Friday, June 21, 2013

June 21, 2013 (1981)

Last weeks U.S Open at Merion brought back a lot of memories for me. I interned at Merion for three years (1980-1982), and was a staff member during the 1981 U.S. Open. During that time, I lived in the clubhouse in a tiny room that overlooked the first tee, and for the most part, the club and course was my home.

It was nothing in the evening to walk out through the back kitchen door with a few clubs in hand and wander the back holes hitting a few irons, chipping and putting around. Or going over to the West course with a few friends. Hard to believe that to play Merion was that easy...

I was one of only three interns for the ’81 Open. I had come on board back in ’80 and had worked towards that Open week from day one. We built tees, installed drainage, performed aeration, did overseeding, sodding, sanded the greens, planted dune grass (from Atlantic City CC) and scotch broom, lined creek banks with stone – we did so much and so many things that I can’t remember it all. And that was on top of all the basics – mowing, spraying, syringing, setting up the course, raking traps by hand, repairing irrigation, etc. Many days I would work my day and then after a short nap head back out and mow fairways till dark....

I even made wickers. At that time an older man named Guerrio D'Achille whom I greatly respected -he had worked at Merion since time began  it seemed- made the wickers. He was an Itailian craftsmen who could make almost anything with his hands. He had one good eye and the other could never fully open and weeped constantly. One day he took me with him to a warehouse somewhere in the bowels of Philly and bought bundles of rattan. Every day we would soak the rattan in buckets of hot water to soften it so that it could be worked. Guerro sat beside me and guided every movement of my fingers, constantly saying in broken English “you no good! you no good! you only good when you asleep” But I could not have been that bad because he kept me to help him until they were all done, and some nights, he’d have me over to his house for dinner and his homemade wine which had to have had an alcohol content of 150%. Those were good times.

It was a different time then,,,One of my favorite characters was Alfie, who mowed rough on the west course in an old dilapidated tractor that pulled a five gang. He carried a shotgun with him and would shoot any rabbit that crossed his path, take it behind the old shop there, and cook it up for lunch. Of course ‘ol Alfie had wine too- and that was about 150% alcohol too. Things like that would never happen now. There was another older man named Frankie Machefavia who was maybe 90 years old. Everyday he walked the east course with a scythe (he wore a hoodie and he looked like the grim reaper), and trimmed the bunkers. There were no weedeaters at Merion. Frankie’s wine was more potent than Guerrio and Alfie’s combined.

 I could write story after story, but ....
But back to the Open...

Some of the things I remember from the 81’....before, during, and after...
-A few weeks before the open, leading a crew with a truck mounted gunite machine around the course spraying white sand on the “faces of Merion”
-Meeting Arnold Palmer at Balustrol the year before –a gentleman the whole way through, and meeting him again on Merion’s 16th fairway weeks (or maybe a month) before the Open
-listening to Jack Nicholas complaining about the scotch broom in the traps after playing a preview round a few weeks before the Open...we didn't remove it!
- Seeing the Good Year Blimp overhead – that was the moment that I realized I was a part of something big
-Putting bricks in the green mower baskets to add weight over the front roller to help firm the greens as we mowed them
- a car that had gotten on the course and did a few doughnuts on the second green (I think it was the Friday night), but the green was so firm it really did not do any damage
-Rolling the 12th tee after each group teed off – it had been so wet from the week’s rain that we sodded the tee each morning and then rolled it to keep the sod firm and in place through the competition.
- mowing the intermediate rough and walking paths with a pushmower
-Taking the grass clippings from the mower baskets and covering divots with the divots were green!
-Our mechanic, Frankie, throwing fire crackers under the ABC  t.v. control trailer to see  the unaware technicians run out in a panic– now Frankie was a character!
-Seeing Bill Rodgers in the parking lot after the Open, leaning on his car, with his head down in what must have been total dejection...the defeat of coming in second. Later he would win the 1981 British Open.

And of course I remember and will always remember Richie Valentine, Merion’s superintendent – there is not a day that goes by that I am not reminded of him or something he taught me...I don’t know if I would have ever made it without him.

Monday, June 3, 2013

June 3, 2013

For the past few years we have been using a soil moisture meter to determine when and how much to water our greens. In the past we had used soil probes to pull a small plug of soil from the green to determine the soil moisture. Although this method worked well, it was inconsistent because each person who probed interpreted the look and feel of the soil differently, and so it happened that depending on who did the sampling, more or less water that was needed was applied. The meter takes this inconsistency out of the equation.

The meter works by measuring the electrical conductivity of the soil and converting this data into a percentage of soil moisture. It is very accurate and gives us solid data on which to make our watering decisions.

During the growing season, a trained staff member probes every green each morning. The greens are probed in at least ten different locations and these readings are averaged for the green. When these readings drop below a certain percentage, it’s time to apply water.  Because our greens are “push- up’s” and their soils are not the same throughout the course, different greens have different thresholds, or percentages, that tell us when to water. Over the years we have recorded the daily averages of each green and its wilt point and have learned the thresholds and how much water it will take to put us where we want to be. Some greens are watered for less time and fewer days than others.

As we probe each green, we can see which areas are wetter/ drier than others. If the threshold is met in some areas but not in others, we hand water the drier areas rather than the entire green, which helps balance the percentage throughout the green, and save water. We only water the entire green when its thresholds are met throughout the green.

Since we have been using this scientific method to determine water moisture, watering has become more complicated, and requires more labor to probe, hand water, track data, and set up irrigation programs. The payoff though, is firmer and healthier greens, which is very much worth it.