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Grass Is Serious Business At The U.S. Open

Emily Stock
90.5 WESA

Thursday is the first day of the U.S. Open, one of golf’s biggest championships. Most of the world’s best male golfers, professionals and amateurs alike, are in the Pittsburgh area to compete.

Ahead of this year’s tournament, golfers warmed up with some practice rounds at the Oakmont Country Club.

Director of Championship Agronomy for the USGA Devin Bevard watched from outside the ropes of the 17th hole. At 313 yards, this hole is the shortest par 4 of Oakmont’s course. But Bevard said distance isn’t the only challenge. The 17th hole has some steep side bunkers, or sand traps, but he said play largely comes down to something else.

“From right here, I can probably see five different types of grass, maybe six different types of grass,” Bevard said.

What types of grasses, where they’re placed and how they’re treated are all strategic parts of making a competitive golf course.  

“The conditions that we provide are above and beyond of what you would experience on normal play,” Bevard said. “We’re challenging the best players in the world.”

Among the agronomical challenges, is the rough.

“To the left of the green, the rough is extremely thick and dense and tall,” Bevard said.

Basically, it’s a short hole, so you better be accurate. You’re going to get stuck in the tall grass if you’re off. The course’s groundskeepers might be the only ones who like the rough – it’s basically just wild grass that’s hardly ever mowed or watered.

That’s very unlike the green.

“That’s where you’ve got to try to get the ball in the hole,” Bevard said. And as a reminder for non-golfers, “the guy that gets it in the hole in the fewest number of shots, is gonna win.”

So the grass on the green gets a lot of action, and as it turns out, is pretty high maintenance.

“Right now we’re cutting the greens four times per day,” Bevard said. “So you can see right down there where that flag pole is, that grass is mowed below a tenth-of-an-inch. If you put the thickness of two nickels together, that’s more than a tenth of an inch.”

All that somewhat compulsive grass maintenance isn’t just about cosmetics. Bevard said getting the grass firm and tight makes golfing on it way harder. A lot of that comes down to moisture, something they can’t really control although they try. The grass there is exclusively watered by hand with hoses. It takes about 13 million gallons of water a year to maintain Oakmont’s course.

Bevard said if the grass is more wet or “receptive,” golfers have more control, and essentially it’s an easier green.

“Instead of worrying about where the ball rolls, they’re going to be able to stop the ball fairly quickly,” said Bevard.

That same principal applies to long shots on the fairway.

“For example, you watch that golf ball where it hits and bounces up 8 or 10 yards,” said Bevard from outside the ropes of the course. “If we get rain, that ball may bounce one yard, that could be as much as a club difference, it all kind of balances out in a lot of respects.”

And rain this week is a major likelihood. Precipitation is in the forecast two of the days of the Open. As for the greens?

“They’re probably not going to get to the same level of firmness that they are today, they’re just not going to have time to dry down before the end of the championship,” Bevard said.

While the agronomists and groundskeepers at Oakmont said they’re just hoping for the best with the weather, Bevard said the variables in the grass could ultimately bring the field of competition much closer together.