By JOHN REITMAN
Viewers tuning in to this week’s U.S. Women’s Open might notice a golf course that looks familiar, and with good reason. It is being contested on the same layout, the No. 2 Course at Pinehurst Resort, that was the site of last week’s U.S. Open won by Martin Kaymer. The back-to-back championships at the 1907 Donald Ross design in Pinehurst Village, North Carolina, mark the first time that the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open have been held on the same course in successive weeks.
Golf fans likely have noticed a few other things about Pinehurst No. 2 that make it different from courses that have been the host site of past U.S. Golf Association championships — namely wider fairways that have turned quite brown during the past two weeks and vast sand waste areas in place of deep rough that, until last week, had become the signature of the U.S. Open. In fact, No. 2 looks quite different than it did for the 1999 U.S. Open won by Payne Stewart or in 2005 when Michael Campbell won his only major championship there.
And a scaled back version of the playing conditions on display there some day could come to a course near you.
The wider fairways and absence of rough at Pinehurst No. 2 are a result of two philosophies that marry the game’s past with its future.
A 2011-12 restoration by the architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw drew upon historic photography to redesign the course to look much like it did for the 1936 PGA Championship. However, the restoration was completed in a way that also allows Pinehurst’s greens staff to maintain the course in a way that is environmentally responsible, an effort known throughout golf circles as sustainability.
For example, although the fairways are larger now, 40 acres of the 90 acres of managed turf that comprise No. 2 were removed during the restoration as were 700 of 1,150 irrigation heads, allowing Bob Farren, who oversees all eight courses at Pinehurst, and No. 2 superintendent Kevin Robinson to cut annual water use on the course by 70 percent.
“They talk about looking at Pinehurst No. 2 and looking back to the 1930s and 1940s, but Bill (Coore) also said this is looking to the future,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said during a televised segment during the third round of the U.S. Open. “(Pinehurst) went from (using) 55 million gallons (of water) to 15 million gallons, and that is a very good statement for golf.”
Environmental stewardship is becoming increasingly important in golf, as individual courses and the industry as a whole struggle to keep up with golfer demand for fast, firm and green playing conditions while at the same time facing increasing scrutiny from environmental groups and non-golfers concerned about water and pesticide use.
According to We Are Golf, a combined marketing effort that includes the PGA of America, PGA Tour, National Golf Course Owners Association, Club Managers Association of America, World Golf Foundation, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the U.S. Golf Manufacturers Council, golf is a $69 billion-a-year industry that employs nearly 2 million people nationwide.
One would never know that given the predicament the game is in.
Interest in golf has been waning for some time, with net losses of nearly 6 million players during the past 15 years and 640 courses since 2006, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Although some courses remain flush with members and cash, the overall result of reduced interest in the game has been an accompanying reduction in resources. However, less money for course maintenance has not always translated into scaled back demands on the part of the golfer. In fact, often the opposite is true. Golfers who see wall-to-wall green on TV each week or at another course across town often demand the same at their own golf course.
Combine that with increased scrutiny from non-golfers and environmental groups, many of whom view golf courses as toxic pesticide dumps that use too much water, and golf is a business on the decline that is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
The reality is that water use on golf courses has been trimmed in many states during times of drought, forcing golf industry coalitions in places like Florida and Georgia to draft water-management plans to prevent state agencies from turning off the tap during the next dry spell. Similar efforts currently are under way in California and Minnesota.
Enter the USGA and Pinehurst, which used the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open to illustrate the reality of the challenges facing the future of golf — that wall to wall green is going to be increasingly difficult for many courses to produce.
During the third round of the Open, the moment with the USGA’s Davis was immediately preceded by a taped segment with Kim Erusha, Ph.D., who is the managing director of the USGA’s agronomic division known as the Green Section.
Erusha discussed what her association is doing to help the game along a path toward that goal of industry-wide sustainability. She discussed the 96-year history of the Green Section, its efforts to help develop grasses that require less water, fertilizer and pesticides and its goal of helping individual courses implement site-specific management plans that are good for the environment and also produce aesthetically pleasing playing conditions.
“We’re combining all those pieces of the puzzle to work with golf facilities to help them get the best quality playing conditions,” Erusha said. “Pinehurst is a great example of what we’re trying to do with golf course management. Pinehurst has always focused on sustainability. They wanted to restore what they had when Pinehurst was first created. When you look at the golf course today, you look at the out-of-play areas and the uniqueness of the rough, you look at a little bit of the brownness on the edges of the fairways; that’s really what Pinehurst used to be.”
That does not mean the brown conditions that dominated the fairways at Pinehurst are cookie-cutter model that will fit every course, said Pinehurst’s Farren during the telecast. But it does mean that adjustments on every course not named Augusta National likely are coming sooner rather than later.
“Not every course can do what we’ve done with Pinehurst No. 2, with the history that we have with the documentation of it, the credibility of Coore and Crenshaw,” Farren said during the NBC segment with the USGA. “But I think we can take pieces and parts of that and all benefit from it on all courses.”
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information service for golf course superintendents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.