Going to Bermuda – via Pinehurst

Pinehurst No. 3

Pinehurst No. 3 reopened on Oct. 4 – with Bermuda greens.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

By Lee Pace

The old-timers remember the taut Bermuda grass greens of Pinehurst No. 2 as being as much a part of the experience as the wide fairways, sandy roughs and beveled greens complexes.

“There was nothing like playing those old Bermuda greens,” says Lanny Wadkins, a frequent Pinehurst visitor in the 1960s from his Richmond home and later a mainstay on the PGA Tour.

“They were firm and quick and there was no room for error.”

“The course was built on this pure sand base, and the greens were the identity of the course,” remembers David Eger, who visited from Charlotte often as a junior golfer in the 1960s, later won two North and South Amateurs and now is a regular on the PGA Champions Tour. “The greens were Bermuda at the time and they all sat up and had plateaus where you had to invent shots around the greens. It was very challenging if you missed the greens.”

Before Donald Ross refined grass-growing techniques, Pinehurst's fabled greens were covered with a combination of sand and mud. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives

Before Donald Ross refined grass-growing techniques, Pinehurst’s fabled greens were covered with a combination of sand and mud. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives

 

Pinehurst was conceived in 1895 by a Bostonian named James Walker Tufts as a winter escape for fellow frost-bitten New Englanders. When he opened the Resort’s first golf course in 1898, the only practical method for building putting greens was to create square surfaces made of clay and sand with a permanent hole in the center. Donald Ross, the head professional and architect-in-residence, worked for years over the early 1900s with greenskeeper Frank Maples to develop good stands of grass on fairways and tees. They tried applications of nitrate of soda, barnyard manure, cotton-seed meal and fish scrap among other fertilizers in trying to get grass to grow and survive. Some early guests actually asked them not to try to grow grass in the fairways because the few clumps they could grow interfered with the lies in the sandy fairways.

Finally in 1935, Ross was impressed enough with some experimental Bermuda grass greens that he rebuilt all the greens on No. 2 and replaced them with grass.

“No. 2 has always been a pet of mine,” Ross said. “In building these fine new greens, I have been able to carry out many of the changes which I have long visualized but only now have been able to put into practice.”

 

The fourth green of Pinehurst No. 2, as it appeared during the 1936 North & South - the same year Pinehurst hosted its first major event, the 1936 PGA Championship. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives.

The fourth green of Pinehurst No. 2, as it appeared during the 1936 North & South – the same year Pinehurst hosted its first major event, the 1936 PGA Championship. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives.

 

Times Change

Those Bermuda greens worked well for more than three decades until the 1970s, when Pinehurst officials began floating the idea to the USGA of holding a U.S. Open on No. 2. One of the USGA’s checklist items for its Open venues has always been to have firm and fast putting surfaces, and in the 1970s it was impossible to groom Bermuda greens in mid-June to the quickness mandated by the USGA. So in 1987, Pinehurst rebuilt the greens on No. 2 with Penncross bent, the preferred surface for cultivating slick and speedy greens at the time. The Resort tweaked that process again in 1996, planting the greens with a new, heat-resistant strain called Penn G-2 and rebuilding the greens’ substructures to allow quicker drainage.

The result was greens that putted up to 12-12.5 on the Stimpmeter for the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens. The 2005 Open week, in particular, was hot and sunny with temperatures in the 90s, but still the maintenance staff kept the grass healthy with intermittent afternoon watering, but the putting surfaces remained firm and quick.

“If it doesn’t rain, you can’t stop the ball on the greens,” Vijay Singh said. “I’ve been hitting wedges and it’s not spinning back. It’s taking one big hop and stopping.”

The Penn G-2 worked so well that soon every course at Pinehurst had Penn G-2 greens.

 

“Nothing did great here—it was too hot in the summer for bent and too cold in the winter for Bermuda. That’s changed with the ultradwarfs. The research we’ve seen says the new strains do better here than anywhere.” – Pinehurst President Don Padgett II

 

But the agronomy business never stands still. Now the development of new strains of Bermuda grass, called “Ultradwarfs,” has leapfrogged bent in the eyes of many golf course owners, green committee chairmen and course superintendents across the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic as the greens surface of choice.

“The Carolinas have been in the ‘transition zone’ forever,” says Don Padgett II, president and COO of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club. “Nothing did great here—it was too hot in the summer for bent and too cold in the winter for Bermuda. That’s changed with the ultradwarfs. The research we’ve seen says the new strains do better here than anywhere.”

Superintendents across the Carolinas and other Southern locales with bent greens began dreading the onslaught of July and August heat and humidity and the annual scramble to keep bent greens alive in what seemed to be hotter and hotter summers. The 2010 summer was one of the hottest on record with an abnormal number of days of 90 degrees or higher.

 

 

A Major Impact

The golf world took notice in August 2011 when the PGA Championship was played on new Bermuda greens at Atlanta Athletic Club; if a club in the Deep South in August could present firm, fast and smooth Bermuda greens, perhaps anyone could. Another premier club in Atlanta, East Lake Golf Club, had converted in 2008.

Bob Farren, director for course and grounds maintenance at Pinehurst, remembers the discussion about converting Pinehurst’s courses to Bermuda beginning in 2009, intensifying during the sweltering 2010 summer and coming to a head after he visited Atlanta for the 2011 PGA.

“That week I played East Lake, it was 100 degrees and those greens were perfect,” Farren says. “What a breath of fresh air. Then when Atlanta Athletic Club stood up so well in the PGA with Bermuda greens, people started paying attention.”

 

 

Padgett and Farren made the decision in 2011 to begin converting some of the Penn G-2 greens at Pinehurst to the ultradwarf Bermuda. No. 1 was the first, reopening in September 2012. No. 8’s greens were resurfaced in the summer of 2013, reopening in July, and most recently the greens on No. 3 were converted and unveiled in early October. The greens on No. 2 will be converted beginning in July 2014 following the U.S. Opens.

The new strains of Bermuda allow superintendents to maintain high density during extreme temperatures and at low mowing heights and deliver smooth, consistent putting surfaces throughout the year. The ultradwarfs provide top-quality conditions on an everyday basis and allow fine-tuning for elite championship conditions when needed.

“I don’t really look at the new grass as Bermuda as I do it being a whole new offering,” says Padgett. “When I grew up playing Bermuda greens, that meant something entirely different than what you’re seeing now. There is nothing about the old Bermuda greens that is similar to these new ultradwarfs. It’s almost like a whole new offering, it just happens to come out of the Bermuda family.”

 

“For the good player, I think these greens are more difficult. For the higher handicap player, they’re more concerned with how they chip and putt. The average player thinks they’re wonderful.” – Pinehurst President Don Padgett II

 

Quality of Golf

Padgett says the company’s opinion surveys of guests and members have shown significant improvement from those playing courses 1 and 8. The new greens can be maintained much firmer than bent, making full-swing approach shots more demanding for the good player in that he has to spin the ball enough to get them to check and hold.

“For the good player, I think these greens are more difficult,” Padgett says. “For the higher handicap player, they’re more concerned with how they chip and putt. The average player thinks they’re wonderful.”

Peter DeYoung’s Pinehurst experience extends back to the early 1970s, when as a young man he was on the Resort’s golf administration staff. Today he runs the Winternational Junior Series of golf events, lives in Pinehurst and is a club member.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the No. 1 course play like it is now,” DeYoung says. “The greens are so true, the ball rolls so well, it seems the game has gotten somewhat easier. All in all, it is a great improvement for the full calendar. Pinehurst has always brought a great product forward to the golfing public, and with this new grass they will be able to bring this product for a much longer period of time.”

Jeff Hill and Kyle Brown, the superintendents at Pinehurst on the courses that have been converted, have been pleased with the early returns on the Bermuda greens.

“I think Bermuda is a wise choice for a number of reasons,” says Hill, who’s in charge of No. 8, a 1996 Tom Fazio design. “It’s more cost-effective. It provides better putting conditions for more parts of the year. And the golfers like it because they’re not complaining during the summer about slow, soft bent greens.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the No. 1 course play like it is now. The greens are so true, the ball rolls so well, it seems the game has gotten somewhat easier. All in all, it is a great improvement for the full calendar. Pinehurst has always brought a great product forward to the golfing public, and with this new grass they will be able to bring this product for a much longer period of time.” – Peter DeYoung

 

Brown, the superintendent on two classic Ross-designed courses at Nos. 1 and 3, says the first year of No. 1 in Bermuda refutes the idea that Bermuda would be too firm and fast.

“We’ve proven over the course of an entire year we can provide smooth, modest green speeds,” he says. “We have an older clientele on 1 and 3 and green speeds of 9 to 9.5 are a good speed. They are firm but not too fast. Bermuda greens do like sand, so we have to top-dress them frequently and that makes them firm-up over time.”

The best news with the new greens is that superintendents don’t have to dispatch an army of hose-laden workers to the greens every summer afternoon, and golfers don’t have to hit approach shots around the workers scurrying about the greens to water them.

“We don’t have two or three guys having to syringe the greens all afternoon in July and August,” Brown says. “That a big thing. It’s hard for us trying to work in among all the golfers, and I know it’s got to be irritating for them.”

Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. His latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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