Jeff Stone has been the golf course superintendent at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course for nearly a decade, but the only thing he will predict for the PGA Championship, 9-12 August, is the unpredictable.
“The wind will blow,” the 25-year GCSAA member says. “That’s the golf course’s defence. But when the gusts come and how great they are is the question. It could be brutal.”
It’s not that the 7,610-yard, par-72 layout isn’t difficult enough, but nature adds an element that competitors do not see anywhere else on a regular basis. Stone believes the long stretch of holes from No. 5 through No. 13 will have a long say in the winning score, but notes that even if golfers survive that run, they might be so worn out that the finishing holes become equally difficult.
He says the early feedback from PGA of America officials and entrants who have played the course have been positive for The Ocean Course, which Golf Digest rated No. 1 among its 50 toughest courses to play.
From a golf course management perspective, Stone’s job is not any easier than what the golfers will face due to the winds and poor water quality that comes from the ocean spray and other sources for irrigation. Stone and his staff must contend with winds that will at times leave flagsticks on the ground and propel sand against the skin in pellet-like fashion. Blowing sand is so intrusive for the maintenance staff that driver’s licenses need to be replaced every six months because the information is rendered unreadable.
Water quality on the island is below average with a high salinity rate. That makes golf course management a challenge. In 2003, Stone and staff regrassed the tees, greens and fairways with seashore paspalum, a new grass type that was bred to grow in areas with poor water quality.
The fact that The Ocean Course is hosting a major is testament to chance, science and skill.
The chance was the route taken by Ronny Duncan, who in 1993 as a turfgrass researcher at the University of Georgia, was looking for a new grass variety to secure funding. Having dedicated his career to studying stresses in grasses, he came upon a variety known as seashore paspalum on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Virtually nothing was known about paspalum as a turfgrass, but given it was thriving in a saltwater environment, he thought it might be the answer to the growing reality of restrictions on potable water use on golf courses.
The science came in a decade of research Duncan executed, placing test plots around the nation to determine how paspalum could be managed in different environments. He found the best place to grow the grass on golf courses was between the 35th north-south parallels. Today he estimates 150 courses worldwide feature paspalum, with its popularity growing as turf managers become more comfortable managing it.
The skill falls in the hands of Stone, who admits he knew nothing about managing paspalum when the decision was made to re-grass.
Extensive study, some trial and error and laser-like focus by Stone have produced a high-quality turf stand worthy of the best golfers in the world. It is Duncan’s opinion that The Ocean Course would not have been able to host a major championship if it had not changed over from bentgrass greens.
“I basically had to throw out everything I knew about turf management,” Stone says. “Paspalum is a warm-season grass, but exhibits more tendencies like a cool-season grass. When we put it in, there were not many other courses that had it.”
For golfers, the density of the turf means the ball will sit up on the fairways, providing quality lies. Through various cultural practices such as brushing, grooming and topdressing, Stone can deliver high green speeds with no grain.
“I am looking forward to hosting a major,” says Stone, who as a recent college grad volunteered for the golf course management staff for the 1991 Ryder Cup. “My staff has worked hard, and we think that we, along with the PGA of America staff, have provided a challenging, but fair layout.”
Kiawah IslandOcean Course www.kiawahresort.com/golf/the-ocean-course/