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Archive for Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An eye on every blade

June 17, 2009

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For a globally televised event such as this week’s U.S. Open golf championship, every blade of grass is to a golf-course superintendent as a base-runner being waved into a close play at the plate is to a third-base coach.

Everything’s perfect and the superintendent remains anonymous. One foul-up and it haunts him for the rest of his life.

A year ago, during Tiger Woods’ most memorable major championship, a five-day triumph executed on one sound leg, Torrey Pines played true and earned rave reviews as a tough, fair test of golf. That’s why the name Mark Woodward means nothing to the average golfer.

One year removed from the most stressful week of his career, Woodward can relax and enjoy this U.S. Open watching it on TV with family members who are set to fly into Kansas City tonight to join him and his wife in Lawrence.

A year ago, Woodward, now in charge of the Lawrence-based Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, was the man charged with preparing Torrey Pines for the Open. He arrived in New York on Monday to spend a few days at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y., and returns tonight.

Last year at this time, Woodward was in the midst of a 10-day stretch of living in a motor home parked on the golf course grounds because he wanted to be responsive to the needs of the USGA on a 24-hour basis. Woodward solicited a sponsor for the use of motor homes for him and his assistant. Golfers Rory Sabatini and Jim Furyk were doing the same.

“Rory and his wife were within five feet of our motor home,” Woodward said. “He had a TV that came out of the side of the motor home, had chairs set up and made a nice little camp.”

All the while, Woodward worried obsessively about the condition of every blade of grass. For 30 days in advance of the tournament, Woodward said, the course was hand-watered with hoses because he didn’t want to take a chance on a sprinkler breaking.

Playing guard dog is part of the job of the superintendent for a major championship. Making sure the course is set up tough yet fair presents a greater challenge. Having the victor coming in around even par, Woodward said, is a nice goal.

Woodward reveals himself as a superintendent when he unleashes his sinister laugh discussing how he added difficulty to certain holes. All supers laugh that laugh. I, for one, am not amused.

“We went back and forth on the slope in front of the green on No. 13 (at Torrey Pines),” Woodward said, an evil smile beginning to form.

He explained that every possibility from a thick rough to grass shaved so tightly the ball would roll back down and leave the golfer with a 100-yard wedge shot was considered. He preferred the latter.

“We ended up compromising,” Woodward said. “It was shaved down, but it wasn’t quite as low as how I wanted it. Phil Mickelson, in either the second or third round, hit it up there and it rolled to his feet. It wasn’t until his third shot he hit it onto the green. It was funny because he was the local San Diego guy, and he was the one who ended up being affected by it. Four days later, I moved to Lawrence, Kansas.”

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