PRODUCTS IN PRACTICE: The People's Open

Craig Currier knew he had a big job ahead of him when he became golf course superintendent at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, New York in June 1997. The Black course, one of five golf courses on the 1,425-acre Long Island property, had recently been booked to host the U.S. Open in 2002. “We had five years to get ready, but the course needed a serious makeover,” he says.

A state-operated public golf and recreation complex, Bethpage offers weekday golfing for $31 per round. On weekends, the price goes up to $39. “It's the best deal in America,” Currier jokes. “You can play any of the courses in your jeans and tee-shirt if you want. The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) wanted to have the Open on a truly public course. In fact, they are calling it the People's Open. It's great because so many people have played the Black course, they can really relate to the pros.”

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In fact, so many people had played the course that conditions were less than desirable when Currier took over. The five courses (the others are called Yellow, Green, Blue and Red) average 275,000 to 300,000 rounds per year, with the Black course averaging about 40,000. Considered the signature course at Bethpage, the Black course was designed by A. W. Tillinghast and built in the mid-1930s. It had not been aerified or renovated in all those years.

Major renovation completed

Beginning in August 1997, Currier closed the Black course for 10 months for a major renovation designed by Rees Jones. In addition to adding new sprinkler heads on all greens and tees, Currier supervised the rebuilding of all bunkers and tees. McDonald's and Sons, from Maryland, were the contractors selected for all the renovation work.

“The bunkers were eroded and falling apart, with liners coming through the sand,” says Currier. “We reshaped, cleaned up and re-sanded all the bunkers. They were big before, but now they are enormous. The original bunkers were a little too far away, but now they are closer to the landing areas.”

Currier also resodded all the tees, added extensions to five of the greens, and reduced the 18th green by one-third. Since the course reopened in June 1998, he has added more than a million square feet of sod throughout the golf course, including replacing all the green surrounds and high traffic areas.

Improving fairway fertility

Prior to the renovation, fairways primarily consisted of Poa annua, clover and weeds. Currier began aerifying and overseeding them twice a year with 600 to 800 pounds of perennial ryegrass per acre. “We went with ryegrass because it germinates quickly and recovers from divots faster,” he explains. “We need that on a public golf course. But we also put our fairways on an excellent topdressing and fertility program.”

Soon after arriving at Bethpage, Currier began using Nutralene controlled-release nitrogen on fairways, tees and greens. Containing 14.5 percent water insoluble nitrogen, Nutralene releases nitrogen both by hydrolysis and through microbial activity. Hydrolysis releases nitrogen quickly, giving plants a boost at the beginning of the growing season, then microbial activity releases nitrogen more slowly through the rest of the season.

“I like getting slow, steady growth instead of big flushes of growth,” adds Currier. “A lot of fertilizers are pretty water soluble after you get a rain. But Nutralene releases nitrogen slowly over eight to ten weeks. Because the grass takes the nitrogen only when it needs it, our color is more uniform. It also helps keep disease under control. You want to keep the plant as healthy as possible.”

Healthy turf fights crabgrass

The healthier turf has minimized weed encroachment in recent years, as well. “Four or five years ago, crabgrass was our biggest problem,” adds Currier. “But I can't use a pre-emergence herbicide because of all the reseeding we do on the Black course. Getting on a good fertility program has pushed away a lot of the crabgrass.”

Because Bethpage is a state park located on Long Island, Currier is intensely aware of pesticide usage on his golf courses. Some Long Island courses have gone totally pesticide-free in recent years. Currently, he is participating in a three-year study on pesticide usage on the Green course at Bethpage. Funded through the USGA and Cornell University, the study began in 2001.

“We divided the course into three sets of six greens,” says Currier. “We follow a normal program using pesticides on the first six greens, while we follow an IPM program on the second six greens. On the third six greens, we use no pesticides whatsoever. It will be interesting to see the results at the end of the three-year period.”

As he closes in on the U.S. Open in June, Currier is looking forward to his week in the limelight. “Having the Open on a public course like ours gets the word out that municipal courses can be great places to play golf,” he says. “Right now, our Black course looks spectacular!”

Becky Talbot is a freelance writer based in Ambler, Pa.

CRAIG CURRIER

An upstate New York native, Craig Currier graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cobleskill in 1993. He worked at Piping Rock Country Club and the Garden City Golf Club, both on Long Island, as an assistant superintendent before coming to Bethpage in 1997. He further honed his skills working winters at Augusta National during his three years at Piping Rock.

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