by Bart Potter
IT WOULD BE easy to assume that everything in the care and feeding of Chambers Bay Golf Course – its maintenance, management and mindset – is all about the U.S. Amateur, in the near term, and the U.S. Open, in the not-so-distant future.
But it was a golf course before it was a championship venue, and it was a recovered habitat before it was a golf course.
The vision of Chambers Bay’s founders and builders, from the very beginning of planning, absolutely included creating a golf course worthy of major championships.
But an equal priority was a commitment to environmental stewardship that was in place long before the United States Golf Association came calling with its two biggest events.
“The concept, from the very inception, was to be unique, distinctive and very high-caliber,” said Chambers Bay superintendent Dave Wienecke, “to stand alone, nationally and internationally.”
Chambers Bay is the only golf course in the Northwest to be a certified member of the Audubon Signature Program, the highest level of environmental certification by Audubon International. It is one of only 88 properties in the U.S. (many, but not all, of which are golf courses) to earn the distinction.
Pierce County, the owner of Chambers Bay, was insistent from the start on being environmentally responsible with its golf course project, partly because it recognized its public relations value, Wienecke said.
“And it appears they genuinely wanted to do the right thing,” he said.
It started, for Chambers Bay, with the very first hire by Kemper Sports, the company Pierce County brought in to manage the course. That first hire was Wienecke.
He wasn’t ready to leave his previous job just yet, but Kemper said, Hey, we need you right now.
So he jumped right into the job at Chambers Bay, one important part of which was tending to the “very stringent” requirements for a partnership with Audubon.
Wienecke came on board in July 2006 when the course was about 20 percent built on the reclaimed site of the former Glacier/Lone Star Northwest Gravel Mine.
“It was a very special site,” Wienecke said. “That played into it.”
Audubon specifications, at minimum, call for establishing a natural resource management plan that includes protecting wildlife and their habitats during and after construction, safeguarding water quality and regulating water use, and cultivating turfgrass and other plant life suitable for an ecological region.
Audubon is very clear that a Signature-certified property must not just meet but exceed the minimums and maintain the strict standards going forward.
“People think you can either be environmentally friendly, or be a championship golf course, but not be both,” Wienecke said. “It’s fun for us that we are both.”
More with less
Wienecke, an agronomist by training, broke into the golf turfgrass industry in the 1970s, when many superintendents had no formal science education and learned the job on the job.
There had been some environmental awakening by this time – Wienecke credits Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” for opening eyes and minds – but around golf courses, change was slow.
“People really thought you could control Mother Nature,” Wienecke said.
A typical 1960s guideline for nitrogen fertilizer was to apply a pound of fertilizer every three to four weeks, which means 14-17 pounds a year. These days, Wienecke uses no more than two pounds a year.
He waters less, with better results. Specifically, he waters less often but more heavily and deeply, then induces “drought stress,” which means letting the grass dry out almost to the point of wilting before watering again. The result is denser, stronger roots.
“You can have high-quality turf with a fraction of the irrigation,” Wienecke said, “and it’s healthier.”