expansion and the fairway modifications. The only commercial sod brought in was stacked fescue sod for bunker faces and bluegrass sod for the roughs. 
 
The whole process is carefully documented and on display along the walls of the maintenance facility. It accompanies maps, drawings and memorabilia from the many majors contested at Winged Foot, all conveying to staff and visitors the architectural heritage of the grounds.
 
Part of a grounds manager’s success in an operation of Winged Foot’s scale is confidently delegating authority. Day-to-day operations are handled by three trustees who proved themselves during the multi-year restoration project: Steve Bigelow (now the East Course superintendent), Weston Neff (U.S. Open superintendent) and JR Lapan (West Course superintendent). Back at the office alongside the 4th hole of the East Course, administrative assistant Cici M. Cacsire tracks their movements and corrals them when needed. Together they preside over a full-time crew of 55 and will be joined by about 80 volunteers for the U.S. Open.
 
Rabideau knows the setup team will be operating under considerable restraints. He’s spent the last four U.S. Opens with USGA Green Section director of championship agronomy Darin Bevard observing championship week operations first-hand. The need to maintain social distancing will entail a spacing out of deployment at every level. It’s something that by now is well-established across the industry, of course. More imposing are the deadlines of the clock, because the mid-September timing means nearly three hours less daylight for each competitive round. When sunrise on Thursday’s first round is 6:38 a.m. and the first tee times on the 1st and 10th holes are at 6:50 a.m., you know you are dealing with time compression. The same goes at the other end of the day, with sunset at 7 p.m. 
 
That means morning setup will take place in the dark — or, to be more precise, under the illumination provided by a dozen lighting poles tugged around the grounds by utility vehicles. “I hate doing things in the dark at this level,” Rabideau admits. It will help expedite morning setup that he has prepared his greens with a tight, lean fertility program that enables them to achieve desired speeds (in the range of 12.5 to 13 on the Stimpmeter) with a single mow and roll. 
 
Not that Rabideau is new to working in the dark. When they were out there doing the greens restoration program in the fall, they often relied upon night lights to steal some extra work time as autumn shuts down the available daylight.
 
Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D., is a former PGA Tour caddie, a veteran golf journalist, a noted author (“Discovering Donald Ross” among others), a golf course consultant and the Golf Therapy columnist for Golf Course Industry.