UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — David Wienecke is playing golf on the fescue grasses and dunes of Chambers Bay, the course for which he is superintendent. He’s playing, but there’s a lot more going on.
It’s part pride, part a professional’s critical sense of things. There’s a paternal fussiness, too, a restless eye for tiny detail that has him bending and pulling bedstraw (he considers it a weed) near the No. 1 tee box and plucking a cigarette butt from close by the green on a later hole.
Wienecke, the steward and agronomist-in-chief of this esteemed golf course, rarely has time to play it. His game shows the rust.
But it can’t be said he doesn’t think like a golfer. He sees the course these days through the eyes of the elite players who will be here in 2015 when the golf world trains its spectacles on Chambers Bay and the U.S. Open.
He talks of sharply narrowing the fairway on No. 7 and less so on Nos. 1, 2 and 11 to ratchet up the difficulty for the world’s best players. He notes the stunning broad expanse of fairway on No. 13 will be kept wide open, though the pros will play it as a par-4.
It’s all for good golf reasons, for U.S. Open reasons.
Those decisions aren’t his to make – the United States Golf Association has a few thoughts on the subject – but it is his job to bring them to life.
The USGA works hard to uphold the reputation of the U.S. Open as the toughest major tournament, and Wienecke wants to make sure his golf course is up to the test. The U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay in 2010 will be a “dress rehearsal,” in the words of Mike Davis of the USGA.
Davis is the guy Wienecke will work most closely with, the guy who makes the call on where to narrow, where to widen, how tall the grass will be, how much the ball will roll.
Davis and the USGA will be watching the Amateur closely – minutely – to see how the course plays in a major championship. They’ll be on the lookout for “failure,” which by USGA definition is when everybody hits the same shot and lands in the same place.
Wienecke considers the course, opened in June 2007, to be in its grow-in phase. But by the time of the Open, the fairways will be so firm the ball will roll 10 to 40 yards after landing – exactly what Davis loves to see.
“This golf course will play totally different when the best players in the world play here,” Wienecke says. “He wants them thinking about where the ball ends up, not where it lands.”
Update: Chambers Bay played host to the 2010 U.S. Amateur, to generally good reviews for the golf course by players and officials; Mike Davis was promoted in 2011 to be the USGA’s executive director.
Random notes from a round of golf with the superintendent:
- Some of the mushrooms dotting the course (rest assured they’ll be gone by the Amateur) are puffballs. They’re edible, if anybody could stand the taste.
- Those smaller birds harassing the bald eagle that flew over the 15th green were ospreys, saltwater raptors who fish to eat. Eagles and ospreys are two of the 35 bird species at ChambersBay.
- The Scotch broom lending a yellow cast to the hillsides that loom over much of the course is beloved of the course designers … but Wienecke likes it not at all. It’s non-native, it’s invasive, it’s toxic, and it doesn’t fit with the pure dune ecosystem he’s working to establish.
Wienecke, the former regional agronomist for the USGA’s Southwest region, who consults with the top dogs of U.S. golf and oversees the best new course in the nation, a man at the peak of his profession, is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet.
Near one early tee box, a water station appeared as a welcome opportunity to refill a water bottle. Wienecke, who would know, said, “That water should be really cold.”
It was, in fact.
A MATTER OF SAND – Punching and sanding the greens is maybe no more than a minor annoyance, but for those several days while the sand settles, average golfers on average courses think in terms of a two-putt max.
At Chambers Bay, superintendent Wienecke began his top-dressing program Wednesday. He says by this weekend – as in right away – players should notice the greens are firmer and smoother than before he started.
The process begins with aerification, followed by spreading the sand, brushing it, rolling it, and watering it in. The very next day, he’ll mow the greens, then it’s “mow-and-grow” from then on.
Wienecke is particularly excited because he’s finally got the quality of sand he wants. Last year, the sand he used was full of pebbles up to three millimeters in size. This year’s supply, harvested from the Fraser River in British Columbia, has no single grain larger than a millimeter.
It’s not just the greens that get a sandy makeover. All 81 acres of grass at Chambers Bay get the top-dressing treatment.
He’ll also be running the roller over approaches and green surrounds, so if a ball gets close to a green it will want to roll.
“We did it last year,” Wienecke says. “The results were dramatic.”