Come Hell or High Water

“We've got a wonderful golf course that's in outstanding condition, and we've heard nothing but wonderful comments to this point from the players,” said Tim Moraghan, director of championship's agronomy for the United States Golf Association (USGA) as he sat alongside Grounds Superintendent Tony Mancuso, CGCS, at a press conference the day before the opening round of the 25th U.S. Senior Open Golf Tournament at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Mo. “The areas of the golf course are absolutely wonderful. The fairways that Tony has groomed have not only given a good lie for the players, but I think they've given them a perfect lie. There really, really shouldn't be any issues this week.”

“You never know what you're going to get, and this summer has been one of those great summers, and the golf gods really looked upon Bellerive this summer. We're at a point now where we're ready to get this thing going. It's been a long time coming, particularly since 2001, and I know my staff has been very anxious to work towards this event, and we've had roughly 1,000 days since then to get ready,” added Mancuso before he went on to reminisce about the disappointment his crew suffered during the last big tournament — The World Golf Championships at Bellerive scheduled to run Sept. 13-16, 2001.

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St. Louis. Voted America's Best Sports City by the Sporting News in 2000, it was no surprise that in spite of the infamous terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh, that fans showed up in droves just 24 hours later for the event; but it was cancelled. A setback that not only devastated the club, the fans and the host city, but demoralized the grounds crew for a time, which, in just 18 months, brought the course up to championship standards.

“It's been a long time coming,” said Mancuso. “I remember putting up on the board in the break room the Monday after that week that we had roughly 1,075 days left, and they all kind of chuckled, and I said, ‘It'll be here before you know it.’ And here we are.”

But getting “here” actually began prior to 2001, when, despite a near impossible schedule, the course got its upgrade thanks to some quick thinking by Mancuso, who was presented with some hard decisions regarding course upgrades.

“At the time, we only knew we were going to have the 2004 Senior Open, and were in the process of implementing a four-year program to replace all of our intermediate cut. We were going to do a little bit of extra Zoysia on the greens and fairway bunkers. But we went from spreading that out over the next three years, to doing all of it in one month. So basically, a four-year plan became a 30-day plan.”

A GREEN LIGHT FOR UPGRADES

In order to complete the work under such demanding time constraints, the group put down a little over eight acres of sod — 40,000 square yards in 21 working days. “The problem is that we have all this inconsistency in our inch-and-quarter cut … with all these different grasses, we said we've just gotta get this done. And we did it.”

The budget for the job was a quarter of a million dollars, and demanded that extra staff be brought on that year. “We increased our summer time staff by about five, which brought us to a horticulture staff of 35 total. We also had a group of volunteers, which we asked to help us with the event, so each day of the event, we had 20 extra staff in the morning and 20 in the evening.”

The bulk of the volunteers came from the Mississippi Valley Golf Course Superintendents Association (MVGCSA), as well as assistance from local vendors and equipment manufacturers. For instance, a couple of extra sand machines were brought in “and we modified two of them by taking the rakes off the back and replacing them with standard floor brooms, so in the evenings, we could condition the bunkers: check the depths, perform hand watering of the bunker faces, etc.”

In addition, Mancuso had his SandPro modified by replacing the knobby tires with street-type tires “so we could walk down the sides of the bunkers with the tires after they were watered. This way, in the morning, the guys had nothing to worry about but raking their lines.”

The department also brought in an advanced agronomist, who assisted for a week prior to the event.

“All that work … all the good fortune leading up to the event … and then to have it crushed by the worst domestic act of terrorism in our nation's history. It was hard to take — not just for us, but the world,” said Mancuso, who had come to the course just six years prior from Columbus, Ohio, after holding previous positions as golf course superintendent at New Albany Country Club, Columbus, Ohio; Fairfield Glade Resort, Crossville, Tenn.; and Anniston Country Club, Anniston, Ala. “It took me a couple of years to kind of figure things out here. As I like to tell people, the first two years I was here, I figured out how not to do everything, and I had no idea how tough St. Louis was to grow turf.”

But once he did, changes were made that would bring the course back to championship condition.

HIGH WATER

July 31, 2004 was a new day, though, and Mancuso was optimistic. “Here we are, and the staff is just really excited. I'm so happy that most of my staff was here in '01, and I'm so happy that they can all get another chance to see this thing through. The USGA has been wonderful to work with, and the golf course is, I think, as ready as it can be. The weather has been very friendly to us…”

…until a forecast for light rain was a bad prediction for a six-hour downpour that brought over 3 inches of rain, which forced the USGA to push the second round into Saturday and bump the third round to Sunday. The deluge, which ran from Thursday evening into Friday morning, saturated the course. Parts of the surface, especially the seventh and ninth holes, were under water. The fairway on No. 7, which abuts a creek, was fully submerged. Part of the ninth fairway, in addition to bunkers, was teeming with water. And on the third hole, a par 3, the green had turned into an island.

The rain, which dissipated late Friday morning, had been so heavy that crews couldn't even get on the course. Later they could be seen squeegeeing greens and dumping water out of bunkers. Friday evening Todd Farver, assistant superintendent could only muster a forced grin when asked if Bellerive was cursed. “I don't know, man. Things are pretty weird around here.”

“I've never seen it this bad,” added Mancuso that evening while he surveyed the course … a gentle wake drifting off the tires of his golf cart as he rolled down the path along the seventh fairway. “But we'll be ready, he said with that trademark Mancuso calm confidence.

“It's the volunteers,” said Farver, as he looked over his shoulder at volunteer grounds teams on every green and fairway within eyesight as the sun was setting. “That's what I love about this industry. Whenever somebody needs help, we all come together.” In this case, it was colleagues from the MVGCSA, interns from Mancuso's alma mater Mississippi State University, as well as Iowa State University, and as far away as Canada, England and Australia, who learned about the new and the old of grounds maintenance.

U.S. SENIOR OPEN HISTORY

According to Arthur E. Wright, Jr., who wrote “Bellerive's Proud History,” the country club has a long and honorable history. Founded in 1897 as the Field Club of St. Louis, it soon had a 9-hole course just 10 years after the first golf course was built in the United States at St. Andrews in Yonkers, N.Y. In 1909, the club moved to a larger site in northwest St. Louis County and changed its name to Bellerive Country Club, after Captain Louis Ange de Bellerive, the last French commander in North America and the first governor of St. Louis. Its new 18-hole golf course was designed by the club's new golf professional, Robert Foulis, a native of St. Andrews, Scotland, who remained the club's golf professional for 35 years.

Today, Bellerive has several signatures holes. The par three, sixth hole will play 190 yards. This hole has been rated as one of the toughest par threes statistically in past events held at the facility. In the 1965 U.S. Open Championship, 82 golf balls were found the pond that borders the green on the right.

The par five, 17th hole will play 574 yards and is bordered on the right by a creek for the entire length of the hole. The par five, 10th hole usually plays as a par five for the members, however for the U.S. Senior Open it played as a 484 yard par four, dogleg left with a creek crossing in front of the green. It was the longest course in U.S. Senior Open history and conquered by Peter Jacobsen, after holding off a late charge from Hale Irwin to win by just one shot.

Tom R. Arterburn is an independent journalist based in St. Louis, Mo. You can contact him at jrnlyst@aol.com.

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