There are few municipal courses that have the allure of Torrey Pines.
Since 1968, Torrey Pines has been an annual stop on the PGA TOUR, hosting the Farmers Insurance Open every January or February. In 2008, Torrey Pines cemented its place in golf history after hosting the legendary U.S. Open that saw Tiger Woods claim his 14th major championship after a thrilling 19-hole playoff. With its coastal setting and Tour prestige, Torrey Pines has remained at iconic golf destination that sets the standard for other municipal courses around the world.
However, looking past the ocean views and rich history, there is much that goes on behind the scenes to make Torrey Pines an incredible venue for championship golf.
Last year, we looked into the art and science that goes into the championship conditions of Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, NY. This year, ahead of the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open, we sat down with the superintendent of Torrey Pines’ famed South Course, Rich McIntosh, to glean some insight into the year-round work that goes into maintaining this incredible property.
THE MUNICIPAL NATURE OF TORREY PINES
Most PGA TOUR courses, especially those that host major championships, are immaculate private golf clubs. Torrey Pines, on the other hand, is city-owned and open to the public. And while this presents an incredible opportunity for residents and travelling golfers to experience a world-class venue, it can present an immense challenge for the course superintendent ahead of significant Tour events.
“Here at Torrey, the biggest challenge we face is traffic stress. With the amount of rounds we do a year, it's a real challenge to keep the greens and fairways good with all the foot traffic that we see. Last year alone, the South Course had 72,000 rounds.”
- Rich McIntosh | Golf Course Superintendent | Torrey Pines (South)
On the other hand, as a municipal course, Rich also benefits from additional support that other courses don’t have at their disposal.
“The resources of the city are huge. We can pull from other departments in emergency situations, so it's definitely nice to have that city support. It's definitely different than the private side... the processes of the city, the processes of government, the transparency of government... but that's not to say there aren't obstacles as well.”
Another unique challenge that Rich has to deal with is working within a 12-month golf calendar. Before coming to Torrey Pines almost 2.5 years ago, Rich was at Muirfield Village in Ohio where they were limited to a 6-7 month growing season. In southern California, he doesn’t have the luxury of a ‘slow season’ that may allow other course superintendents to regroup, conduct needed maintenance on equipment, and prep for a new golf season.
“It's definitely a grind. Coming out to California, I definitely had to think about not only maintaining the course, but also maintaining myself, so I didn't get burned out—and that goes with the crew as well. At Torrey, there isn't that time of year where you get to recharge the batteries. It's never-ending out here.”
THE SCIENCE OF GRASS
When people think of the job of a superintendent, they probably think about mowing and watering the grass. What they might not realize is that each golf course has an intricate network of varying grass species that require constant monitoring and care.
“The South Course is Kikuyu grass on in the rough and the fairways. We have Bermuda grass on the tee boxes and approach areas. And then we have Poa annua greens. Kikuyu grass and Poa thrive in the coastal environment. In the state of California they are considered noxious weeds, to be honest. They are “invasive," but they do well.
Poa grows all year-round on the coast, which makes it difficult on the North Course with the Bent grass greens to keep it out. It has pros and cons—Poa is a little bit weaker under traffic... it needs more water and some more inputs on the plant protectant side than Bent grass.
In the future, we are going to continue to keep the Poa out of the North Course greens... there will be completely different agronomic programs from the North to the South as far as greens.”
While it is clear that the grass types at Torrey Pines have thrived in the salty, coastal conditions, keeping the conditions looking nice is the real challenge. In order to control and maintain these various grass types, the Torrey Pines crew uses several important practices to keep the course condition in check. Rich provided some insight into the most crucial techniques below:
Aerification is the ventilation of a surface that will eventually be sealed up due to compaction and normal turf-grass growth. It is also the removal of organic matter that has built up from mowing the grass and the natural die-back of leaf debris. By opening up the turf and getting oxygen back into the root zone, it allows water to infiltrate a little better and reduces the compaction that has occurred over the year.
Verti-Cutting is vertical mowing. They're pretty much blades that have little teeth on them that will get down into the canopy of the grass. The Kikuyu grass and Bermuda grass have "stolons" which are essentially above-ground roots. They'll tend to get very long if they're not managed... so verti-cutting helps break up the stolons. It also helps increase the density, open up the canopy, and dry out the surface to reduce disease.
Overseeding is needed to keep our rough thick for the Farmers Insurance Open. It's a lot of work. We bring in a crew from the Parks & Rec division, and they come with their tractors, sweepers, and mowers. From there, we scalp all the fairways down and take the height down low, which allows us to create a seed bed. We'll go and aerify surfaces as well as verti-cut them to help take off the top thatch layer, so we can get seed down into the soil. We overseed pretty much wall-to-wall except for the greens.
PREPPING FOR THE 2018 FARMERS AND THE 2021 U.S. OPEN
Months before the PGA TOUR rolls into town for the Farmers Insurance Open, Rich’s crew at Torrey Pines had already begun their rigorous work to prepare for championship golf. They overseeded and fertilized to strengthen the grass and thicken the rough; they focused on their mow-lines to ensure consistent fairway widths to last year’s event; and the looked closely at every detail to dial in the appearance and playability for the word’s best.
“This year, there was also a BIG, BIG focus on bunkers. We redistributed the sand in the bunkers, so we have the correct depths and make sure that the faces are all compacted so we don't have any plugged balls.
At Torrey Pines, we are also continually working on drainage to keep the landing areas and playing surfaces dry, so we can mow them day-in and day-out to be presentable for the Tour players.”
While the recent focus has been centered on the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open that finally arrives at Torrey Pines this week, plans are already taking shape for 2021. For the first time since 2008, Torrey Pines will host a major championship with the U.S. Open coming back to the South Course.
U.S. Opens are notorious for their grueling conditions, and Rich has his work cut out for him over the next few years to gear up for this major moment in golf.
“The biggest thing right now is trying to promote Kikuyu. Coming out of winter once we start to warm up, we'll really start to shut the water off to let the Rye grass struggle and die out to the point where it doesn't want to come back. Then we will start to really push the Kikuyu.
They did a lot of sod work at the previous U.S. Open, which we're trying to stay away from this time. We want Kikuyu grass everywhere so we don't have to bring in a lot of sod.
We have another project in the works which will be heavily focused around infrastructure, irrigation, and redoing some bunkers—we're redoing ALL of the bunkers. Right now, we are looking to add bunker liners, redo the drainage, get them back to their original shape, and put new sand in them.
By the time 2021 comes around, I hope it's the best Torrey Pines anyone has ever seen.”
THE STEWARDS OF GOLF
Superintendents take on a crucial job that gets little-to-no recognition in the world of golf. Yet through it all, there is a deep passion for what they do and a true love for the game itself. Before concluding our conversation, Rich closed with some poignant words about what it means to be a superintendent:
“I think the most important thing is just trying to be stewards of golf and stewards of the environment to help keep our industry relevant and moving in the right direction. It's a scientific process and a lot is going on behind the scenes to dial in what we do to be efficient, save money, and preserve the environment.
Every golf course in every community is very important. You don't have to be a top-100 golf course or have a $1M budget to play a big role in your community. Ultimately, you're providing a service to the public.”
You must be a registered user to add a comment. If you've already registered, sign in. Otherwise, register and sign in.