Janesville70°

Golf getting the green out

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Jim Leute
June 22, 2014

ERIN—With a few exceptions, golfers and fans are accustomed to lush environs.

They long for beautiful green tee boxes and greens.

They aim for immaculate green fairways but often land in fertile rough peppered occasionally by brown or white sand.

It’s not surprising, then, that recent talk in grill rooms and driving ranges has centered on the look of Pinehurst No. 2, the North Carolina venue for this year’s men’s and women’s U.S. Opens.

Much of what was predominately rough at Pinehurst was restored to native waste areas. Fairways were allowed to brown out, particularly along edges and ridges.

“It looks more like my backyard,” many observers said.

The “look” at Pinehurst was definitely by design, or, more accurately, the result of a recent redesign by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to restore the famed venue to its natural aesthetic.

A similar “look” is likely when the U.S. Open makes its first visit to Wisconsin.

That’s because Erin Hills, the site of the 2017 championship, has evolved since its opening in 2006 in lockstep with the United States Golf Association’s mantra that “brown is the new green.”

“There are mixed opinions about Pinehurst because it is a different aesthetic,” said Zach Reineking, superintendent of the course about 75 miles northeast of Janesville and 35 miles from downtown Milwaukee.

“Is it for everyone? We hope so, because that’s the direction we’re heading as an industry.”

Erin Hills is a stunning track that meanders for as many as 8,200 yards through 650 acres of rolling moraines.

It’s a rugged route where the land’s beauty is on display for 360 degrees.

Those looking for an Augusta-like experience—where every blade of rich green grass is perfectly manicured—will be disappointed.

In building the course, crews moved dirt on only four holes in following the architects’ desires for minimalism.

“We want to be stewards of the environment,” Reineking said about the construction and sustainability of the golf course.

A critical component in that stewardship is water, which when combined with chemicals results in the lush courses many players cherish.

Beyond the restricted earthwork, Erin Hills’ strategy extends to maintenance of the course, which has 140 acres of fine fescue grass that are never watered, never mowed and never treated with chemicals.

The fairways also are fine fescue, which doesn’t require nearly as much water as traditional bent grass turf. One disadvantage, however, is that fine fescue doesn’t like activity, so Erin Hills is a walking-only course.

While Mother Nature did her watering last week, Reineking said Erin Hills’ irrigation system hasn’t touched the fairways since late May.

Eventually, the fine fescue will brown out, although the course’s irrigation system is capable of spot watering specific areas if needed.

“We’re restricting our irrigation, and the result will be a natural brown out, particularly along the edges of the fairways,” Reineking said.

The result is a fast, firm course where balls run and players need to think about how to get the ball to stop in a specific spot rather than simply landing it there.

Greens and tees are monitored every morning and watered only when appropriate.

Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, has put golf course water usage at the top of his organization’s priority list.

Reineking said Erin Hills made a strong commitment to both the USGA and its U.S. Open.

In doing so, the greens are watered only when necessary, and Reineking said they are routinely pushed to their limits to maintain speed.

“A typical golf course of 60 to 70 acres uses 25 million gallons of water a year,” he said. “We have 85 acres that are able to be irrigated, and we use 15 million to 18 million gallons a year.”

Other changes

Officials said the course has undergone significant changes in the last year in preparation for the 2017 U.S. Open.

The most significant, they said, is a new third green to better accommodate what are expected to be long-iron second shots.

“There was an extreme spine running through there and it was tough to reach in two from the back tees,” Reineking said. “We shortened the hole by 18 yards and shifted the green about 20 yards to the right.

“There are more pin-able locations now, and we added three bunkers, so it’s pretty well guarded. All agree it’s a better hole.”

Other notable changes include:

• New tee boxes on the fifth hole, a 507-yard par-4 from the back tees. Reineking said the new tees allow for more options in windy conditions.

A new tee on the 15th hole to create a driveable par-4.

“It creates a risk-reward shot, and the risk is significant,” he said in reference to the eight bunkers around the green.

A new tee on the par-4 17th hole, removal of one bunker and significant trimming of a moraines ridgeline.

“We also took down some trees on 17,” he said. “I think there’s only about five left on the course.”

For the most part, the course is complete, he said. Only some fine details need attention before the course takes golf’s center stage in June 2017.



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