Keeping Pebble preened in the face of savage storms isn’t easy.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Emerald carpeting greets rough-edged cliffs with a dramatic kiss. Behind them, ocean and sky blend seamlessly to provide the perfect backdrop. Pebble Beach Golf Links, despite a January full of peril, still looks above par.
Links Superintendent Chris Dalhamer and his 27-person crew live by a time-honored formula to keep it that way: brew teamwork, endurance and consistency with creativity and science. The result is the cinematic 100,000-acre championship expanse at Pebble Beach Golf Links, which remains pristine even as 70,000 rounds of golf are played on it each year.
“It’s neat to work at a place people come from all over the world to play,” says the freckled and red-headed Dalhamer. “There are high expectations.”
Dalhamer remains at ease with those expectations despite a recent deluge – five inches of rainfall in just over a week – that happened days before the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“[The rain] changes everything; we’ve had to adjust our whole attack plan. We’ve been raking debris, chain-sawing fallen branches and trees, moving sand,” Dalhamer says. “Other years, when there isn’t the type of weather we’ve been having, we can nitpick and pay attention to detail.”
The price for the oceanic beauty Pebble enjoys is especially steep when it rains. The crew must battle the constant flow of groundwater running over the course toward the ocean. The rain washes sand toward the center of the bunkers. And as the water saturates the fairways and surrounding rough, surface heavy equipment and even careful golfers can tear up the turf.
Dalhamer doesn’t let it bother him. “I’m hand and hand with Mother Nature – you have to take whatever she gives you,” he says. “I have an affinity to the outdoors. From day one, I used to rake leaves for a dollar.”
Dalhamer says that he and his greens crew will be working from “dark to dark” through the Pro-Am to ensure every tournament golfer has an experience befitting a course universally considered one of the world’s best. They’ve already been on the 12-hour-a-day cycle for weeks.
Each day the superintendent meticulously maps out “AM” and “PM” work schedules in perfect stencil-like print. Crews of two or three men are assigned to specific duties prioritized according to level of importance. Recent mornings, they are deployed to move tees and cups, rake displaced sand, rotary mow the rough, trim the edges of the bunkers and spread wood chips over plywood walkways where hundreds of thousands of visitors will march by. But before the crew goes off onto the course to begin its morning duties, everyone stretches as a group.
With millions in prize money on the line and eagle-eyed pros analyzing the course’s every contour, there is little room for error. The grass on the fairways and tees must be cut to a half inch, the rough two inches, the greens one-eighth of an inch. Each type of grass is maintained differently. “It takes a lot of processes to get the grass to be perfect,” adds Dalhamer. “The shorter the grass, the more intensified the care must be.”
Moving the cup at every hole is one of the most pivotal and surgically inclined daily duties performed by the crew. This practice keeps the traffic on the green even so the green stays healthy and as playable as possible.
Dalhamer grabs a white bucket and a cup-cutter and walks out to the 6th hole. He uses the cutter to scoop out a cylinder of soil; the cup-cutter holds the perfectly molded soil and patch of green.
He moves the cup and flagstick into their new home for the day, then fills the old hole with the soil in the cup-cutter. He kneads and molds the incision of the filled hole until it’s level. After several seconds, it appears as though nothing had been touched.
A half-dozen of the crewmembers have worked on the links for more than 20 years, a group Dalhamer calls the “nuts and bolts” of his team. Not only are they versed in course horticulture, weather and pesticides, they enjoy what they are doing. Twenty-year vet Mark Thomas wears a Sam Elliott moustache. Jack Holt, assistant superintendent, has worked on the course for 25 years. “Jack’s seen it all,” Dalhamer says.
Some of the younger crew members, like recent Penn State graduate Pete Bachman, are participants in the Northern California Golf Association’s superintendent intern program, from which Dalhamer graduated in 1995.
For all the crew members, regardless of seniority, the dedication is absolute. “There’s no down time,” Dalhamer says. “This is a 365-day, full-time operation. When it’s raining, we still work.”
For now, the crew is excited to see how the course holds up for the tournament – “The guys enjoy watching golf and seeing the pros and celebrities play,” says Dalhamer – and has already begun improvements for the U.S. Open in 2010.