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Jun 16, 2018 2:27 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

It Takes A Village: An Inside Look At Course Prep And Set-Up On Saturday Morning At The U.S. Open

Southampton Golf Club assistant superintendent Steve LaFazia (holding flag) and Matt Tacilauskas of Palm Beach at work setting up the new hole location on the third hole. CAILIN RILEY
Jun 16, 2018 5:49 PM

Jon Jennings was excited on Saturday morning, because he got to sleep in an hour later than he had yesterday—his alarm didn’t go off until 4 a.m.

During the week of the 118th U.S. Open Championship, the Shinnecock Hills golf course superintendent has taken a short ride by golf cart every day to work from his home nearby on St. Andrew’s road, overseeing an army comprised of his usual staff as well as volunteers from golf clubs near and far, working with USGA officials to get the course in pristine shape every day and set it up to challenge the best golfers in the world.

Jennings starts each day with a seven-mile walk through all 18 holes, and was nice enough to take this reporter along for the front nine, showing off the work that’s done each morning.

The “Easy” Week

Jennings and his staff have been hard at work for years preparing the course for the Open, and the work of putting it back in shape once all the tents and infrastructure start coming down on Monday is actually tougher than anything being done this week. That’s why Jennings calls championship week “the easy week.” And while the competition heats up over the weekend, that’s when things ease up, just a bit, for the superintendent and his staff. With the field cut in half, the opening tee times are later, giving them more room to work with in the morning. (Hence the 4 a.m. wake-up call, as opposed to the 3 a.m. alarm earlier in the week).

The staff starts to fall into a rhythm as the week goes on as well, but Jennings says in the morning meeting, he still warns against complacency. He drove that point home talking about an issue on course the other morning—a mower had a hydraulic leak that started on the 12th hole and wasn’t picked up on until it made its way to the 16th tee. The damage was minimal, but Jennings used it as an opportunity to remind his staff to stay vigilant.

“When you get into a routine, it becomes easier to be neglectful of small details,” he said. “We talked about keeping that awareness heightened.”

Help From Near And Far

Part of that heightened awareness is taking clues from the natural environment around them. The group of men operating fairway mowers like mornings when the grass has a thick coating of dew, because it helps them see the areas they’ve cut and the areas they’ve yet to mow. And a uniform coating of dew tells Jennings that the moisture beneath the surface is consistent as well.

In addition to the regular Shinnecock Hills maintenance staff, Jennings recruits many volunteers from far and wide to help with course set-up and prep during the week of the Open. Superintendents from nearby National Golf Links of America, Sebonack Golf Club, and Southampton Golf Club are all lending a hand, while others come from across the globe. David Crawford came out of retirement from across the ocean to work as a fairway mower. He hails from Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands (a self-governing British territory), located between England and France, where he for many years worked at the Royal Jersey Golf Club. Crawford worked the Open at Shinnecock in 2004, volunteering alongside Jennings, who was not yet the superintendent here, which earned him an invite back this year.

“I’m a bit of a veteran,” Crawford said, shortly after finishing work mowing his final fairway of the morning. “Even though I’m retired some five years or so, I thought, well maybe I can do this. So back I came, and [Jennings] was delighted to have me. It’s a great event, and it’s great to be here.”

Crawford happily hummed a tune and sang a bit as he finished up, but said he is quiet and focused on his work when he’s out on the fairways.

“These are $60,000 machines, so you have to be very careful,” he said.

The quarterback of the fairway mowing team is longtime staff member Ron Eleazer, a Shinnecock tribal member who has been working at the club since the 1980s and has been part of Open prep for all the championships at Shinnecock in the modern era (1986, 1995, 2004 and 2018). Eleazer’s voice occasionally rose over the hum of the mowers as he directed the group, and he gave a salute to Jennings each time they crossed paths on the fairway. Better known as “Snoop,” Eleazer first worked for former course superintendent Peter Smith, as a valet and bodyguard, he said, before working full time at the club.

“This is outstanding,” he said, surveying the course from his seat on the mower. “I’ve never seen the place look so good. I’ve seen it all and this is the best I’ve seen.”

As for the men who will be the beneficiaries of his hard work this weekend, Eleazer said he’d like to see Ricky Fowler do well, but was especially rooting for Phil Mickelson.

“Let the old man win one more,” he said with a smile.

The Sensitive Hole

Precision work was done on the greens on Saturday morning, with USGA staff—including executive director Mike Davis, managing director of rules and championships Jeff Hall, and director of championship agronomy Darin Bevard, among others—testing the surface to make sure the hole locations were just right. While attention to detail is a given on every hole, they describe some as more “sensitive” than others, and none fits that billing more than the seventh hole. The par-3 Redan hole is the hole that became infamous in 2004, when the green was dried out to the point of being unplayable, and was then watered after several players had already gone through on Sunday, creating a swirl of controversy and negative criticism of the USGA. In an effort to avoid that kind of situation again anywhere on the course, and on the seventh hole in particular, special attention is given to the measuring of green speed on that hole. Bevard took the stimpmeter readings on the seventh green on Saturday morning several times, for extra reassurance that all was well with the hole.

As Bevard says, there’s “a human element” to using the stimpmeter. But for people like him, who have done it a lot, they are confident in their abilities to get an accurate reading. Still, Bevard spent a lot of time on the seventh hole, double checking his work. Both he and Jennings acknowledged that the history of that hole in the 2004 Open makes getting it just right even more of a priority.

The Final Step

The last item on the checklist for each hole is applying water, if necessary. Joe Roth, an intern from Penn State was taking moisture readings on Saturday morning, measuring volumetric water content, which is given as a percentage. The ideal percentage can vary, depending on the weather. On Saturday morning, with winds expected to be light, the staff was aiming for double-digit numbers. On one hole, with the reading at 15 percent, watering wasn’t necessary. Anything below 10 percent meant that Roth would be busting out the hose to syringe the surrounding area—just a quick few sprays, enough to coat the surface to keep the grass from dying out without penetrating the soil too much.

An Important Reminder

In daily meetings with staff, Jennings goes over “talking points” each day, reminding everyone on the team about the importance of staying vigilant and paying attention to detail during a historic week where the golf world’s eyes are on the course. But it’s not all work directives. Jennings encourages volunteers and staff members to make sure that, like the greens and fairways they tend to, they soak it all up, and take pictures of those sunrises and sunsets they are seeing each day as they are part of the team working on one of the country’s most historic courses for the country’s biggest golf championship.

For videos from the morning walk-through of the front nine with course superintendent Jon Jennings, and more insight into the work that goes into course prep for the Open, check out our Instagram Stories by following 27east on Instagram.

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