MAMARONECK, N.Y. – The buzz of a nearby mower provided an ironic soundtrack as Steve Rabideau casually flipped a golf ball into Winged Foot’s lush rough.
It quickly disappeared in a tangle of grass, inspiring a mischievous smile.
After spending four labor-intensive years prepping the famed West Course to host another U.S. Open, Winged Foot’s director of golf courses endured four months of uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic forced the USGA to postpone the championship and explore venues outside a COVID-19 epicenter.
It’s been a long, hot summer for the club’s grounds crew.
“Keeping the morale of my team up was probably the hardest thing we did,” Rabideau said. “The agronomics, we fight every summer. It’s what we do. We’ve had guys here for five, six, seven, eight, nine years all building toward June 14. There were a lot of late nights, but we were building toward something. And then that something was nearly stripped away.”
A stay-at-home mandate across the state kept private golf courses shuttered early on, suspending the USGA build-out. Staffing restrictions stayed in place into the summer.
“We were the only ones working here, the only ones deemed essential,” said Rabideau, who typically has 55 sets of hands to maintain the 36-hole facility. “All through June we maintained the golf courses with 25 people.”
Steve Rabideau speaks with his assistants (right to left) Steve Bigelow, Weston Neff and J.R. Lapin on the 10th green of the West Course on Sept. 1, 2020 (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)
The postponement was announced in early April. Rumors of a potential move to California followed in short order and were not well received in the yard. Word that Winged Foot had a green light to host the U.S. Open finally came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in late July, along with news that spectators were not allowed to attend.
So here we are.
The members and staff at Winged Foot were eager to welcome the public and showcase a venue that has been meticulously restored in recent years.
It’s now a made-for-TV championship that gets under way Sept. 17.
“Basically, the one thing we have left is showcasing Winged Foot, showcasing the golf course,” Rabideau added. “That’s been driving us to make this one of the hardest U.S. Opens they will ever play.”
Remember the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974?
“There was nothing but doom and gloom in the locker room for several days prior to the tournament,” said Hale Irwin, who captured his first U.S. Open title with a humbling 7-over total of 287. Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006 at 5-over par.
As he reached into the rough to retrieve the golf ball Tuesday, Rabideau quietly offered a familiar refrain.
“Plus-8. Plus-8. Plus-8. … That would cap a very difficult summer,” he said. “And my guys know that’s what I’ve been thinking.”
Several of them were applying fertilizer to the rough nearby.
There’s more power than finesse in golf these days so it remains to be seen whether that number is in play, but the devilish A.W. Tillinghast green complexes and dense rough have protected Winged Foot’s reputation over the years.
No embellishments are needed to keep the scoring in check here.
“We’re going to let Winged Foot be Winged Foot,” said Jeff Hall, who is the USGA’s managing director of rules and Open championships.
A member of the grounds crew applies fertilizer to the rough at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck on Sept. 1, 2020. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)
In the beginning
The preparations largely got under way in 2016 when an extensive restoration choreographed by noted golf course architect Gil Hanse began. Tillinghast’s masterful greens were restored to original parameters and rebuilt using USGA specifications. Bunkers were rebuilt and improvements were made to drainage and irrigation systems.
New tees were subtly installed to stretch the West Course to 7,417 yards.
“With the tremendous investment Winged Foot has made, they are better prepared now to deal with a rain event if we encounter one,” Hall said. “I will also tell you, Winged Foot, whether it’s soft or firm, is a very difficult test of golf. It may require a different kind of shot-making if the conditions soften the course, but Winged Foot is never easy.”
The conditions are currently firm and fast.
It would likely take another extreme weather event like Tropical Storm Isaias to change that.
“We closed for two days and had everybody on staff picking branches up,” Rabideau said. “Tree guys are still here doing safety pruning. We lost a bunch of trees and the West Course got the worst of it, but we didn’t lose anything significant.”
Saltwater also blew off Long Island Sound, turning some leaves prematurely brown.
A ball is buried in the rough at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)
Adjusting on the fly
When the executive order shuttered Winged Foot in March, general maintenance with a skeleton crew was the priority. And when the gates re-opened in April, members flocked to the course, pulled on soft spikes in the parking lot, lugged carry bags or latched onto a pushcart and played through.
It was so busy, guests were prohibited.
Despite the heavy traffic, the work got done. The agronomic expectations did not change when the USGA moved the U.S. Open from June to September, prompting members to say a few rosaries for Rabideau.
Everything appears to be falling into place.
“The grass might look good, but this has been an extremely difficult summer,” Rabideau said. “We came off a winter of no snow pack. It was really dry in June. It was hot in July. This has been a very hard year if you’re in the business of growing grass.
“Our biggest challenge, and the one thing we focused on knowing it would be a challenge, was the rough. This year, the rough needed some special attention because a U.S. Open at Winged Foot is going to be defined by narrow fairways and thick rough.”
Potential hole locations were selected last fall by the USGA, and the additional time gave Hall and John Bodenhamer a chance to spend more time on site evaluating setup options. By going back to original dimensions, the putting greens have expanded 23 percent to 115,644 square feet. That brings new pins into the equation.
“The silver lining here is we had quite a number of opportunities this summer to get up on the greens and become much more comfortable with the property as a whole,” Hall said. “We’re not going to present the golf any different that we would have in June.”
Workers replace divots with seeds after a group of golfers shot out the fairway at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)
Early wake-up call
In addition to Rabideau’s grounds crew, there will be 90 volunteers from clubs and courses across the Metropolitan section on site during the championship to help out. And the biggest issue they will face is the lack of daylight hours.
Much of the daily prep will be done well before the crack of dawn.
“We’re talking about a split-tee start at 6:50 in the morning and sunrise is 6:38,” Rabideau said. “We’ll probably be out the door at 4 in the morning, so the first two hours, we’re going to be in the dark. Nobody likes mowing in the dark. We’ll be putting lights on everything, but you can’t see the quality of cuts you’re getting. And that time of year, leaves and acorns are starting to drop so we have to make sure we get things cleaned before we cut. That’s a trying process.”
The field was reduced to 144 players to give Rabideau some wiggle room, but the USGA has a plan in place should play need to be suspended on Thursday or Friday due to darkness.
Additional hours in the dark is actually good for grass.
“The flip side is that September could be a great time of year for the U.S. Open,” Rabideau said. “It feels like August, lately, but we can get some cooler nights. The one thing we have is that we’re three months off the longest day of the year. We have less daylight, but for grass, the longer nights allow the grass to recover quicker. We have two hours less daylight so the grass can withstand a little more stress.”
So if the conditions are right and USGA wants to dial up the greens to warp speed, the delicate grass will not require life support.
Steve Rabideau talks about the conditions on the course at Winged Foot ahead of hosting duties for the U.S. Open. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)
Hit ’em straight
Rabideau has the West Course right where he wants it. The grass will continue to grow at Winged Foot, but at some point, the rough will not be cut. A tangled mess off the edge of the fairways is the goal.
Plus-8. Plus-8. Plus-8.
“There were extra hours invested and extra cost involved for water to irrigate the rough and nurse it through a difficult summer so it’s typical Winged Foot U.S. Open rough,” Hall said. “They’ve done a masterful job ensuring the rough will be a key component in the golf course setup.”
It will again be graduated, but less so than in 2006.
The primary cut will be narrower and will initially top out around 3 1/2 inches, according to Hall. It will only be utilized on a select number of holes. The danger zone will be more prevalent and start the week at 5-plus inches. Even the rough under the majestic specimen trees is dense.
Rabideau isn’t likely to get a quality nap in before the U.S. Open Trophy presentation. A final punch list is in the works. Next week, he’ll be watching the grass grow, dropping that golf ball into the rough and impulsively checking his mobile device.
“Typically, I watch weather every day, all day,” Rabideau said. “I’m checking all the time on various apps. I’ve been reluctant to look 10 days out from now because we can’t change it. They’re usually wrong. It is what it’s going to be. … Would I like 59 degrees at night and 75 degrees during the day? I’d sign up for that right now.”
Mike Dougherty covers golf for The Journal News/lohud.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.
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