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News & Press: OTF News

A Different Approach

Tuesday, December 16, 2014  
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Recap of Matt Shaffer's presentation at OTF
Written by Will Haskett
Justin Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club with a score of 1-over-par. The score, by recent USGA standards, wasn’t a surprise. But to the naysayers who wondered what kind of defense the compact, iconic, Philadelphia treasure could offer, the final tally was a revelation. In the face of torrential rains that would normally yield soft, scoreable conditions, Merion held up. How?

Matt Shaffer, Director of Golf Course Operations at Merion considers himself quirky. Some, he says, may even call him certifiable. It is his different way of approaching the management of his course (he’s been at Merion since 2002 and in the business for over 40 years) that directly led to the success of the 2013 U.S. Open; an approach that could also benefit superintendants around the country.

Shaffer spoke on his ‘different approach to growing grass’ at the 2014 Ohio Turfgrass Foundation Conference & Show to a packed room of his peers.

"When I first got into it, we had what I would say is 10 tools in the box,” Shaffer said. "We didn’t really have sophisticated fertility. Now we have thousands of tools in the box, yet I found myself doing a full circle, and now it’s really simple.”

Shaffer has a simple philosophy to managing the various aspects of his golf course, which comes from the desire of his members, but how he accomplishes the desired layout is unique.

Greens - Firm and fast daily

Shaffer can’t roll his grass enough. Morning, noon and night, he and his crew are rolling. They never topdress in the summer, preferring to apply sand around the third frost of the winter, just as the grass is beginning to go dormant.

He also is against spraying for problems unless you’ve exhausted all efforts. He would rather replace the grass, patch the problem, and naturally fix the greens.

"We lose a lot of grass,” he says, due to the nature of Merion’s fast, firm greens in the sometimes-sweltering summer heat. "We have nurseries and we seed them with a number of different variations of bentgrass. That works in our favor because something is always viable and working in [those patches].”

It’s not the prettiest result, but as Shaffer pointedly states, "pretty turf isn’t always the best turf.”

Tip: Catch all grass clippings around the greens. Shaffer has found it has eliminated cotton worms, plus the ants that like to feed on the eggs.

U.S. Open Tidbit – Fearful of the summer rains that could soften his greens and create dartboards for the world’s best players, Shaffer contracted a sand supplier (after tinkering with a cement mix to firm the greens; no joke) to make sand that was 85-percent less than a millimeter. Topdressing with that engineered sand created a soil structure that was nearly impenetrable to water. Inches of rain U.S. Open week had virtually no effect on the firmness of the greens. For member play now, they are still trying to aerify much of that sand out.

Fairways - Firm and fast daily

Shaffer subscribes to the theory that the grass will acclimate to how you treat it. He’s also simplified how he treats his acreage.

When it comes to fertilization, stick to meal in the summer and manure in the winter. That has been a practice for generations, and beyond the world of golf.

In terms of spray, like his greens, he’s found himself moving away from it. In 2014, with a budget of $200,000 for spray, he used just 30-percent of it. He found himself extending the time between applications each time before, essentially, weaning the grass off its supply.

So, how does Shaffer combat crab grass or the fungi that would bring dollar spots to his course? Thinking outside the box.

"One day, I’m out doing a morning walk and look up the middle of the fairways and there are no dollar spots,” he recalls. "That was where the green roller was driving.”

Shaffer hustled back to the shop and tried to build his own fairway roller with some comical results, eventually finding a vendor that could make it work. Poof, dollar spots started disappearing, and Shaffer had more grass to roll!

Combating crab grass also led to stealing work from the greens. Shaffer began topdressing his fairways. They would spread the sand, tine it in, broom it and watch the crab grass disappear. It helped keep the fairways drier, firmer and less prone to unwanted species. It also led to smaller divots, an unintended bonus.

U.S. Open Tidbit – The staff at Merion topdressed the fairways in advance of the championship with 600 tons of sand. It allowed the fairways to stay drier, freeing the USGA to keep the ball down for competitors. Without lift, clean and place in effect for the championship, the scoring was controlled.

Bunkers - Make sure they are a hazard to be avoided at all costs and not a better option than the rough

Shaffer can’t stand bunkers. He doesn’t like dealing with them, and he takes that disdain out on the players who find them daily. The signature of the bunkers at Merion isn’t the sand, or how they trap players. What people remember about the bunkers is the edging with tall, whispy, wrist-breaking rough.

Shaffer tried a variety of different grasses to frame those infamous bunkers. He admits, even today, that he’s not completely sure which grasses took root. They planted the mix, let it grow to seed, cut it down, pitchforked it out of the bunker and planted again. Whatever it is, you can’t deny the uniqueness of the look.

"It’s not European. It’s not American. It’s Merion,” Shaffer says.

Rough - Be able to find ball most of time, but have the grass trap between the club face and ball

Seventy percent of the water used at Merion goes to the rough. Shaffer, who hasn’t night-watered a green in 25 years, wants to firm up the rest of the course, and then devour golf balls that dare to stray offline.

To create that sticky rough, he overseeds with K31 to get that coarse texture and intended result of shots from the rough.

U.S. Open Tidbit – There was much more rough at the U.S. Open than ever before at Merion, with the USGA directing Shaffer to pinch fairways, adding seven additional acres of rough.

While history will tell us Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open, many feel Merion was the true champion. Will golf’s biggest championship return in the future? Time will tell, but Shaffer’s efforts have given renewed hope to similar courses who felt the size of the game had removed them from consideration.

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