An extraordinary competition will be held at Erin Hills this summer, but unlike the previous championships held there, this one will not involve golfers.
The competition will pit the established fine fescue fairway turf against a newcomer – a blend of two creeping bentgrasses, 007 and Flagstick, that will be introduced with a novel over-seeding process from June 29 through July 9, during which time Erin Hills will be closed.
It won’t be a fair fight, because the fine fescue will be weakened with hormones and by cutting it to an intolerable height, both of which are intended to stress the plant and give the bentgrass a decided edge. It’s a little like tying Rory McIlroy’s right arm behind his back and telling him he’s got to go out and beat Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods.
Over time – a period of a year to 18 months – the bentgrass, slit-seeded and over-seeded with a broadcast spreader, will overtake and replace the compromised fine fescue and Erin Hills will have a new and greatly improved playing surface.
The course, which opened in 2006 and played host to the 2011 U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open, has always been known for the exceptional quality of its bentgrass greens, but the fine fescue fairways and tees have been problematic.
“Our view is that our fairway turf, while it’s acceptable for play, is not up to the standards of the rest of our facility,” said Erin Hills owner Andy Ziegler. “It’s not up to the standards of our greens, it’s not up to the standards of the golf course design and topography. It’s just not up to our standards, so we wanted to fix it.”
Other than the brief period when the course is closed, play will continue unaffected. Because the conversion from fescue to bentgrass will be a slow process, golfers will scarcely notice any change on a given day, unless they happen to be turf experts.
“Our goal was to try to attempt this process in a manner that provided the smallest amount of impact to the golf course and to our business operation,” said superintendent Zach Reineking.
The conventional method of re-grassing fairways would be to kill off the existing turf and re-seed the fairways, then wait for the seed to germinate and the grass to establish itself before traffic could be reintroduced. That’s essentially what SentryWorld in Stevens Point did in a 2013-’14 redesign. But it requires the golf course to be closed for a year or more.
“That just wasn’t something that Erin Hills was in a position to do,” Reineking said.
The process of introducing new seed on top of existing turf in what becomes a survival of the fittest likely has never been attempted on such a large scale and is sure to be closely followed by agronomists, course architecture buffs and golfers in general, particularly because Erin Hills has been awarded the 2022 U.S. Mid-Amateur, now just two years away, and the 2025 U.S. Women’s Open.
And an improved playing surface – one that would be more consistent, easier to maintain and would better accentuate the course’s design features – certainly wouldn’t hurt Erin Hills’ chances of someday landing another U.S. Open.
“We did consult with the USGA,” Ziegler said. “Zach consulted with a lot of turf experts and we certainly kept the USGA in the loop. I talked to (CEO) Mike Davis and to the competition people about it. They were very comfortable after we walked them through the reasoning.”
The original plan called for the over-seeding to occur in two phases, nine holes this year and nine holes in 2021. But because tee time reservations are softer this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ziegler saw an opportunity to convert all 18 holes at once.
“That just ensures that the two nines are consistent for the Mid-Am,” he said. “You don’t have one nine that’s fully converted, two years of bentgrass on it, and the other nine is in that sort of grow-in, first-year conversion period. The whole golf course will be consistent.”
Erin Hills, designed by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, was built 15 years ago with fine fescue fairways. Fescue, however, needs a certain climate and sandy soil to flourish, and the site in the Kettle Moraine offered neither.
“We’re not anything close to a sand-based golf course,” Reineking said. “Being on the edge of the Kettle Moraine, we’ve got varying soil types. There are some pockets of sand. There are pockets of glacial fill that are more in line with what you would want for a fine fescue facility, but we also have really heavy, dense clay soils and we have some silt loam soils that just don’t drain fast enough.”
In those conditions, fine fescue would work if cut at a height of, say, two inches. But when cut to the fairway height of half an inch, it didn’t do well. In some areas of Erin Hills where fescue wouldn’t grow, other grasses had to be introduced, or invasive species naturally took over. The result was a hodgepodge of grass types that was difficult to maintain.
“You can get a lie out there where it’s just not as good of a playable lie,” Ziegler said. “It’s always bothered us, and we’ve fought it for years. So, basically, the benefits are we think the grass itself is going to be a better playing surface. We think we’re going to have more consistency and far, far less invasive types of grass in it. And we’ll be able to maintain it over time on what should be a firmer, faster, tighter golf course, which is what we want and how it should play out there.”
Late last summer, Reineking experimented with the over-seeding process on the 17th fairway. He’d also experimented with it in the short-game practice area, with impressive results.
“It was just so dramatic that we felt like it was worth pursuing,” said Ziegler, who added that he wouldn’t have considered re-grassing the fairways in that manner if Reineking’s trials had not had the desired result.
Other benefits to a pure carpet of bentgrass are that Reineking will be able to cut the fairways at a lower height, which will make the course play firmer and faster. Players will be able to putt the ball from well off the green, an intention of the architects but something that has been hit or miss on fescue. And the time it takes for filled divot holes to regrow will be shortened by weeks.
“One of the problems we’ve had with our par-3 teeing areas is we get to the end of summer and there’s no place to put the tees because the surfaces haven’t regrown,” Ziegeler said. “They’re all beat up. The bent will heal that much faster.”
One thing that won’t change, however, is that Erin Hills will remain a walking-only course, even though bentgrass would allow motorized carts to be introduced.
“We’ll keep it walking only,” Ziegler said. “We think that’s a big part of the experience out there.”
The changing of the fairway grass at a major championship venue, and especially the manner in which it will be done, would give most owners pause. But Ziegler has done his due diligence and is confident that daily play will be unaffected and that Erin Hills will emerge a better golf course.
“I’m at ease as you can be when you’re a farmer,” he said with a laugh. “Erin Hills, basically you have to think about it as a grass farm and a bed and breakfast. That’s kind of what it is. Could we have some weather event that makes this go not as well as we had hoped? Sure, that’s what happens when you’re farming. Sometimes, the crop doesn’t come in. But we’re comfortable with it because we understand that.
“Zach and his team have done a tremendous amount of planning in how to do this. I’m very comfortable that we’ve done everything that we need to do, but I can’t say 100 percent because I can’t control Mother Nature. But we’re feeling pretty darned confident about it.”