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What Can Brown Do For You? An Examination of what the US Open at Restored Pinehurst #2 Does (and Does Not) Mean for Your Course.

If you were one of the millions of people watching the US Open from Pinehurst #2 this year, you surely noticed that the course did not look like the typical US Open venue we have grown so accustomed to over the past, oh, 114 years. And if you didn’t notice the change, then the on-air talent, analysts, USGA staff, and producers from the Golf Channel, ESPN, and NBC were sure to remind you—over and over and over again.  Don’t misunderstand.  I’m all for restoring classic courses, growing the game of golf, and finding more sustainable ways to design and operate golf courses.  That being said, some of the media hyperbole surrounding the exemplary work that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw did to Donald Ross’s seminal piece of work bordered on the absurd. In my humble opinion, some people marginalized the goals that Coore, Crenshaw, and the staff at Pinehurst accomplished by focusing too much on the browned-out condition of the turf and how “wonderful” it looked on the small screen in our living rooms…ad nauseum.

Don’t take my word for it.  The people I saw on my television were practically giddy about how bad the course looked and on Sunday afternoon, the onslaught of “brown is beautiful” erupted into a good ol’ fashioned Twitter back-and-forth between Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella and no less than Donald Trump himself.  The Donald said he would not let the USGA do to his course what they had done to Pinehurst #2 and that the course looked horrible on TV.  He went on to name a number of his own courses that he claimed were better than the “new” Pinehurst #2.  To his credit, Ginella tried to diplomatically sort out the top-ranked courses and keep the hashtag discussion civil, but a good number of other people on Twitter jumped at the opportunity to pile-on Trump, while still others sided with him and his opinion.

If you missed the spin, the talking points heard on-air can be summed up in a nutshell herewith: a browned-out burned-up course with single row irrigation, no “rough,” 50 acres of waste areas, and playing 7,500 yards from the tips with turtleback greens that won’t hold a wedge shot from the world’s best players is the future of the game.  You say you didn’t know that?  Me either.  For those who spoke as though there is no middle ground between the cathedral of American golf that is Augusta National and what we saw at Pinehurst over the weekend is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous.  Let’s look at just a few of the key points we heard from Pinehurst:

  1. “The new single row irrigation system at Pinehurst #2 cut the watering requirements in half and saved 40 million gallons of water each year.”  Single row irrigation is nothing new and many of you may play on older courses with single row irrigation still today.  As I noted on Twitter during the #USOpen, we were installing single row systems just 15 years ago in designs in Mississippi and Louisiana—not to save on water, but because we were building entire golf courses for roughly $1 million.  That being said, it’s not the most desirable means of irrigating a golf course—unless you want unhealthy turf everywhere except a roughly 85’ radius around each of the heads in the middle of the fairway.  Try driving up and down those struggling fairways with 50 to 80 golf carts a day in the middle of summer and the “awesome natural look” of the brown turf will quickly become the “awful natural look” of brown dirt.  Turf on golf courses needs water for the same reason you and I need water—to survive.  There are more sensible solutions for your course than starving half of it from irrigation, such as single row irrigation from the tees to the landing areas, then double row irrigation to the green.  That sensible approach, coupled with an irrigation audit and smarter irrigation programming, can cut water usage dramatically without burning up your course. Yes it can. I’ve seen it done many times over.  One one-air personality at the US Open went so far as to say that the water savings in the first year at Pinehurst paid for the entire cost of the renovations! I’d like some confirmation of that statement because I find it hard to believe—unless the Pinehurst Resort was actually buying water from the Village of Pinehurst’s municipal water supply to irrigate the course before the restoration. Of course, I could be wrong…
  2. “Brown is beautiful.” No it’s not. Not in America. At least not turf burned brown to the precipice of turf loss.  This statement is not good, bad or indifferent.  It’s just the way things are in America. Tan, however, is a very attractive look that contrasts nicely with green and looks both natural and healthy.  British Open venues that are more tan than green look great! Partly because that’s what we’ve come to expect from them.  They also have different soils and turf types that the vast majority of courses on this side of the pond do not enjoy and many below the Mason-Dixon line cannot have and/or afford to maintain (see “Conversion of Bentgrass Putting Greens to Ultradwarf Bermuda” for more information).  But generally speaking, Americans like their courses more green than brown and I doubt the “look” that Pinehurst #2 had from overhead on TV will be what the majority of American golfers want in my lifetime.  I’m not advocating spending millions of dollars on extravagant irrigation systems that water every nook and cranny of a golf course—quite the opposite actually.  But if the goal is to “grow the game,” I don’t see how starving a course of water to the point of near turf loss from desiccation coupled with greens that won’t hold an approach shot from the world’s best players is going to accomplish it.  Let us not forget the Law of Unintended Consequences.  I’m sure that Alexander Graham Bell never thought you could accidently call someone by sitting on his invention (the telephone for those of you who didn’t know).  Likewise, I’m fairly sure that turning people off to the game by advocating that courses cut water back to the point that fairways are dirt and greens are so hard to hold that the best in world can’t do itis not what the USGA is hoping for by hyping less conditioning.
  3. “It looks great because there’s no rough anymore!”  It may not have been “rough” in the traditional sense of a US Open, but the huge swaths of waste areas and native sandy scrub looked pretty rough to me.  Sure you don’t have to water it like turf, but it’s also not a one-size-fits-all solution for every course in America.  There also appeared to be as many broadleaf weeds as there were wiregrass plants in the newly reclaimed native areas that I saw.  Also consider that the native sandy well-drained soils in and around the region of Pinehurst, North Carolina work great for that natural look.  But try pulling that off in heavy clay or poorly-drained soils in other areas of the country, and you’ll have a hodge-podge of every weed known to man in less than a year.  That’s because every agronomist knows that the best defense against weeds is a thick canopy of healthy turf that helps keep sunlight away from the weed seeds that are waiting to germinate.  Again, I personally like the new look of the natural areas at Pinehurst and I’m a big advocate for reducing bunkers on golf courses because they are so expensive to maintain.  In fact, I once completed a bunker renovation for a course in Arkansas that cut the overall square feet of bunkers by nearly 50% without changing the playability or challenge of the course.  It takes time to study it and some common sense, but it can be done and it’s a great way to save on your maintenance budget.  That being said, I like the theory of the waste areas along the edges of the fairways at Pinehurst #2 because they do not have to be maintained like bunkers.  But again, it won’t work for everyone and some maintenance is still needed in those areas.  It’s less maintenance, not maintenance-free—a fact seemingly lost on some of the on-air talent. 
  4. “This will help grow the game because it’s less expensive to maintain and will therefore make golf more accessible due to lower green fees.”  The argument sounds like a sensible one and from a strictly ECON 101 point of view seems like it would work.  But for all the talk of how much water Pinehurst #2 was saving after the restoration, what I didn’t hear was how much the maintenance budget had been reduced.  I would like to know because any superintendent will tell you that the most expensive line item in the golf course maintenance budget is the same as any other business—labor.  And I would suspect that even if there was a savings in overall costs, the maintenance budget at  post-renovation Pinehurst #2 would still make many of the Greens Committee members of America’s others courses from coast to coast choke on their member assessments—notwithstanding preparations for the US Open.  To prove my point, look no further than the cost to play Pinehurst #2: a paltry $420 (no that’s not a typo).  Before I get emails trying to explain supply and demand economics to me, save your time.  I understand it.  It’s just tough to square the argument being made that the new look of Pinehurst will make golf more affordable—everywhere except Pinehurst, that is.

To sum up, I love what Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw did at Pinehurst #2.  As a rule, I typically don’t like when fellow golf architects channel dead architects from beyond the grave, but Coore and Crenshaw didn’t do that.  They used old photos and research to restore the 40+ acres of native sand scrub that had been filled in with turf over the latter half of the last century.  No Ouija Boards, just research and a lot of time studying history. Granted, a full-on restoration to the “original” Pinehurst would have seen flat oiled-sand greens like the ones in place from 1907 to 1934, but that would’ve just been silly…or would it?  The restoration cut back on water usage and that’s great.  They gave the course back what it once had by turning back the clock 100 years ago and that’s great too.  In fact, I can’t wait to see the course in person again. And if the coverage of the US Open helped further awareness of the need to make golf more sustainable and more affordable, then that’s great too.

What bothered me about the coverage was the extent to which everyone from the USGA to the folks from the television networks tried to force-feed the American golfer how beautiful a burned up course really is and hint that if your course doesn’t look like Pinehurst #2, you are doing something wrong.  That undermines the great work done by Coore and Crenshaw.  It’s one of the best restoration projects I’ve ever seen and it’s a shame for others to politicize it.  That being said, if we really want to grow the game and make courses sustainable, we have to find a common middle ground somewhere in the middle of perfectly pristine and burned to a crisp.  In an extremely unscientific poll I conducted among golfers in the 19th hole at the course I play, all except one said if given a choice they would rather play a course that looked like Augusta National than a course that looked like Pinehurst #2. Again, unscientific, but it’s an interesting point.

To quote a famous frog, “It ain’t easy being green.”  But in America, for now at least, the browned-out look of Pinehurst is still seen as more the novelty and Augusta National as the shining city on a hill. Can everyone be Augusta? Of course not. In fact, no one can. Can everyone be Pinehurst #2. Of course not. Not everyone wants or needs to be.  But the way to grow the game is somewhere in the middle (if admittedly more toward the Pinehurst end of the spectrum than the Augusta end).  New strains of turf take decades to fine tune for golf, but people are working all the time on turf that requires less water without sacrificing quality.  What we need in the meantime are more courses built with sensible budgets that reduce maintained turf in a practical way and can conserve water—not starve the turf of it—while creating playable holes with receptive greens and fewer oversized and out of control bunkers.  It’s the same philosophy I’ve been preaching for 20 years now and can be summed up with this: to be successful, courses need to be aesthetically pleasing, less expensive to maintain, and—most importantly—fun to play!  But only you can decide if that means that brown is beautiful to you.  Not someone on television. Or even someone writing a column in a golf magazine. Or a blog…

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