Grass-Kicking Mood


Golf professionals are accustomed to nearly perfect working conditions--immaculate fairways, well-behaved galleries and greens as smooth as a pool table--so when that ideal isn't reached you know you're going to hear about it.

So it was the first two years the Senior PGA Tour came to Newport Beach Country Club. The greens were less than perfect and naturally the players were a little cranky about it.

"It's like putting on a mattress," muttered Lee Trevino, walking off the 10th green during the 1996 tournament.

"The greens are a little spooky this week," agreed Bob Eastwood, the same year.

"The ball spends more time in the air than it does on the ground," Hale Irwin said in 1997, "and it's hard to read air."

Even Bob Murphy, who won the tournament last year, had his problems with the putting surface. In the second round, he was a five-foot putt away from a birdie on the par-five 15th hole, but his ball was pushed off-line by a bump.

"It bounced so high," Murphy said then, "that I thought my putter went under the ball.

"It was really scary. It's frustrating for me because my strength is my putting. I did everything today to put myself in position to let my putter talk and it didn't happen."

So what gives? Is Newport Beach Country Club an unfit locale for the world's best players in the 50-plus division?

Actually, no. For the most part, Senior PGA Tour pros have given the course rave reviews. They like the fact that it's a traditional course with fairways flanked mostly by trees instead of housing developments. Built in 1952, and remodeled in 1973 and 1985, it reminds them of courses they played on when on the PGA Tour, say 30 years ago.

As for the problem greens, you can blame blooms.

Specifically, blooms from the Poa annua grass that makes up the greens on nearly all courses in coastal California. Poa annua, also known as annual bluegrass, is considered a weed, but it is so invasive and well-adapted that it almost invariably moves in and pushes aside the bent grass that golfers would prefer to putt on.

Greens of annual bluegrass aren't necessarily of poor quality; some of the West's most famous courses--Pebble Beach, Riviera, Torrey Pines--are Poa. But unlike bent and Bermuda, the two most common grasses on greens, annual bluegrass is a prolific producer of seeds, especially in the spring.

And last year spring-like conditions popped up at a most inopportune time at Newport Beach Country Club, which was the reason for the senior's bumpy ride.

It's a smoother situation this year. Just listen to Murphy, who Tuesday stepped onto the course for the first time since last March. "This is much, much better than last year," he said. "Obviously they've done a magnificent job. These greens are rolling very, very well."

Gary Player was similarly impressed. "This is one of the most improved courses on tour," he said. "The greens are especially nice. Last year they had a lot of seed heads and the ball would hop everywhere, but they got rid of that."

That's got to be a comfort to Ron Benedict, who as the course superintendent is the man responsible for setting up the course to the Senior PGA Tour's exacting standards. "Everybody has been extremely pleased, which makes us feel really good," Benedict said. "Well, the course is in good shape."

Benedict said there's no way to be certain of the reasons for last year's problems with the greens. It could have been the warm weather that prevailed from early February through tournament week. It could have been that the Ph of the course's soil fell out of balance.

Whatever the causes, Benedict was determined to do everything he could to prevent a recurrence. Mechanical methods such as verticutting help thin out the grass and knock off the seed heads. Regular top dressing with a fine layer of sand helps firm up the greens.

But Benedict said his crew's preparations didn't change. "We did exactly the same things to prepare the greens," he said. "The seed heads just went off on us last year.

"We just had a major league full-bloom."

It was the type of Poa annua disaster that Donald White has been trying to solve for his 37-year career at the University of Minnesota. A professor of horticultural science, White started out trying to eradicate the weed, but about 20 years ago switched to improving it.

"I guess you've got a choice," White said by telephone from St. Paul, "you can either join it or fight it.

"I think there's a lesson there for us. If you approach any plant and ask 'Why is it there to begin with?' The simplest answer usually is because it's better adapted than anything else to grow there."

White said what is known as Poa annua is actually a number of related plants that range from prolific seed producers to sterile plants.

A green might be composed of hundreds of distinct bio-types, and that is one of the reasons for Poa's negative qualities. The shoots of grass that seed the most are thicker and grow faster, so a green that is smooth after an early-morning mowing can become a minefield in the afternoon when tournament leaders are rolling putts.

Currently, there's little you can do about that problem, said Reed Yenny, the superintendent at Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa who also is well-acquainted with the perils of Poa.

But Yenny is hopeful White's research has produced an answer: A Poa you can plant. White has developed a seeded variety of the grass that is designed to eliminate the negative qualities and keep the good.

Yenny got some of the seed and planted a test nursery from which he hopes to re-sod several greens at his course this summer.

Standing on the 9,000-foot nursery green recently, Yenny pointed out how even the Poa looked compared to nearby bent grass that already was being invaded by native Poa.

The supply of seeds for the new grass is limited, but perhaps one day the following Poa nightmare will be a thing of the past:

"You read a putt," Yenny said, "and it looks like it's going to die at the end and fall into the hole but it hits a piece of Poa and goes the other way.

"You can get a little upset, especially if you're playing for a lot of money."

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