A Simpler Game

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An Open Message

Posted: 7/7/2011

Do not adjust your television set. This year's U.S. Open telecast won't feature a perfectly manicured green course--just the way USGA President Jim Hyler wants it.

Note: This story ran in the Summer 2010 issue of LINKS.

Nearly every person watching this year’s U.S. Open—whether in person or on television—will expect Pebble Beach Golf Links to be in immaculate condition. They will be looking for lush green grass everywhere—tees, greens, fairways, rough—without a single blade out of place.

Those are the conditions we are used to. After all, this is our national championship, the showcase of American golf. It is the premier event put on by the U.S. Golf Association, the ruling body for golf in our country. The U.S. Open layout should be the model to which every course should aspire.

USGA President Jim Hyler certainly hopes so.

That is why he wouldn’t mind seeing brown grass at Pebble Beach, as the maintenance staff will apply less water on the course, both in the weeks leading up to the event and during the championship itself.

Hyler doesn’t want a perfect-looking, wall-to-wall green golf course to host the national championship. He wants dry, firm and fast playing conditions that he hopes will trickle down and take hold at golf facilities around the country.

That was the vision he had in mind on the first day of his term as the president of the USGA. At the organization’s annual meeting, held at the Pinehurst Resort in February, Hyler stood up and said, “If we are not careful, high construction costs, soaring maintenance budgets, and declining membership rosters will threaten the survival of many courses and clubs.

“In my opinion, many of the standards by which we construct and maintain our courses have become, quite simply, unsustainable. We must reset the way we look at golf courses.

“I believe that our definition of playability should include concepts of firm, fast and yes, even brown, and allow the running game to flourish. We need to understand how brown can become the new green.”

In the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he urged Americans to ask what they could do for their country, Hyler’s words were a clarion call to golfers everywhere. For the first time, one of golf ’s major organizations had brought the issue of sustainability into the spotlight.

CHANGE OF THINKING Two-and-half months after his Pinehurst speech, Hyler is sitting in a conference room in his office in Raleigh, North Carolina. The U.S. Open is just weeks away, and at Pebble Beach, he is looking forward to expanding on his message, which is one of the linchpins of his term.

“The feedback was very positive,” says Hyler of his speech, which sent ripples of surprise across the golf industry. “Our intent here is to reach out to golfers and to say that the green, soft lush courses that are a function of our expectations are really not in the best interest of the game.”

Hyler’s point is simple enough.

“In this country, we worry too much about how a golf course looks, instead of how it plays,” he says. “If you take these seven-figure maintenance budgets, the last 20 percent is about how it looks instead of how it plays.”

The irony is that until recently, Hyler’s viewpoint was the opposite. Several years ago, as a member of the greens committee at his home course, Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, North Carolina, he was pushing his course superintendent for more manicured conditioning.

A pair of developments changed his outlook. The first was the severe drought that afflicted the Southeast in 2007, during which many courses ran out of water. The second was the recent downturn in the economy, which placed significant pressures on course-maintenance budgets.

The economy will improve, but water usage will continue to be a major problem for golf. “The amount of water we’re putting on golf courses in this country is not sustainable,” says Hyler. “Water is a significant issue. Municipalities will limit the amount of water for golf courses. I think golf as an industry should be ahead of the curve.”

‘THE BALL ROLLS TOO MUCH’ For now, Hyler is talking to people in the golf industry about his message, and they are the ones offering positive feedback. But he knows that the real key to making his vision work is to convince average golfers that less water and brown conditions are actually more beneficial for their games.

“The biggest obstacle is the mindset of golfers,” says Hyler. “Think about playing a golf course on which you get a lot of roll. You’re able to play the contours, the way the architect intended. And to me, there’s just no comparison when it comes to the golf experience.”

It will not be easy to reset the expectations of golfers like the one I encountered last summer at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the American golf facility that perhaps best exemplifies Hyler’s ideal of sustainable, firm and fast golf.

While conversing with the Bandon visitor, I learned that he had been playing golf for more than 20 years and had been to many of the top courses in the United States. He had heard a lot about the seaside resort in coastal Oregon, and was playing there for the first time. I asked him which of the property’s three courses (a fourth, Old Macdonald, opens in June) he had played on that day.

“Bandon Dunes,” he replied.

“What did you think?” “I didn’t like it,” he said. “The ground is too hard and the ball rolls too much.”

Hyler nods in recognition as I relate this story. He knows that most of this man’s golf experiences and views have been shaped by the courses shown on golf telecasts.

“Golfers watch tournaments on TV,” says Hyler, “and then they go to their clubs and say, ‘Why can’t our course look like what I just saw?’ “They don’t realize that the course has been conditioned to peak for that week. It’s impossible for a course to look like that for 52 weeks. For Bethpage last year, we started preparing the course four years beforehand, and 200 people worked on the grounds during the week.”

That is why Hyler and the USGA are hoping to use the U.S. Open telecast to emphasize their message, both in the form of Pebble’s conditioning and by discussing that conditioning on the air.

“The telecast will be a great poster child for what we’re talking about here,” says Hyler. “At the USGA, we have not spoken much about the environment. Our Green Section has done a lot of great work, but it’s been our best-kept secret. The time is ripe for talking about this.”

LOOKING AHEAD While the USGA’s campaign will start at Pebble Beach, Hyler knows that reaching the hearts and minds of American golfers will be a longterm project. Fortunately, the lineup of courses for future U.S. Open courses will showcase sustainable practices.

North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2, the 2014 site, is restoring the natural areas around the holes, which will reduce the total area of maintained turf, reducing maintenance requirements and costs. In 2015 the Open will go to Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Washington. The Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course, which looks and plays like a links, could hold the firmest, fastest Open ever.

In addition to these Open sites, Hyler cites Huntingdon Valley Country Club outside Philadelphia and Atlanta Athletic Club as facilities that have taken significant steps to reduce water and other inputs in order to control their maintenance budgets.

At the same time, Hyler acknowledges that achieving firm conditions isn’t as simple as just turning off the water. Maintaining certain playing conditions is both science and art, and helping superintendents to prepare grass for firm, fast conditions may require capital outlays like making renovations to reduce the size of maintained turf, installing different grasses or investing in advanced irrigation systems.

Still, Hyler believes that acting now would help both courses and golfers prepare for what he sees is an inevitable upcoming shift in water policy around the country, long after Hyler’s term is over. “We’re not trying to be environmental police,” says Hyler.

“We’re trying to emphasize the fact that water is a finite resource, and this can be a significant part in helping the health of the game. “I sense a lot of energy around this.”


LINKS Magazine’s "A Simpler Game” series promotes firm, fast and natural playing conditions. For more information, visit the LINKS Magazine website. 

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