Ryder Cup prep turned into battle against nature
As director of golf course operations at Medinah Country Club, Curtis Tyrrell has known for nearly five years that if the grounds weren't in outstanding condition it would be him everyone blamed. But he didn't begin to sweat about it until the seemingly endless days of record-breaking temperatures and little precipitation pulled it out of him.
Embedded throughout the course are probes that measure soil temperature, moisture content and salinity. The probes feed that info to a central control computer. If the golf course is Tyrrell's baby, the probes and computer are the heart monitor tracking her health.
"This summer, a lot of times we'd just go in there and shake our head at it," Tyrrell said. "This definitely wasn't the summer I was hoping for heading into the Ryder Cup. I was hoping for something a little bit closer to normal."
Tyrrell didn't go into hospice mode. He knew the course would have to be better than ever, not just limping by when it took center stage for the golf world. So when soil temperatures remained 15 degrees higher than what he needed for his greens, fairways and tees to thrive, he went old school.
For weeks, industrial sized fans circulated cooler air over the grass, dropping the temperature and allowing just enough gas exchange to avoid a mass takeover of brown spots.
From there, Tyrrell and his 90-member crew kept working on the more major changes they believe will make the golf course both a fun challenge for the players and an aesthetic eyepopper for the fans.
One change throughout the course will be a new definition of rough. Tyrrell took the intermediate cut as it comes off the tee and spread it out like an hourglass when it gets to the fairway. Normally, the rough would be 5 to 6 feet wide around the fairway. Now, the rough has been widened and draped all over the main complexes and fairway bunkers. Most notable of all, the rough is only about an inch and a quarter tall. Tyrrell said that change was captain Davis Love's idea.
"By rough standards, that is really not rough at all," Tyrrell said. "The idea was to keep it relatively short, just widen the landing zones and allow the players to really go for certain shots that they normally wouldn't go for."
Golfers who haven't been to Medinah in awhile will also notice a much brighter course with some more challenging winds depending on Mother Nature's mood. Last year, Tyrrell and crew removed 660 trees from the course. That's more than half of the 1,100 trees removed from the course over the past four years. Tyrrell said half the trees had outlived their useful lives. The others were taken to promote sunlight and air movement in the name of turf health.
All the greens and some of the holes were rebuilt in 2009 and 2010. The 15th hole, for instance, went from a 390-yard, par 4, that went up and to the left and became a drivable par 4 with a potentially hazardous 2-acre water feature on the right. The 15th is the lowest point on the course. All the water drains to the hazard.
"Now you have a risk/reward par 4," Tyrrell said. "And because of where it sits on the back nine, it's going to be really influential in a lot of the matches. About 65 to 70 percent of the matches all end somewhere between the 15th and 16th hole, so you'll be seeing golfers go all or nothing here."
The 15th is followed by a 16th hole that is 40 yards longer than in the past. Tyrrell expects much of the decisive action to occur on the 15th or 16th holes. The 17th is one of the signature holes on the course. It now features a bunker that's about 66 percent larger and wraps all the way around to the front of the green to expand the challenge of the hole.
When it finally comes time to play on Friday, Tyrrell said he'll feel some relief but all the pressure of keeping the grounds playing like a championship course throughout the matches. When he's not maintaining the grounds, he'll be listening for the reactions of the players to the course.
"The first thing I want to hear from players is the greens are excellent, perfect," Tyrrell said. "That's the moneymaker right there. They will be very firm and smooth. They are going to be quick by everyday player standards. Then, I hope the golf course is a challenge, but that they feel the condition was excellent, not a hindrance in any way to their matches. That's what we're looking to hear."
How will Tyrrell celebrate when the Ryder Cup wraps up Sunday? He won't. The very next day after the Ryder Cup, bulldozers will head out to Medinah's No. 1 course for a redo.
What Tyrrell is really looking forward to is the winter holidays. First he'll visit family in Maryland. Then, he'll celebrate with his wife and kids the way players in a different sport do.
"We're taking the kids to Disney over Christmas," Tyrrell said.