The Local Knowlege

Courses & Travel

Atlanta Athletic Club: Super Hero Turf

In the aftermath of the PGA Championship, many of my colleagues are calling Atlanta Athletic Club unworthy, mainly because the championship never generated a marquee leaderboard. Me, I like the fact that the event had a Nationwide Tour feel to it -- a contest of young start-ups, journeymen and past-their-prime tour professionals. It was a refreshing change from the usual dog days summer rerun. It reminded me of Crooked Stick 1991 in that respect.

But what I really liked was the attention that its turfgrass received all week. In newspapers and internet, on CBS and the Golf Channel, even on the PGA Tour satellite radio network (which I listened to on Sunday during an eight-hour drive from SeaTac airport to outskirts of Boise), commentators were generally lauding the perfection of the putting surfaces, fairways and even the rough.

They not only described its playing characteristics, they listed the three types, as if a mantra: Champion Ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens, Diamond Zoysiagrass fairways, Tifton 10 Bermudagrass rough. When was the last time you heard a commentator call a grass by its correct name? When was the last time you heard any commentator say anything about grass, except maybe that it’s too deep? Even Dan Jenkins, for gosh sakes, tweeted about the turfgrass.

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Kudos to Ken Mangum (pictured), AAC’s Director of Golf Courses and Grounds, who came up with the perfect prescription of grasses for a Southern venue championship set-up. Mangum is The Man. He’s the reason AAC will now be at the top of all future lists of Best Conditioned Courses, even non-alphabetical ones. He’s the guy who, history will record, tilted the axis of major championship golf distinctly to the south.  

Don’t believe me? Check out David Feherty’s slightly profane post-tournament comments to Mangum and crew on You Tube. (Holy Cow! Did Feherty just say Atlanta Athletic Club was in better condition than Augusta National?)

Kudos too to Mangum’s staff and volunteers for grooming the Highlands Course to perfection every single morning of the PGA. Of course, it helped that there was no bad weather (or weather delays) during the four days of play, but Mangum was well-prepared to handle that, had it happened. In talking to him after the event, I found that they didn’t mow the greens at all on the Wednesday before the first round, just rolled them, in order to slow down the greens a bit. On Thursday and Friday, they double-cut them, on Saturday and Sunday, they simply single-cut them, and never used a roller on them during those four days. The Champion Bermuda was up to speed without particularly intensive grooming. 

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(Steve Stricker at the 18th of AAC's Highlands Course.) 

I had one grumpy golfwriter complain to me that my pregame enthusiasm for AAC’s new grasses was misguided because Mangum probably has $2 million maintenance budget, unrealistic for real folks in Middle America. I don’t know what Mangum’s budget is, but I do know that he and his men maintain two courses, not one, so a $2 million budget wouldn’t be out of line for a club of that caliber. I’m told he now spends less time and money maintaining the Highlands Course than he did when it had bent greens and Bermuda fairways. He mows less, irrigates less, uses less chemicals, water and fuel. How can that not be inspiring to Middle America?

(Next year, Mangum will likely convert the bent-grass greens of his Riverside Course to Champion to prep for the 2014 U.S. Amateur at AAC and match the Highlands maintenance program.)

As far as I’m concerned, Atlanta Athletic Club has set a new standard for major championship conditioning. It didn’t just raise the bar. It is the bar. From now on, I’m betting we’re going to see tour pros measuring turf quality at majors against what Mangum produced this year at the PGA. Sure, most of the courses won’t have the magic formula of Champion, Diamond Zoysia and Tifton 10. That won’t matter. Clubs will be expected to come up with the Northeastern or Midwestern or Pacific Coast equivalent.  

That’s what new rating system will become. Not Triple A, but AAC. I can hear it now: “Sure, your course is in great shape . . . but it’s no AAC.”

--Ron Whitten

(You can follow Ron on Twitter @RonWhittenGD; follow me @Matt_Ginella. Photograph by Getty Images.)


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