Fescue-grass knowledge key in superintendents’ prep of Chambers Bay for U.S. Open

Published online: Jun 15, 2015 Golf News

UNIVERSITY PLACE—The best way to understand the role of Eric Johnson and Josh Lewis, the two men whose job it is to get Chambers Bay ready for the U.S. Open, is to use a football analogy.

They are like offensive linemen. If linemen get attention, it’s usually for something that went wrong. But the line is the unit that makes the offense go, and when it is not mentioned, it’s usually because the offense is running smoothly.

“What I want more than anything is for the story to be about golf, about golf drama coming down the stretch,” Lewis said. “We don’t want them talking about grass.”

Johnson is the director of agronomy at Chambers Bay, and Lewis is the course superintendent. But both do essentially the same job. The difference?

“He’s my boss,” Lewis said.

They have a lot in common. Both are from the Coos Bay area on the southern coast of Oregon, they graduated from the turf management program at Oregon State, and both are experts in fine fescue grass, having worked on the fescue courses at Bandon Dunes before being hired separately at Chambers Bay in 2012.

So with the U.S. Open being played on all fine fescue grass for the first time, they were the right men for the job.

“No one goes to school to grow fescue, especially in the United States,” said Johnson. “It just worked out that way. At Bandon I had to adapt, and I became a fescue guy.”

Fescue is a fragile grass that handles the milder climate of Bandon better than the conditions at Chambers Bay. And in the summer of 2013, Johnson and Lewis had a problem: Some of the greens became contaminated with other grasses. Two holes — Nos. 10 and 13 — were so bad the decision was made to reseed them about 21 months before the U.S. Open.

That might seem like a long time for your backyard, but by all accounts it was unprecedented to reseed greens that close to a U.S. Open.

“I had no doubt that they knew what they were doing, but it was still a very courageous move on their part (to reseed the two greens) and a tribute to how much they know about fine fescue,” said Joel Kachmarek, superintendent of the acclaimed Tacoma Country and Golf Club. “But it shows you how bad things were that they felt they had to do that, rather than try to repair them. But they were confident that, ‘If we can do it on this day, we can pull if off.’ ”

Said Lewis: “I think I’m more nervous now looking back on that. At the time, I was like, ‘Sure, let’s go for it. No big deal.’ ”

Lewis and Johnson said the decision to reseed in early September 2013 instead of a month later was crucial, because the grass grew a lot in those weeks.

“We have a nursery green that we reseeded about three weeks later,” Johnson said. “It was about three months behind in development, just from those three weeks.”

The reseeded greens did so well despite a tough winter that the protective measures taken, including covering the turf during bad weather, were used on all the greens this past winter. That, coupled with mild winter weather the past year, has put the course in prime condition heading into the Open.

“The weather drives so much of what turned out,” Johnson said. “You don’t know what that winter is going to be. That was the biggest obstacle, and you can’t control it. It was a little bit of a roll of the dice (to reseed).”

Just like a lineman, Johnson and Lewis are quick to deflect credit, whether it’s to the staff of 32 working for them or the fortuitously great winter weather this past year. Leave the praise to others.

“One of the frustrating things for us is that everyone gives all the credit for this course being in this great shape to the weather,” said Danny Sink, the championship coordinator of the U.S. Open. “The weather is secondary to what they do to make sure this golf course is in the ultimate shape for the U.S. Open. They give their lives to making sure the greens and tees and fairways are in pristine shape. They should get all the credit.”

Johnson and Lewis seem as relaxed as two people could be with the biggest event of their careers coming up. Their job now is to facilitate what the USGA wants, with much of their game plan becoming clear the week before the U.S. Open when USGA executive director Mike Davis comes up with tentative plans for course setup.

During the week of the event, Johnson and Lewis will arrive each day at 3:30 a.m. and will be on the course at 4 a.m., directing 170 staff and volunteers. They will do whatever is needed until late in the evening.

Though the world watching might not know who Johnson and Lewis are at the end of the championship, the two will be stars for a week among their fellow superintendents.

“We are really rooting for them,” Kachmarek said. “Having an event of this magnitude in our region is so exciting. The last thing you want is for something to go wrong and have it not come back, because there are so many venues around here worthy of having a championship. But this event is going to go off so well. I can feel it.”

Source: www.seattletimes.com