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Maintenance miracle

Torrey North: From tent city to tour course

In just seven months, the Torrey Pines maintenance crew had to bring the North Course back to PGA Tour quality after it served as a staging area for the 2021 U.S. Open
January 25, 2022

SAN DIEGO — It’s happened at Bethpage and Baltusrol and Winged Foot and The Olympic Club. Renowned golf courses host major championships, and the traveling circus arrives to erect tent cities and roads and grandstands to accommodate the masses. At venues that feature multiple courses, there is one track getting all the glory and the “others” become construction and staging zones, taking an agronomic and aesthetical beating.

Then, with the championship over and a winner crowned, the circus leaves and the local course staff is charged with, uh, scooping up the elephant droppings and making the place look as if it was all just a dream.

In that realm, there is no place like the municipal facility of Torrey Pines. Other major venues—most of them private—are hidden while they heal. Not Torrey. Beyond the fact that the South and North courses host more than 150,000 rounds a year combined, Torrey Pines annually holds the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open in late January. Working around golf tourists to prepare two munys for that task is, well, a pain. Throw a U.S. Open smack into the middle of that calendar, and the greenskeepers might as well set up sleeping quarters in the work shed.

Superintendents shudder at the Torrey itinerary: Stage the 2021 Farmers Insurance Open in late January; start tearing up the North Course the very next week; don’t water the North for months while the USGA comes in to set up for the U.S. Open; make the South Course worthy of a major in June; start fixing the North immediately after the Open; let the public play 30,000 rounds on the North from September to January; and host the 2022 Farmers Open.

Three top-level pro tournaments in a 13-month span. The only other time that's been demanded and accomplished: Torrey Pines, in 2008.

“You’re on TV, in front of millions of people. There is a lot of pressure,” says Rich McIntosh.

McIntosh was Torrey’s god of grass. He was the head superintendent at the facility for the past six years, with the San Diego municipal job being his first time in charge after he was recognized as a rising prospect in agronomy while working as an assistant at Muirfield Village. The 37-year-old led his crew through arguably the most critical time in Torrey’s history, as the city spent tens of millions on a full North Course renovation by Tom Weiskopf, and a South Course update that included a new irrigation system, routing tweaks and fully rebuilt bunkers.

“I don’t think I could have picked a better place for my first superintendent job,” McIntosh says. “Two world-renowned golf courses that host PGA Tour events … and the resources to make the place better.”

The U.S. Open merchandise center, shown being dismantled, was positioned in the middle of the North Course's 10th fairway. (Tim Graham photo)

In one of those life circumstances that simply appear without warning, McIntosh will watch this week’s Farmers, beginning on Wednesday, from 1,335 miles away—the distance between Torrey Pines and Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. In December, he was named the director of agronomy at Colonial, the venerable PGA Tour stop that is undergoing its own $21 million restoration. McIntosh, apparently, does not require much sleep.

“There hasn’t been any stress removed on my end,” he says with a laugh.

He admits he’ll be watching this week’s Farmers coverage with a mix of nerves and pride. It’s like his kids are playing in the NFL and he had to stay home for work. He knows the courses are ready, but he won’t feel relief until they’ve performed.

“The North Course came back tremendously well. It’s really good,” McIntosh says. “I think it’s going to be hard for people to notice any difference.”

Joe DeBock, Torrey Pines’ head professional, is around the course every day and would agree.

“The North Course looks freakin’ great,” he said. “My hat is off to those guys who get the course ready.”

The grass on the Torrey Pines North Course went brown and dormant in the months leading up to the U.S. Open in June 2021. (Tim Graham photo)

More than most, DeBock can appreciate the work that was required. As the pro for more than three decades at Torrey, he was there for the period of the 2008 U.S. Open, when the process was completely new and the preparation more extensive. At that time, roads of decomposed granite ran like veins across the North’s fairways to accommodate huge trucks for the hospitality builds. Those tents covered large portions of some holes. Just as in 2021, an elevated driving range was built along the front of the North’s first tee and ninth green.

The cleanup was far more difficult that first time. The roads killed the grass, leaving sizable scars that would take more than one growing season to heal. The solution was to dump a bunch of rye overseed on the course and water the heck out of it. DeBock compared it to when sports stadiums have to redo their fields after monster truck shows. “That had to be a hard year,” he said of ’08.

This time around, the work was made more palatable by the renovation of the North in 2017. The city planned ahead for the Open with wide access roads and continuous cart paths. There were 30 percent fewer bunkers to maintain in the shutdown and there weren’t nearly as many USGA structures on the North. Temporary road-making has advanced, with plastic pavers going down instead of DG.

Workers dig up ground on the North Course during the first stage of building the driving range tee for the U.S. Open. (Tim Graham photo)

There were still areas significantly affected—player hospitality and the media center took up much of the ninth hole and the scaled-down merchandise center sat smack in the middle of the 10th fairway. But between the predictably dry summer weather and the grass generally being healthier, the concern over significant damage was minimal, even with several holes on the North serving as a parking lot for seven days. They went lighter on the overseed—a good thing, considering the cost of seed has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Probably one of the best overseeds we’ve had,” McIntosh said.

Fans and local golfers who saw the North during the Open might have been horrified by how bad the grass looked—like your front yard after a heavy frost. But McIntosh said it had merely gone dormant without any watering. He said some regular fertilizer treatment brought it back quickly. Those who tend to worry might have been concerned about the greens, particularly because they were protected from people and vehicles only by stakes and ropes. But the numbskulls stayed away, and the crew kept them healthy with daily mowing.

The completed temporary U.S. Open driving range that was constructed on the North Course. (Tim Graham photo)

One unusual aspect of the return of the North Course was the need to dig up the bent grass on the practice putting green and replace it with the predominant Poa annua from the South. When the Open was over, they pulled up that carpet again and put bent back in.

The biggest work had to be done to excavate the temporary driving range, but that was gone in a couple of weeks. Remarkably, the North Course reopened on the Friday of Labor Day weekend.

As for the North greens, they didn’t look pristine to observers during a media outing earlier this month, but McIntosh insists they’re healthy overall. Indeed, he said they seem to be winning the battle against the infusion of Poa annua—a feat that would maintain the surface differences between the two Torrey tracks.

The South, McIntosh says, bounced back nicely from the stress of the U.S. Open, and he said that though the greens took on a yellow tinge by that Sunday, they weren’t pushed to the brink of life support during championship week.

With recent heavy rains followed by warm temperatures in January, the South’s going to sport its usually gnarly rough and figures to be the beast it always is. Last year, it ranked as the hardest non-major course on the PGA Tour, confounding players with a 73.34 scoring average. The North played at a more friendly 70.13 for the ’21 Farmers, and it was there on the first day that Patrick Reed shot 64 to jumpstart what would be a dominating five-shot win.

McIntosh will watch the battle all this week from Fort Worth—happy to see his kid succeed but probably glad he’s now living in somebody else’s house.