September 1, 2009

Pushed To The Brink

A maintenance mishap at San Francisco's Harding Park has left the host of this October's Presidents Cup scrambling to get ready

San Francisco's Harding Park, which recently has had some maintenance issues, is also being realigned for the Presidents Cup.

San Francisco's Harding Park, which recently has had some maintenance issues, is also being realigned for the Presidents Cup.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The green at the 200-yard, par-3 11th hole is located at the far, northeast corner of Harding Park Golf Course, but you know you're there soon enough, right after you see the pieces of six-inch wide sod filling in the front and left side of the putting surface.

"We had a little boo-boo happen," said Steve Carman of the PGA Tour's competition and rules department.

Of course, that's not a technical term, but it's as good as any when discussing the condition of Harding's greens, which are undergoing an extreme makeover with just five weeks left before the Presidents Cup comes to town in early October. The U.S. and International pros who will take part in the biennial team event are accustomed to putting on greens that resemble pool tables, so anything vastly different would represent a significant bump in the road.

But after an accident in late July when nine greens were damaged after being over-fertilized, causing five of them to be shut down for a while in favor of temporary greens, it's been no small cause of concern for both the PGA Tour and Harding's greenkeeper, Wayne Kappelman.

"It's a challenge, to be sure," said Paul Vermeulen, the PGA Tour agronomist who's been monitoring the progress of Harding's greens. "But I fully expect the greens to really start to shine the two weeks before the event."

That at least is what the PGA Tour is hoping, and the same applies to the city of San Francisco's Recreation & Park Dept., which operates the city-owned Harding, as well as two other high-profile municipal layouts with ailments that probably run deeper. At Lincoln, there are civic plans to build an events center right on the 17th hole, which just happens to own one of the most majestic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then there is Sharp Park in Pacifica, designed by Alister MacKenzie, but under siege from environmentalists who favor turning the golf course into a wetlands for the endangered garter snakes and red-legged frogs who live there.

By contrast, Harding's problems may be mild, but true to the quirky nature of this city, it's not immune. Last month, police responded to a call from the golf club after three people were driving golf carts in circles and through foliage at Harding. All three were arrested, one on suspicion of public drunkenness.

But if this is a place where the unusual or offbeat is seen as commonplace, one of the most buttoned-up organization in pro sports in the U.S. is coming to town -- the PGA Tour. In the wake of Fertilizergate, time is running out to get the greens into shape before the collective eyes of the pro golf world are trained on them at the Presidents Cup, Oct. 8-11.

Ken Venturi is interested in all things Harding. Venturi, 78, grew up at Harding and played his first round of golf there in 1944 when he was 13. He said he shot 178. Venturi also won his last tournament as a pro, the 1966 Lucky Open, at Harding. During the Presidents Cup, Venturi will be on hand as an honorary guest.

"You know, it's great, and always has been, with the cypress and pines towering over you," said Venturi, who eagled all four par 5s, made two on every par 4 and aced three of the par 3s in his years playing Harding. "The fairways are kind of tight, I hope they grow the rough up a little bit, but it's a great place and it owns a special place in my heart. I think I know every blade of grass ... and some of the sand."

With a little luck -- sunny weather, warm temperatures -- Harding will win over more fans this October. The grass in question may be greener and more immaculate than it's been all summer. But there's a smaller margin for error now because of two man-made problems, only one of them an accident.

On July 23, four members of the Harding grounds crew set out with their fertilizer-spreader machines to work on the greens. Three of the machines were dialed in to an alphabetical setting, but the fourth was different, and had a numerical setting. The worker guessed what it should be. He overestimated. All odd-numbered greens were affected, but five were burned worse than the others and brown streaks showed up on the greens.

Water was quickly doused on the greens to limit the problem, but the damage was done. The hardest-hit greens were the first, third, seventh, 11th and 13th. Temporary greens were used until all were ready to play again, and the 11th was the last to re-open, two weeks ago. Kappelman's crew of 29 took sod from the chipping greens and replaced the burned grass. The sod was a bent grass and Poa annua mix to match the grass on Harding's greens. More than 300 square feet of sod came into play.

"It was very labor intensive," said Kappelman, who said it required one day of work for every green.

Late last week, some of the greens with the new sod were aerated, top-dressed and rolled. Still, their appearance indicated they're going to need as much time as they have left in order to look and to roll properly. That's because Harding's other challenge besides Fertilizergate is simply this: foot traffic. It's the result of being a public course, and a popular one at that. Harding sees as many as 300 rounds a day and up to 60,000 rounds a year. With smallish greens, that's a lot of feet covering not a lot of ground, and complicates the matter of nurturing the grass. To prepare for the Presidents Cup, the number of daily rounds has already been trimmed to 150 and will but cut further, to 72 rounds a day beginning Sept. 15.

Vermeulen said the fertilizer goof won't have any lasting effects.

"That's a fading memory," he said. "The scars will fade from view."

But that doesn't mean Vermeulen is ready to pronounce the greens totally fit.

"They look like, well, like they're well used," he said. "But they're going to get a lot of rest and their appearance is going to really change. Yes, they look a little tired around the primary hole locations, but that's because of traffic. There's been an army of movement there."

Kappelman said hard work will ensure that Harding's greens are in top shape for the Presidents Cup. Or at least he's hoping so. Kappelman does not want to be part of the conversation because if they're talking about him, it may not be good.

"I'm kind of like an offensive lineman," he said. "Nobody notices you until there's a holding call."

And so it goes at Harding, which hugs Lake Merced and sits across the street from the Pacific Ocean, dotted with cypress trees and Monterey pine. But you see them only when you look up. Chances are, there will be a lot of people looking down, at the grass on the greens, and it's going to be soon.

Speaking for the PGA Tour, Carman is confident everyone will like what they see.

"We're anticipating we're going to have them just the way we want them. You'll be completely surprised."



Harding Park's Realignment

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Presidents Cup will be match play, so the routing of Harding Park isn't going to be the same as it was played here in the 2005 World Golf Championship-American Express Championship.

The usual 18th hole, a 468-yard par 4, will become the 15th hole for the biennial team event next month at the 7,169-yard layout near the Pacific Ocean. Because most matches in match play end before the 18th hole, Harding Park is being realigned to make the most of the layout.

It's sort of confusing, but let's try. The first four holes to be played in the Presidents Cup are the normal 10-13 on the back. The Presidents Cup opener is a 562-yard par 5. Then the 5th, 6th and 7th, are the usual 4th, 5th and 6th.

The 9th hole is a 183-yard par 3 (usually the third hole), and the back side for the Presidents Cup starts at what is normally played as the 467-yard, par-414th.

The 15th hole during the Presidents Cup is usually played as the 18th (a 468-yard par four) and the 16th, which is usually played as the opening hole, is a 395-yard par 4. The 17th hole in October may be a drivable 344-yard par, but it's the 7th on the scorecard at Harding Park. And the 18th hole for the Presidents Cup is what's normally the 525-yard par-5 ninth, which has a new tee to the right to make the hole a slight dogleg right.

Steve Carman of the PGA Tour, said the rough will be allowed to grow to about 3 inches and that the greens will roll about 11 ½ - 12.

"We want them to make putts," he said. "We want excitement. We don't want people to win a hole with a par."

-- Thomas Bonk