The South's Going To Rise Again

August 08, 2011

The 512-yard, par-4 18th: No wonder David Toms laid up in the final round of the 2001 PGA. (He got up and down to win by one.)

This changes everything.

The 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club

is going to have a profound and long-lasting impact on major-championship golf.

It won't matter if this year's PGA is won by a superstar or by a journeyman. It won't matter if it's a runaway victory or a playoff. What will be remembered a decade from now, even 50 years from now, is that this was the event and the course that disproved the conventional wisdom that major-championship golf in the Deep South is risky.

We're going to see majors in locales that golf officials previously avoided in June, July and August--places like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, maybe Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, even Arizona and most definitely Texas.

The reason has little to do with the design of the Highlands Course outside Atlanta, although its complete remodeling by Rees Jones deserves attention. The Highlands finally has a continuity of style that it lacked in its first major, the 1976 U.S. Open won by Jerry Pate, and possessed only in patchwork fashion in its most recent major, the 2001 PGA won by David Toms. But what sets the course apart from the handful of previous Sun Belt major-tournament hosts--and what makes it the role model for a new generation of venues--are its unique, durable, state-of-the-art turfgrasses, a dynamic combination that's perfect for a championship setup and good for the environment.


Stifling summers are among the reasons the Masters is played at Augusta National in early April, before spring gives way to the Georgia heat that closes the club from mid-May to mid-October. That's also one explanation of why only 22 of the 204 U.S. Opens and PGAs through 2011 have been played in the South (see accompanying chart), though fans across the country long have complained about golf's so-called "East Coast bias," pointing to half of the U.S. Opens being played in the New York metropolitan area from 2002-'09 as the most recent evidence.

Atlanta Athletic Club's formula of grasses will give rise to many new possibilities. During the next 20 years, we think the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open will reflect the national population movement to the South and Southwest. The trend has already started, with next year's PGA at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C. (which now has paspalum greens), the 2014 U.S. Open returning to Pinehurst No. 2 (recently renovated to be far more linksy than in previous Opens) and the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow in Charlotte (whose bent-grass greens were severely stressed in August 2010).

If clubs switch grasses, we could foresee the PGA finally returning to Dallas (at Dallas Athletic Club, where Jack Nicklaus won his first PGA) or Palm Beach Gardens (PGA National), and the U.S. Open finally going back to Houston (Champions Golf Club). Future Opens could be played at new venues around Little Rock (Chenal or Pleasant Valley), Birmingham, Ala. (Ross Bridge or Country Club of Birmingham), and Scottsdale (Talking Stick or Whisper Rock). And future PGAs could be played near Shreveport, La. (Squire Creek), Memphis (Colonial Country Club) and Tampa (Innisbrook). How about an Open or PGA at Mauna Kea on the Big Island in Hawaii?


Once construction crews ripped apart and reassembled each hole on the Highlands, Ken Mangum, director of golf course and grounds, planted his choice of warm-weather grasses with the intention of having the course play as firm and fast as possible for this year's PGA, Aug. 11-14.

The greens will be cut to one-tenth of an inch and rolled to achieve a speed of 12½ to 13½ feet on a Stimpmeter (up from 12 to 12½ feet on the bent-grass surfaces of the 2001 PGA), without the stress or risk associated with bent grasses being exposed to heat and humidity. There'll be no anxiety leading up to this PGA, no fear of dreadful half-grass/half-dirt putting surfaces, as happened at the 1987 PGA at PGA National, when its bent-grass greens were devastated by pythium blight. (The new turf is so disease-resistant that Mangum has cut his fungicide use on the greens in half.) The greens won't have to be pushed to the edge of extinction during tournament week, so members won't wait weeks or months for the surfaces to recover after the event.

Gone are the Highlands' bent-grass greens that required huge electric fans to keep them alive in the heat of an Atlanta summer. In their place is Champion Ultradwarf Bermuda (the first ultradwarf ever developed), which thrives in summer without a life-support system and putts like the finest-groomed bent grass. It even has a darker blue-green color than bent grass. There'll be no need to halt play during the championship to drag hoses out to mist the greens and keep them from cooking. That's standard procedure with bent-grass greens that are shaved to nubbins.

Also gone are the Highlands' old Bermuda tees and fairways, replaced with a miracle turf, Diamond Zoysia, which some courses have even used on their putting surfaces. The turf is shade-tolerant, especially important for new tees tucked back beneath trees.

The turf grows so slowly that it needs to be mowed only twice a week. (Slow-growing does mean that it takes additional time for divots to fill in, so the Highlands will be closed to member play two weeks before the PGA.) But the turf needs only one-fourth the fertilizer of the previous fairway grass and just one application of herbicide all year.

Mangum will mow his fairways so tight (35-hundredths of an inch) that instead of displaying the resilience of a hairbrush, they'll be more like a kettle drum. The grass plays its best "when it's really dry, almost to the edge of wilt," he says.

The gnarly Bermuda rough of the Highlands has also been replaced with a new strain, Tifton 10, which has a slower vertical growth rate and has a blade structure akin to a tree. The "branches" tend to hold up golf balls well above the ground, so they don't usually bury deep the way they do in other thick Bermuda. That means competitors at this year's PGA will be able to hit something other than mere pitch-outs. Mangum will mow the rough early in the week, one inch for the intermediate rough and 2½ inches for the primary rough, encouraging recovery shots. The open approaches in front of most greens--the trademark ramps of Rees Jones--were sand-capped during the reconstruction specifically so golfers would be able to bounce shots from the rough and roll the ball to the flag. In greenside rough, players will still have some--if not complete--control of the ball when playing a recovery.

Mangum especially likes the blue-green color of the rough, which contrasts nicely with the emerald green of the fairways. (By the way, he now does no overseeding in winter months. Diamond retains its color well into December and turns green again by March. He lightly paints the putting surfaces green once just before the Champion goes dormant.)

Another innovation achieved during the reconstruction was the installation of tandem irrigation heads all along the perimeters of fairways, one head throwing water on only the fairway, the other head watering only the rough. This allows Mangum to shut off water to his fairways while continuing to irrigate his rough to achieve the perfect fairway firmness and proper depth of rough.

Barring hurricane conditions the week of the PGA, the Highlands will play far more linksy than any Southern course in golf history. With AAC's firm, fast fairways, the course will play far shorter than its listed 7,463 yards, par 70. The firmness will make fairways play even more narrow than they are (they average just 28 yards in width) and will bring even fairway bunkers positioned 340 yards off the tee into play for many competitors. Firm fairways definitely put the rough into play, because every fairway seems to turn ever-so-slightly left or right.

Mark these words: The turfgrasses at Atlanta Athletic Club make it revolutionary. So revolutionary, in fact, that Mangum even plans on using robotic mowers to trim his bunker slopes. Now that's cutting edge.