By Mike Jiggens
There has scarcely been a dull moment for John Zimmers since he became
superintendent at the fabled Oakmont Country Club in 1999. Built 110
years ago in Oakmont, PA, the golf course, which has been the site of
18 national championships, including the most ever U.S. Opens, will be
the host venue again in 2016, and Zimmers is already contemplating his
preparations for the event.
Speaking in November at the 24th annual Ontario Seed Company/Nutrite Professional Turfgrass Seminar in Waterloo, Zimmers said his role as host superintendent for both the 2007 U.S. Open and 2010 U.S. Women’s Open gave him a good idea of what he can expect in three years, but getting ready for the PGA Tour’s second major of the 2007 season was an experience in itself.
It was for that tournament the golf course underwent an extensive restoration project to better reflect its original H.C. Fownes design. During the course of a century, and impacted particularly by a course beautification project in the 1960s, Oakmont no longer resembled the layout Fownes originally envisioned.
The goal of the restoration project was to return Oakmont to its look during the 1920s, but, with the golf course set to host the 2007 U.S. Open, the project had to meet with the stringent specifications of the USGA. Oakmont had last been the site of the U.S. Open in 1994, but the golf course had evolved into more of an overgrown parkland setting by then.
It was the course beautification project from the 1960s that largely precipitated its metamorphosis, Zimmers said.
“They planted as many trees as you could possibly plant on the entire property,” he said.
Robert Trent Jones had been hired to oversee the project which also included the reshaping of the golf course’s bunkers.
The proposal to restore the golf course to Fownes’ original design was initiated in 1995, a year after Ernie Els captured the U.S. Open championship at Oakmont. Using old photographs to best grasp Fownes’ original architectural specifications, it became apparent that not only were there considerably more trees on the property—many of which had since changed the way the holes were meant to be played—but the greens had changed in shape over the years.
Few trees existed on the golf course in the 1920s, from when the archival photographs were obtained, and it was decided as many as 5,000 would have to be removed in order to return the property to Fownes’ original vision.
Removal of that many trees proved to be a contentious subject, resulting in a division of the club’s members. The argument over the trees’ fate wound up in litigation with both sides suing one another, Zimmers said.
The court eventually ruled that Oakmont’s board of governors had the right to make their own decision about removing the trees, “so we started cutting down all these trees. You can imagine how much fun that was to be working in that kind of atmosphere.”
Zimmers joined the club in 1999 in the midst of a decade-long project to remove the offending trees. The trees’ demise resulted in fairway width gained, giving more prominence to the ditches and bunkers at the edges of the fairways.
In spite of the controversy surrounding the massive tree removal campaign, Zimmers said the members who had initially opposed the idea have since come to embrace the changes. Many were unable to envision how the golf course would look with 5,000 trees removed, and it took a lot of convincing to win their approval, he added.
Oakmont features no creeks, streams or other water bodies, but Fownes designed an array of ditches at the perimeters of fairways to collect drainage water. Those, too, were restored.
“We took all the old sand and sand-capped them and we fine fescued them. They play as a hazard or a penalty if you’re in them. It’s a very unique feature about Oakmont.”
Perhaps the most unique feature of Oakmont’s is its famous “Church Pews,” a large bunker which comes into play on the third and fourth holes and which measures 100 yards by 40 yards. What makes it stand out are the 14 grass “pews” which sit within the massive bunker in a configuration resembling church pews.
The pews themselves were entirely restored as part of the renovations preceding the 2007 Open. Global positioning was used to ensure the pews were correctly measured and restored.
“We did this because we knew that you’d get criticized for not putting it back the same as it was, and we were asked to redo the pews and add two on each side (from the original 12).”
Zimmers admitted dealing with the pews part of the restoration project was a particularly “nerve-wracking situation” because of the bunker’s historical importance.
All 210 bunkers were ultimately restored.
Zimmers said he next biggest concern, once the trees had been removed, was the ability of his greens to hold up.
Oakmont’s old pushup-style greens, grown to poa, are expected to be firm and fast at all times.
“They want them that way every day and demand that we do that not only for the U.S. Open, but for the membership every day.”
Greens are double or triple cut every day and usually rolled as well.
“They want the green speeds at 13 or 13-and-a-half every single day. It’s a very, very challenging thing.”
Zimmers said when he began working at Oakmont in 1999 that, with its existing infrastructure, it would be difficult to overcome any adversity associated with weather.
“I had to educate the membership very, very fast that there’s no way you can expect these types of expectations (firm and fast greens) when we don’t have sub-air and don’t have brand new greens, and we certainly knew we weren’t going to change the greens.”
The perennial poa putting surfaces actually work for Oakmont.
“It’s very dwarfed and doesn’t get much seed heads, and it really likes low cutting heights.”
Record-breaking summer temperatures in recent years have presented a challenge for Zimmers and his staff to keep the greens alive and playable. One tactic, he said, involves getting back to basic agronomics, including deep tining two or three times a year. Aerifying is traditionally done in at least March as well as the third week of August.
Sand is hand-broomed on the greens.
“We believe the greens are our No. 1 asset, so we try to work in sand to modify them so they drain and perform well.”
Greens are “drilled and filled” 12 to 14 times a season, resulting in labour-intensive work and surfaces that take a while to heal, especially with poa, “but the results are well worth it.”
A sand injection machine is used to incorporate sand into the profile.
Zimmers said one of his biggest accomplishments was to convince his membership that internal drainage needed to be installed, which has since been done on every green.
The process involved stripping the sod, trenching in a two-inch pipe and backfilling. On a 6,000-square-foot green, it took about 21/2 to three days to install and have the green put back to where golf could be played again.
“It’s just like doing surgery. It’s absolutely amazing the quality of work done.”
Percolation rates on the greens in 2000 were a mere quarter-inch.
“With all the work that we’ve done, it’s almost got to seven inches. That’s quite an accomplishment for old pushup greens.”
Zimmers said Oakmont’s greens have essentially been rebuilt through its various agronomic programs. Plentiful foliar feeding is done, light topdressing “dustings” are done every week or two, and greens are hand-watered.
“It’s the only way we manage our greens,” he said. “We can’t use overheads and be able to make them perform the way we want them to at a championship level.”
Greens are rolled five or six times a week, and it’s not uncommon for them to be double-rolled on occasion.
Meeting the greens’ agronomic needs so that they can continue to stimp at 13 to 131/2 is a stressful aspect of his job, Zimmers said.
“You’re never criticized for being too fast. They (Oakmont’s members) would rather they be unfair than not fast enough.”
Zimmers said his working relationship with the USGA has been both a productive and amiable one. The association has an agreement with the club, discussing what it would like to see done and providing the necessary specifications.
“It’s a partnership and they’re easy to work with.”
Although the removal of 5,000 trees has allowed Oakmont to widen its fairways for member play, it’s the opposite which is specified by the USGA when it’s time for the U.S. Open. The association wishes the fairways to be of a certain width for major play, and that means having to narrow them.
“We have to honour that, so we narrow them,” Zimmers said. “These are difficult things to do, and the membership doesn’t always agree. It’s a working relationship with the USGA to make it play the way they’d like it to play.”
The USGA had also requested some new tees be built for the Open and that the rough be rendered thick and difficult to play.
“We worked hard to make sure we could provide the difficulty they wanted,” Zimmers said, noting there is a lot of emphasis today on golf course rough for major tournaments. A series of intermediate cuts are required to ensure the rough goes through gradual stages of increasingly higher cuts.
Not only must the golf course comply with the requirements issued by the USGA to ensure the game is played at its most demanding level during Open week, but there are other logistical issues which must be addressed whenever crowds of hundreds of thousands of people are involved.
As it prepared for the 2007 U.S. Open, Oakmont needed to bolster its existing infrastructure by constructing a bridge spanning the Pennsylvania Turnpike as a means to move people from one side of the golf course to the other. Without that type of infrastructure, the golf course could not have played host to the tournament, Zimmers said.
Unlike many other golf courses which host a PGA Tour event and close for member or public play well in advance of the scheduled event, Oakmont remains open for play through to the Sunday prior to Open week.
“I’m not sure I like it, but it’s part of their (Oakmont’s) history,” Zimmers said.
USGA officials come to the site two or three years in advance of such an event to prepare for such off-site requirements as policing and hotel accommodations. Zimmers said there were 5,000 hours of security required for the 1994 Open, but the number shot up to 40,000 hours for the 2007 tournament.
“That’s how much things have changed.”
Tournaments of the magnitude of a U.S. Open require a small army of volunteers to ensure it goes off without a hitch. Not only are volunteers needed outside the ropes, but Zimmers needs to strengthen his own grounds team with others to deal with the laborious tasks involved in ensuring the course is perfect for each day of play.
He encouraged his audience of fellow golf superintendents and assistants to volunteer their services for a Tour event should the opportunity arise, adding it’s something everyone should endeavour to do at least once during their careers.
“It really doesn’t matter what your job is,” he said, citing mowing and bunker raking among the necessary duties. “It’s very educational.”
About 40 people alone are needed for raking bunkers.
The days are long, he admitted, adding a typical work day during Open week begins about 4 a.m. and lasts until at least 10 p.m.
Once the final round of a U.S. Open concludes, it takes about a year for the golf course to return to normal, Zimmers said. Aside from post-tournament cleanup, a lengthy period of time is needed to allow turf to recover after the removal of portable infrastructure such as tents and bleachers and the trampling from hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Massive areas need to be overseeded, including spectator walkways. Zimmers said in years when it’s dry during Open week, there is less damage and recovery is quicker than on occasions when it’s wet.
Although the 2016 Open is still three years away, some of the preparation work has already got underway, including logistical requirements. Zimmers said he doesn’t anticipate any huge changes from what was expected in 2007, but figured there is apt to be some new specifications by the USGA.