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A Place Where Watching Grass Grow Is Anything But Boring

They say there's nothing more boring than watching grass grow. But cultivating immaculate grass is a serious, intense and fascinating business when you work at the golf course that will stage the first U.S. Open championship in the Northwest.

The Chambers Bay Golf Course near Tacoma, Washington, is hosting this year's U.S. Open from June 15-21. The municipal course was built on sandy soil in a dramatic bowl overlooking Puget Sound. The location used to be a sand and gravel pit. But you can hardly tell now, looking down from the clubhouse above.

"The golf course is stunning at this point,” U.S. Golf Association Championship Director Danny Sink said recently. “We’re in great shape out here. No speedbumps currently.”

The greens keeping team here uses tools like you and I have: mowers, rakes and watering hoses. And they have stuff you may have never heard of before.

'It's definitely not boring'

Eric Johnson is the director of agronomy at Chambers Bay. He works side-by-side with course superintendent Josh Lewis and a staff of 30.

With his back to Puget Sound, Johnson repeatedly released golf balls down a grooved aluminum yardstick called a Stimpmeter. It’s a device that measures the speed of a putting green.

Johnson then averaged how far the test balls rolled on the putting green. Johnson fills spreadsheets and maps with data from this and other tools in a quest to coax the living turf into a consistent playing surface.

"We have soil moisture meters that we run daily through the golf course all year,” Johnson said.

A related indicator comes from a firmness tester.

"It's like a Clegg hammer,” Johnson explained. “You drop it and it measures the rebound."

The grounds staff can water more or back off on hand watering, they can mow, or bring out a roller to adjust how the fairways and greens play.

"Yeah, we watch the grass grow, but it's definitely not boring with all the data and just observing people playing golf,” Johnson said. “It's pretty fun.”

An atypical playing surface

The links-style Chambers Bay golf course is planted primarily with fine fescue grass. "That's not typical around here," Washington State University turf management professor Bill Johnston observed. The 2015 U.S. Open will be the first time in 115 years the tournament is played on that type of surface.

For viewers at home, the look of the course and style of play might inspire comparisons to the British Open. Bandon Dunes in southwestern Oregon is another notable example of an American golf course with all-fine fescue turf.

Johnston and his counterpart at Oregon State University's turfgrass program, Alec Kowalewski, both said the typical lawn west of the Cascades is predominantly perennial ryegrass blended with fescues. East of the Cascades, Kentucky bluegrass blended with fine fescue is typical.

Top officials from the U.S. Golf Association said the untraditional turf is one of the reasons they decided to bring their national championship to the Pacific Northwest. The USGA and the host course's owner, Pierce County, Washington, are making an effort to highlight the sustainability features that fine fescue offers.

"It doesn't take a lot of water to maintain fescue grass, which speaks to a lot of the sustainability issues we want to address," Sink said at a media briefing last week.

"It's basically a low-input type of grass," Johnson elaborated. "It requires less water, less fertilizer. Not a lot whole lot of pests bother it so we don't have to worry about spraying for insects."

Johnson said one reason all-fescue turf doesn't get planted more widely is that it does not tolerate heavy foot traffic well.

Expert tips for your own lawn

It may sound like what happens at the venue for the U.S. Open is far removed from ordinary homeowners and their lawns. That's both true and not said OSU's Kowalewski.

No matter where you are, he said it boils down to mowing, fertilizer, watering and pest control.

"But the difference they're going to have at a golf course versus a home lawn: the homeowner is trying to make their lawn look good,” Kowalewski said. “A golf course on the other hand is trying to make it competitive. So they're doing things to make the greens roll faster."

The overseers of the greens at Chambers Bay -- Johnson and Lewis -- both graduated from OSU's turf management program.

Johnson shared a universal tip: mow more frequently and leave the shorter clippings on the ground.

"A lot of lawns I see around town, people are mowing once a week or every two weeks,” he said. “You have your mower set at two inches, but the grass is four inches. Basically, you're cutting your lifeline in half."

Johnson said turf grows thicker by clipping off less at one time, more often. He added that the greens at Chambers Bay are being mowed every day in the build up to the U.S. Open. The course is currently closed to the public in advance of the tournament.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.