1999: Communication need for tourney setup


We can learn from any event, be it spectacular or disastrous. The PGA Championship recently held at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club is not unusual in this respect.

There is little value or benefit in pointing fingers or assigning blame for situations that fall short of expectations. Medinah is, and has been for a long time, a premier golf course, steeped in pride and quality. Medinah has garnered its reputation based on consistent course quality, member dedication to golf and pride by all who are associated with the club. Further, Medinah is regarded as an exceptionally fine course by the rest of the greater Chicago golf community. For these reasons, Medinah was selected to host the 1999 PGA Championship. Medinah, and especially superintendent Danny Quast, dedicated several years to preparing the course for tournament play.

Most golf professionals understand a good deal about golf turf and course maintenance. They understand that golf is played on living grass plants and, as such, there will be variation in the quality or condition of any given course. Further, they understand that tournament preparation and play impart a tremendous stress on a course. Of course, they would like uniform greens that have speed, putt with little ball resistance and hold approach shots.

Superintendents know the likes and dislikes of golfers, but they also are trained professional turf managers and understand what the grass needs. Superintendents today are expert at balancing the desires and needs of golfers and turf, but it is not easy. Golfers tend to whine when they don’t get what they want: the turf, by contrast, simply dies. All golfers should take an interest in the grass they play on. They should work with the course superintendent, not just demand action and render criticism.

Golfers must understand that not all of their wants or desires may be possible. Anyone who demands fast, hard, dry greens in July-August in Illinois is likely to get dead grass and a frustrated superintendent. Why do some pros think because they earn millions to play golf, they know more about turf than a trained superintendent?

What the viewing public did not know about Medinah was that much preparation went into hosting the PGA. More than two years ago, Quast started planning and preparing the course. Further, his preparations were, in part, directed by Medinah club members and PGA of America officials. The PGA is the “strong arm” for tournament preparations and insists that certain conditions are achieved for a tournament course.

Medinah was no different. Did the PGA think ahead as to what would happen to the turf should July be so hot and humid that thousands of acres of turf in Illinois would be stressed and/or die? Did the PGA use its resources of experience and dollars to assist Medinah in planning for extremely stressful conditions for the turf? Did it relax course demands to relieve the stress on the turf at Medinah? The answer to all is no. Further, the PGA assumed that regardless of the weather or other uncontrollable circumstances, Quast would have the course in “championship shape.”

On this point, they were correct. Quast did an exceptional job of preparing the course. Most of the participating golfers said as much, but a few said the greens looked awful (and blamed their equally awful play on it). The virtually unknown fact is that Quast, with respect and professionalism, did not make retaliatory or defensive comments while his reputation and that of Medinah were attacked by some disgruntled golfers.

In a technical sense, course conditions in July-August of most years in Illinois are the most difficult to manage for a superintendent. Soil temperatures, which are extremely important to grass quality, are at their highest in July. The plant’s genetics tell it to go dormant in summer heat, but irrigation and fertilizers combine to push it to grow slowly in mid-summer. We know a fair amount about heat and drought stress, but we do not know enough to control it during extreme conditions. More focused research is needed to achieve a greater level of turf quality during stressful conditions.

Quast used every management “trick” to keep Medinah in championship shape. The only way to improve situations like this is through more research into stress-related studies. Or, to relax the standards we have come to expect of tournament-quality courses.

Where do we need to go as a golf industry? Golfers and turf managers must work together through communication, not demands. Professional organizations and golfers should be supportive of turf managers through research, especially in major golf areas such as Chicago. Further, these organizations should objectively support superintendents and not be afraid to stand behind them.

Professional golfers bring a lot of visibility to the golf industry and enjoyment to the public, and they are paid very well for it. Their complaining and whining about courses might make the news, but it hurts the people who support their profession the most: the superintendents.

Henry T. Wilkinson, Ph.D., is a professor of Turfgrass Science in the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Illinois. He has worked with Medinah Country Club for more than 15 years, including preparation for the 1999 PGA Championship.

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