Course in perfection

Tournament A Columbia golf course strives to be at its best as it welcomes the PGA.

July 04, 2000|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Kevin Mathias is putting his doctorate to good use this week at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, where the University of Maryland turf grass professor is rolling dimpled white balls down a metal chute and measuring how far they go.

If the golf balls travel too far, greenskeepers will ease up on their twice-daily mowing. If the balls stop too soon, the greens will get a closer shave.

Mathias is testing the speed of the greens as part of a sunup-to-sundown effort to ready the Columbia course for the State Farm Senior Classic. Pro-am play is scheduled for tomorrow and Thursday. The competition among 78 professional golfers will be held Friday through Sunday.

From scooping algae to grilling steaks, from coddling greens with precision mowing to coddling golfers with complimentary Cadillacs, everything is intended to make the course look great on national television and make the Professional Golfers' Association of America want to come back.

"We want them walking away saying, `Boy, what a beautiful golf course,'" said Bill Neus, director of golf course maintenance for the Columbia Association, which owns the course.

There's more than pride at stake.

Crossed fingers

This is the third and final year that the PGA has agreed to hold the tournament at Hobbit's Glen. The course and the PGA are discussing whether the tournament, which brings millions of dollars to area businesses and lends considerable prestige to the course, will return for another three years.

"We really have our fingers crossed on this one," said Lee Corrigan, tournament director.

Preparations for the event began months ago, as workers gradually shaved the greens from their usual razor-stubble length to something akin to 5 o'clock shadow - from 5/32nds of an inch to 9/64ths.

Manicuring the grass is important to the quality of play, but other projects are purely aesthetic. Workers gussied up the course with 13,000 marigolds, geraniums and other flowers, far more than the 2,500 blooms they usually plant. They scraped unsightly pond scum from a water hazard.

Willing volunteers

Hobbit's Glen has enlisted about 700 "volunteers" who pay for the privilege of shushing spectators, keeping score and emptying trash bins. Adults and youths, they are avid golf fans willing to fork over 45 bucks for a few souvenirs and access to the event.

Practice rounds began yesterday, but with the holiday weekend, most golfers were not expected until tomorrow. That gave organizers a little more time to tend to countless details.

"This place is a ghost town right now, which is great for us. This is shake-the-bugs-out day," Neus said yesterday morning as he zipped around the course in a golf cart.

Crisis control

He soon spotted a problem, a patch of sandy soil on the practice area above the fifth hole. A grounds crew had pilfered a 3-square-foot hunk of turf from that spot to repair one of the greens.

"We could use four or five people up here," Neus said into his walkie-talkie. "It's got to be done today."

Buzzing around in his cart, Corrigan found another trouble spot. Allfirst Bank had provided $35,000 for a double-decker, glass-enclosed "sky suite" with views of the 13th, 17th and 18th tees. Also in sight, however, was a sign bearing the name of a rival bank, a corporate sponsor of the event. Worried that Allfirst might be miffed, Corrigan sent a crew to move the sign to another spot.

"It's just a very small thing," he said. "But why flirt with it, you know?"

Tournament condition

Most of the year, the greens are trimmed daily, but at tournament time mowers "double cut," going over the same area twice from different directions.

"You can't maintain the greens, especially in tournament condition, year-round," Neus said, explaining that the blades cannot be sustained at such short lengths, especially in the heat of summer.

The grass isn't the only thing that would wilt if preparations for the tournament dragged on any longer. Workers start their day at 5 a.m. this week and don't pack it in until 9 p.m. Neus said all the effort will pay off when the course shines on ESPN.

"On Friday, I'm going to go into the pro shop for a while and watch my golf course on television," he said. "It's very important to all of us that everyone sees our best work."

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