Mark Kuhns delivered quality golf conditions in spite of extreme heat and relentless rain.
By Mike Jiggens
Mark Kuhns is no stranger to serving as host superintendent at a PGA Tour major championship. Since 1999, he has been the director of grounds at Springfield, N.J.’s Baltusrol Golf Club where the PGA Championship was played in 2005 and 2016. Prior to that, he was superintendent at the Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania where the 1994 U.S. Open was played.
Each of these major championships has a story to tell. The most recent of his major experiences – the 2016 PGA Championship – had its own story that Kuhns shared with members of the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association at their annual conference in Niagara Falls in January.
The 2016 PGA will be known for the deluge of rainfall it experienced on the weekend, almost forcing the tournament to spill over to a Monday conclusion. The extreme weather contributed to the event becoming the first major ever to retain the third-round pairings for the final round, grouping golfers whose 54-hole scores were dissimilar in many instances.
Kuhns, who has been in the industry for 41 years, said working the tournament was a challenge from the outset. Prior to play getting underway that week in July, temperatures had reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, eventually giving way to heavy rainfall by the weekend. With play suspended on Saturday and crews unable to keep up with clearing water from the playing surface, the tournament was in jeopardy of having to be extended an additional day.
Leading up to the tournament, however, it was business as usual.
“You do what you normally do,” Kuhns said. “Sound agronomic principles.”
At Baltusrol, aeration is done three times a year, beginning in early March. The aeration schedule is strategically targeted for times when it’s the least disruptive to members. The three-times-a-year aerating regime began when Kuhns first started at Baltusrol.
“Aerification is pretty standard. When we do aerification in August, we go wall to wall. Prepping for the PGA is no different. The idea is to firm greens. We may increase the topdressing applications on the greens to try to keep them a little firmer and to keep them from getting too fluffy leading up to the event and keep them truer.”
Double cutting of greens is also routinely practiced daily at Baltusrol.
Kuhns said although it wasn’t part of his PGA Championship equipment, the Air 2G2 air inject machine from Campey Turf Care Services will be incorporated into his fleet of course maintenance equipment this season after having recently seen it demonstrated. He said when he began at Baltusrol in 1999, greens were hardpan and tines would bottom out at about 3½ inches when aerating. He initiated a drill-and-fill process to break through the 3½-inch level, changing up the size of some of the tines to go deeper and achieve infiltration rates of up to four inches or better an hour.
“The water is going down. It’s pulling the air in behind it. The greens got healthier in the last 17 years.”
Preparing a golf course for a PGA Championship is not the same process as the other majors or any of the Tour’s other events. Neither the PGA Tour nor the USGA sets up the golf course. Instead, it’s one individual – chief championship officer Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America – who is responsible for virtually everything and who works directly with the superintendent.
Kuhns recalled a remark Haigh made in 2003 when Baltusrol was preparing for the 2005 PGA Championship, that the PGA of America “doesn’t go to golf courses where we need agronomic help.”
Working with only one individual has its merits, Kuhns said, noting Haigh oversees the entire setup, including the infrastructure, roping details and pin locations.
“It’s nice to know you don’t have a lot of people with their fingers in the pie.”
Working up the rough
Kuhns said the rough is something that always needs work, especially in areas where irrigation is leaner. The rough at Baltusrol was interseeded with five species of grasses added, including turf-type tall fescue, turf-type perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrasses.
“Over time, we kept interseeding those rough areas at a time when maybe they were at their weakest point.”
Mid-summer was a strategic time as the rough was in the midst of heat stress during drought and poa annua was fading away in some areas. Those areas were aerated and seeded. The different varieties were chosen to keep a broad genetic base when seeding.
“If there is a problem with one particular variety or another, it’s not going to take the whole thing out of the picture.”
During the PGA Championship, the rough proved to be a challenge for the players. Several applications for disease and insect control were made inside the gallery ropes in the rough.
“We didn’t want any of those areas to decline.”
It was the first year the PGA of America regulated the rough. The intermediate rough was cut at a height of 1¼ inches over the first five feet. The next eight feet were cut at three inches and the rough was tapered off to six inches beyond that.
“It’s their (PGA’s) event and we set it up the way they want it. It’s part of the contract.”
Tree management programs are a key component of preparing for a Tour event. Baltusrol has an abundance of trees, albeit fewer than when Kuhns was originally hired.
“Most of those we took down over the years were for the health of the turf.”
Close to 500 trees have been taken down since 1999 in areas around tees and greens. Kuhns posed the same question to Baltusrol’s members that he posed years earlier to the membership at Oakmont: “Do you want an arboretum or do you want to play golf here?”
Members chose the latter, realizing selected trees needed to be removed in favour of sunlight penetration. Heavily shaded areas led to little carbohydrate production, poor root growth and the inability to sustain the wear of day-to-day play. Heat and drought added to the problem, leading to the decision to interseed.
In preparation for the PGA Championship, wooded areas needed clearing to provide tented areas. Efforts were made to ensure there were no liability issues with overhead limbs or branches that might “poke out an eye among the spectators.” The cost of maintaining the trees for the PGA was about $150,000.
A new approach was taken with bunker maintenance for the championship that also appeased club members who had issues with their playability.
“A member wants a perfect lie in a bunker and they want the perfect sand so they can spin the perfect shot and drop it inches from the hole, or in the hole.”
Kuhns said members got tired of hitting side lies from the bunkers if the ball became lodged on the upsweep. Rather than trying to change the mindset of golfers by reminding them bunkers are hazards, a new solution was reached for bunker maintenance. Squeegees were used to roll up the edges of the bunkers, allowing balls to roll down to the bottom for a perfect lie. Only the bottoms of the bunkers were raked.
“The members now love the bunkers, they love the sand and they love to play out of them.”
The system was used again in the fall during the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota.
“It’s a little more maintenance, but a lot less headaches.”
The bunkers contain three to four inches of sand and are checked periodically for consistent depth. Most bunkers are lined and drain well, he said.
Upper course used as well
Baltusrol is known mainly for its lower 18-hole course that served as the venue for the 2016 PGA Championship. Its upper course, however, is a top 100-ranked layout and is arguably a greater challenge than the more famous lower course. When it comes to major championships, the upper course is utilized for such things are parking, a site for corporate tents and a driving range for the field of golfers.
“If we didn’t have that space on the upper course, we couldn’t host a major because it’s needed for the infrastructure.”
The first hole on the upper course became the driving range for the PGA Championship. Tents were erected on the last three holes of the upper course, spanning the length of each hole from tee to green.
“Basically, when it’s over those areas are dead and we have to bring those back. That’s the biggest challenge when it’s over. Come Sunday night, members don’t care about the PGA anymore. They only want to know, ‘When am I going to be able to play my facility without all that junk out there?’”
More than 180 tractor-trailer loads of material were hauled onto the Baltusrol site in preparation of the major. Kuhns said trucks were often lined up all the way down the street, adding neighbours would complain about engine noise at 3 a.m. The necessary materials arrived at the golf course months in advance of the tournament. By early April, building was underway for the July event.
Kuhns said the key is to arrive at the date of the scheduled event “intact” so that there is no suffering by the golf course from stresses or weaknesses. A proactive approach with pesticide and fertilizer usage is taken by Kuhns and his staff to ensure everything is accomplished in a timely fashion and that nothing gets ahead of them. During this process, he monitors all products used to ensure amounts are minimal and label directions are strictly followed.
One of the measures taken was to place gravel over landscape fabric on the 18th fairway of the upper course to serve as a makeshift roadway to access the tents. When the tournament was over, the fabric was pulled away and any remaining gravel was raked up. Kuhns began the practice at the 2005 PGA Championship. It was an idea that helped to reduce the amount of stress on that hole.
“Getting to that event stress free is our key function.”
Some adjustments were made to the regular routine at Baltusrol leading up to the PGA Championship. Carts were shut down almost a month in advance and guest play was eliminated about three weeks beforehand. Additionally, no other events were scheduled for the golf course.
“Leading up to that day (when play was halted) was unbelievable,” Kuhns said. “We had more play in those first few months we were open than we ever had in a
Divots were repaired during the three-week lead-up to the PGA Championship.
“We had good growth and good health of the turf.”
Coming to the aid of Kuhns and his own staff were 14 interns, most of who had been at the golf course the previous season. Bolstering the staff were volunteers who came from Canada, South Africa, Korea, Singapore, Ireland, Germany and France. An array of distributors and manufacturers lent a helping hand with both manpower and additional equipment.
“We couldn’t have done it without their assistance, especially when you see what we had to go through.”
Kuhns said it is considered taboo to disclose green speeds during the PGA Championships, but added speeds were upwards of 12 and even 13 at times. For member play at Baltusrol, green speeds on the lower course are maintained at about 11 and reach about 10.6 on the upper course.
With the amount of heat the area experienced in the days leading up to the tournament, the threat of pythium was present and irrigation had to be carefully monitored. He found success turning his water on first thing in the morning and was able to stay ahead of play and allow conditions to dry out during the course of the day.
On day one, temperatures got extremely hot and greens were syringed. The putting surfaces at Baltusrol are predominantly bentgrass with some poa annua. Because of the heat and the wish to keep greens dry, “it was getting very close to the edge.”
Things got a little brown, Kuhns said, but it was basically superficial. By Monday, everything was green again.
“We got really close on Thursday to having a major meltdown. Fortunately, the PGA let us jump in and syringe, and we were able to keep up with it and keep everything alive.”
Rain and rain again
Kuhns said the greens had nicely firmed up by Thursday, but then it rained that evening. He and his staff got through the rain event and mowing was completed on schedule the following morning. Once work was finished in the morning, the rain began again.
“The big thing was bringing back playability. When the rains did come, how fast could we get it back? That’s when my communications with Kerry Haigh became essential.”
The two met almost hourly to discuss the means to work through their setback. Rain was particularly damaging by the third round of the tournament on Saturday. Four groups had yet to tee off when play was suspended due to excessive rainfall. Armed with 125 squeegees, crews couldn’t keep up the amount of rain, and it began to look like the tournament might have to be extended to Monday to get it all in.
Kuhns, who was temporarily living on site in a camper trailer during the tournament, said Haigh called him at 3 a.m. on Sunday to discuss their course of action. It was decided the unfinished third round would be completed with a shotgun start in the morning and the same pairings would be maintained for the final round later that day.
The rain turned everything into a “royal mess,” Kuhns said, adding “tons” of straw was put down to keep a lid on muddy conditions. The club had about 5,000 pounds of seed on hand for its rough areas damaged by gallery traffic. The seed was put down before the rains began, enabling the spectators to tramp it into the mud.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “All the seeds were imbibed. When this thing was over, those things exploded with grass seed and came back faster than you can ever imagine.”
Lift, clean and place
Because of the wet course conditions, the fourth round was played with preferred lies, allowing golfers to lift, clean and place their balls on the fairways.
A window of opportunity was realized early Sunday morning to allow greens to be mowed, bunkers to be groomed and standing water on the fairways removed. The shotgun start to complete the unfinished third round began at 7 a.m. Kuhns said the improvised format led to some grumbling among the golfers, “but we had to do what we had to do.”
Areas around the infrastructure and those occupied by the galleries sustained significant damage.
“We’d been through this before and we knew what we had to do.”
In the aftermath of the tournament, some of the pathway areas required double aerification. Much of the affected areas were hydroseeded. Straw was placed atop the hydroseeded areas to keep moisture in.
“A lot of these places were out of the irrigation zones, so we had to conserve as much moisture in there while we were germinating that seed.”
Kuhns said it was amazing how quickly those areas came back.
The ninth fairway on the upper course had been badly trampled by spectators who used it as an entranceway onto the lower course, resulting in the need for resodding.
Extensive damage was realized in other areas of the upper course, including zones reserved for parking as well as a helicopter pad on the 11th fairway.
“That was our first priority — to get the fairways back in shape. It was a tremendous job trying to get things back in shape again.”
During the takedown of infrastructure, a lot of debris remained behind, including nails. Collecting the metallic waste was accomplished with a large magnet on wheels.
A lesson learned from the 2005 PGA Championship saved the Baltusrol staff time and grief during the dismantlement of infrastructure. GPS was used to mark grounding rod locations to prevent impact by mowers that could have caused serious equipment damage.
After removing the temporary roadways, the areas were double and in some cases triple aerified to alleviate compaction and to bring up enough soil to ensure good seed contact.
A two-week window of opportunity existed after the infrastructure takedown that provided ideal amounts of moisture and good temperatures to ensure the best possible germination. The turf grew in tremendously fast, Kuhns said.
By Oct. 15, the full upper course was open and ready for play. A composite course had opened two weeks following the PGA Championship with 15 of the upper holes playable. Three holes were contested a second time to allow members to play a full 18-hole round. The lower championship course reopened for member play four days after the PGA Championship ended.