(Photo by Frank Becerra, Jr./lohud.com)
The course maintenance team led by Director of Golf Courses Steve Rabideau had to maintain the Mamaroneck, N.Y. club’s 36 A.W. Tillinghast-designed holes, and prep the West Course for the U.S. Open that starts September 17th, with just 25 of the normal staff of 55 on hand for several months earlier this year. Now they’re out in full force, making final preparations to try to meet the challenge set by the “Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974, when Hale Irwin won despite a 7-over-par total score, with Rabideau setting “Plus-8” as this year’s mantra.
The buzz of a nearby mower provided an ironic soundtrack as Steve Rabideau, CGCS, casually flipped a golf ball into the lush rough at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reported.
It quickly disappeared in a tangle of grass, inspiring a mischievous smile from Rabideau.
After spending four labor-intensive years prepping the club’s famed West Course to host another U.S. Open, Winged Foot’s Director of Golf Courses endured four months of uncertainty, the Journal News reported. The coronavirus pandemic forced the United States Golf Assocation (USGA) to postpone the championship and explore venues outside a COVID-19 epicenter.
It’s been a long, hot summer for the Winged Foot grounds crew, the Journal News reported.
“Keeping the morale of my team up was probably the hardest thing we did,” Rabideau said. “The agronomics, we fight every summer. It’s what we do. We’ve had guys here for five, six, seven, eight, nine years, all building toward June 14 [the original date for the start of the 2020 Open].
“There were a lot of late nights, but we were building toward something,” he added. “And then that something was nearly stripped away.”
A stay-at-home mandate across the state kept private golf courses shuttered early on, the Journal News reported, suspending the USGA build-out. Staffing restrictions stayed in place into the summer.
“We were the only ones working here, the only ones deemed essential,” said Rabideau, who typically has 55 sets of hands to maintain the 36-hole facility. “All through June, we maintained the golf courses with 25 people.”
The postponement was announced in early April, the Journal News reported. Rumors of a potential move to California followed in short order and were not well-received by the grounds crew. Word that Winged Foot had a green light to host the U.S. Open finally came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in late July, along with news that spectators were not allowed to attend.
The members and staff at Winged Foot were eager to welcome the public and showcase a venue that has been meticulously restored in recent years, and will now be a made-for-TV championship that gets under way September 17, the Journal News reported.
“Basically, the one thing we have left is showcasing Winged Foot, showcasing the golf course,” Rabideau told the Journal News. “That’s been driving us to make this one of the hardest U.S. Opens they will ever play.”
The “Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974, when Hale Irwin captured his first U.S. Open with a humbling 7-over-par total of 287, has set the bar for Rabideau and his crew this year, the Journal News reported. As he reached into the rough to retrieve the golf ball he had flipped there, Rabideau quietly offered a familiar refrain.
“Plus-8. Plus-8. Plus-8. … That would cap a very difficult summer,” he said. “And my guys know that’s what I’ve been thinking.”
As Rabideau spoke, several members of the Winged Foot crew were applying fertilizer to the rough nearby, the Journal News reported.
There’s more power than finesse in golf these days, so it remains to be seen whether that number is in play, the Journal News reported. But the course’s devilish A.W. Tillinghast green complexes and dense rough have protected Winged Foot’s reputation over the years, and no embellishments are needed to keep the scoring in check.
“We’re going to let Winged Foot be Winged Foot,” Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and Open championships, told the Journal News.
The preparations for this year’s Open largely got under way in 2016, the Journal News reported, when an extensive restoration choreographed by noted golf course architect Gil Hanse began. Tillinghast’s masterful greens were restored to original parameters and rebuilt using USGA specifications. Bunkers were rebuilt, improvements were made to drainage and irrigation systems, and new tees were subtly installed to stretch the West Course to 7,417 yards.
“With the tremendous investment Winged Foot has made, they are better prepared now to deal with a rain event if we encounter one,” Hall told the Journal News. “I will also tell you, Winged Foot, whether it’s soft or firm, is a very difficult test of golf. It may require a different kind of shot-making if the conditions soften the course, but Winged Foot is never easy.”
The conditions are currently firm and fast, the Journal News reported, and it would likely take another extreme weather event, like Tropical Storm Isaias, which blew through the property in late July, to change that.
“We closed for two days and had everybody on staff picking branches up,” Rabideau told the Journal News about that additional unwelcome challenge . “Tree guys are still here doing safety pruning. We lost a bunch of trees and the West Course got the worst of it, but we didn’t lose anything significant.”
Saltwater also blew off Long Island Sound, turning some leaves prematurely brown.
When the executive order shuttered Winged Foot in March, general maintenance with a skeleton crew was the priority, the Journal News reported. And when the gates re-opened in April, members flocked to the course, pulled on soft spikes in the parking lot, lugged carry bags or latched onto a pushcart and played through.
It was so busy that guests were prohibited. Despite the heavy traffic, the work got done. The agronomic expectations did not change when the USGA moved the U.S. Open from June to September, the Journal News reported, prompting members to say a few rosaries for Rabideau.
But through it all, everything appears to be falling into place, the Journal News reported.
“The grass might look good, but this has been an extremely difficult summer,” Rabideau said. “We came off a winter of no snow pack. It was really dry in June. It was hot in July. This has been a very hard year if you’re in the business of growing grass.
“Our biggest challenge, and the one thing we focused on knowing it would be a challenge, was the rough. This year, the rough needed some special attention because a U.S. Open at Winged Foot is going to be defined by narrow fairways and thick rough.”
Potential hole locations were selected last fall by the USGA, and the additional time gave Hall and John Bodenhamer a chance to spend more time on site evaluating setup options, the Journal News reported. By going back to original dimensions, the putting greens have expanded 23 percent to 115,644 square feet. That brings new pins into the equation.
“The silver lining here is we had quite a number of opportunities this summer to get up on the greens and become much more comfortable with the property as a whole,” Hall said. “We’re not going to present the golf any different that we would have in June.”
In addition to Rabideau’s grounds crew, there will be 90 volunteers from clubs and courses across the Metropolitan section on site during the championship to help out, the Journal News reported. And the biggest issue they will face is the lack of daylight hours that the shift to September has created.
Much of the daily prep will now be done well before the crack of dawn.
“We’re talking about a split-tee start at 6:50 in the morning and sunrise is 6:38,” Rabideau said. “We’ll probably be out the door at 4 in the morning, so the first two hours, we’re going to be in the dark. Nobody likes mowing in the dark. We’ll be putting lights on everything, but you can’t see the quality of cuts you’re getting. And that time of year, leaves and acorns are starting to drop, so we have to make sure we get things cleaned before we cut. That’s a trying process.”
The field has been reduced to 144 players to give Rabideau some wiggle room, but the USGA has a plan in place should play need to be suspended on Thursday or Friday due to darkness, the Journal News reported.
One plus is that additional hours in the dark is actually good for grass, the Journal News reported.
“The flip side is that September could be a great time of year for the U.S. Open,” Rabideau said. “It feels like August, lately, but we can get some cooler nights. The one thing we have is that we’re three months off the longest day of the year. We have less daylight, but for grass, the longer nights allow the grass to recover quicker. We have two hours less daylight, so the grass can withstand a little more stress.”
So if the conditions are right and USGA wants to dial up the greens to warp speed, the delicate grass will not require life support, the Journal News noted.
While the grass will continue to grow at Winged Foot, at some point, the rough will not be cut, the Journal News reported. A tangled mess off the edge of the fairways is part of the “Plus-8” goal.
“There were extra hours invested and extra cost involved for water to irrigate the rough and nurse it through a difficult summer, so it’s typical Winged Foot U.S. Open rough,” Hall said. “They’ve done a masterful job ensuring the rough will be a key component in the golf course setup.”
The rough will again be graduated, but less so than when Winged Foot hosted the Open in 2006, the Journal News reported. The primary cut will be narrower and will initially top out around 3 1/2 inches, according to Hall. It will only be utilized on a select number of holes. The danger zone will be more prevalent and start the week at 5-plus inches. Even the rough under the majestic specimen trees is dense.
Rabideau isn’t likely to get a quality nap in before the U.S. Open Trophy presentation, the Journal News reported. A final punch list is in the works and then he’ll be watching the grass grow, dropping that golf ball into the rough and impulsively checking his mobile device.
“Typically, I watch weather every day, all day,” Rabideau said. “I’m checking all the time on various apps. I’ve been reluctant to look 10 days out from now because we can’t change it. They’re usually wrong.
“It is what it’s going to be,” he said. “Would I like 59 degrees at night and 75 degrees during the day? I’d sign up for that right now.”
A video interview with Rabideau that was part of the Journal News’ report can be viewed at https://www.lohud.com/story/sports/golf/usopen/2020/09/03/u-s-open-west-course-set-up-another-massacre-winged-foot/3445479001/