Eyes on the Green

Traveling around the windswept golf course called The Straits, with its massive greens of bentgrass and rumpled, horizon-bound fairways of fescue, it’s easy to see why course manager Michael Lee BS’87 would arrange to keep his own yardwork to a minimum.

“My lawn takes me 20 minutes,” says Lee. It’s a cool spring morning, and we’re bouncing his pickup around the stunning environs of The Straits, one of two Kohler Company 18-hole courses that comprise Whistling Straits on the shores of a steely-surfaced Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

“I have mostly mulch and woody ornamentals,” Lee says of his home lawn. “Everything I have to do for weed control I can do while I mow my lawn.”

This is in great contrast to the daunting challenge Lee faces in maintaining what has been deemed one of the country’s great championship golf courses.

And now the task has become almost herculean. The Straits, built and owned as part of The American Club by the Kohler Company, is hosting the prestigious PGA Championship this summer. From August 10 to 16, the eyes of the world will be on that course.

Though Lee will be toiling anonymously that week, guiding a staff of hundreds, his hard-earned skills as a golf course manager will be very much on display. Few, however, will truly understand what Lee and his staff do behind the scenes to maintain fairway and tee and rough and allow the television cameras to create what, in effect, is golf course art on our screens—sweeping vistas of perfectly tended dune and grass and emerald greens, with the big lake shining in the background.

But more than artful views are at stake. Lee, personable and easygoing and quick to smile, stands up well to pressure, those who know him say. And pressure there will be.

The PGA Championship, which dates back to 1916, is one of the most heralded events in golf. Each of the last two PGA Championships played at Whistling Straits, in 2004 and in 2010, drew upward of 300,000 people, and millions of households around the world tuned in to television broadcasts. The Wisconsin economy benefited to the tune of more than $76 million for each of the tournaments.

Lee is the first to say he could not shoulder the responsibilities of preparing The Straits for such worldwide scrutiny without plenty of help. And one of the places he counts on most for guidance in dealing with the course’s fussy turf is his alma mater, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—and, more specifically, the CALS-affiliated O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility, named for Oyvind Juul Noer, a CALS alumnus and one of the earliest internationally known turfgrass agronomists.

The facility, where scientists use tools ranging from high-powered microscopes to lawn mowers, opened in Verona, Wisconsin, in 1992 as a partnership between the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, the University of Wisconsin Foundation, and the CALS-based Agricultural Research Stations.

Toiling in its maze of test plots, often on their hands and knees, are researchers who study everything from insects and soil to plant disease. For Lee, they are like a staff of doctors who can, at a moment’s notice, diagnose what is ailing a green or a fairway and prescribe a treatment. The Kohler Company (like many other golf course operators) contracts with the facility annually for these services.

Before and during the PGA championships, that role becomes even more crucial. The university specialists help Lee keep disease and insect problems at bay throughout the year. But in the weeks leading up to the championship they become his urgent care clinic, providing immediate help if something suspicious shows up. During the week of the championship they staff on-site, portable laboratories.

“We’re kind of at Mike’s beck and call,” says Bruce Schweiger BS’84, a CALS plant pathology researcher who serves as manager of the Turfgrass Diagnostics Lab housed at O.J. Noer. “If he calls, we’ll be there. We’re CSI Turf! That’s who we are.”

Of course, such high-profile events are just a small—albeit exciting—part of the facility’s wide-ranging mission. And you certainly don’t have to be running a world-class golf course to seek help from the scientists at O.J. Noer.

The turfgrass industry is a $1 billion-a-year business in Wisconsin and keeps about 30,000 people in jobs. Chances are, if you manage a sod farm or a park, maintain an athletic field, try to keep a 9-hole golf course at the edge of town up and running, or just wonder why your lawn looks like a bombing range, you could benefit from expert advice.

Paul Koch BS’05 MS’07 PhD’12, a CALS professor of plant pathology and a UW–Extension turf specialist who once worked as an intern for Lee, says the broad reach of the CALS turfgrass program, throughout the state and the country, is a fine example of the Wisconsin Idea at work.

“Just think of all the mom-and-pop golf courses around the state,” Koch says. “There are all these excellent little 9-hole courses. The owners have to manage their problems within the confines of the budgets they have. They really rely on our experts.”

Lee, preparing his course for the world stage, takes full advantage of the sharing of knowledge upon which the Wisconsin Idea is based. He long ago learned how important the concept is to people in all corners of the state. It was part of his education at UW–Madison, he says. Lee graduated in 1987 with a degree from CALS in soil science, specializing in turf and grounds management. He also worked as a student hourly helping conduct research in the Department of Plant Pathology.

Lee credits that education and several crucial golf course jobs—including five years as assistant superintendent at the Blue Mounds Golf and Country Club in Wauwatosa—with equipping him to handle the rigors of managing a course such as The Straits.

It was mostly his work afield at CALS that best prepared him, Lee says. He remembers long days spent crawling around test plots with a magnifying glass looking for diseases with names like dollar spot or nearly invisible insects such as chinch bugs. He literally learned his craft on the ground, he says.

“I learned the technical side of the business,” Lee says. “The need to know what’s going on at deeper and deeper levels.”

The willingness to work hard and learn has long been one of Lee’s most noticeable traits. At age 14, he went to work at the Blackhawk Country Club golf course in the Madison suburb of Shorewood Hills. His boss was Monroe Miller BS’68, now retired but for many years the respected and colorful superintendent at Blackhawk.

“He was a real special kid,” Miller says. “There were two things about Mike. He was smart and he had a great work ethic. He was probably never, ever, ever once, late for work.”

Miller recalls that off-season was always a time for catching up on chores such as painting. Around Thanksgiving in 1982, he told Lee and another young worker that among the jobs on their list was painting the inside of a pump station.

“They went down there on Thanksgiving Day and went to work,” Miller says. “I had to go down and kick them out so they would go home and spend time with their families.”

As for Lee, he says of Blackhawk and his apprenticeship with Miller: “I learned to work. I learned discipline.”

It was apparent even in those days, Miller says, that Lee had a special talent for everything to do with maintaining a golf course, from a love of the machinery to understanding the special care grass needs to become the meticulously groomed stage necessary for the game.

“Mike is one of those guys you could call a turfgrass clairvoyant,” Miller says.

Whistling Straits is a world unto itself, a haunting landscape that seems to have been dropped from the ancient countryside of the British Isles onto the Lake Michigan shoreline. That was exactly the intent of Kohler Company CEO Herbert Kohler and legendary golf course designer Pete Dye when they created both The Straits and The Irish, the other 18-hole course on the property.

The Straits, especially, evokes the rugged environs of renowned seaside courses such as the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, frequent site of the British Open. These are known in the golfing world as links courses, dramatically different from the grassy, intensely manicured courses most Americans are familiar with. Greens are connected less by fairways than by long reaches of rugged, seemingly unkempt terrain pocked by deep, cylindrical bunkers known as pot bunkers. These are another naturally occurring feature of the old courses, terrifying hazards into which unlucky golfers can disappear for long moments before chopping their wayward ball out again.

The old links courses in Ireland, Scotland and England are characterized by a coastal topography of dune and scrub-covered ridges. They evolved as the setting for a terribly frustrating game called golf because they were good for little else other than grazing the sheep that chomped away while early golfers swung away.

Though some may associate the word “links” with linked golf holes, the word actually comes from Old English and predates the game. It is the name given to that particular harsh and scrubby landscape behind a beach.

This is the world that Dye wanted to create with The Straits. He started with a wasteland along the shore of Lake Michigan, a flat and dismal area that had been the site of a military antiaircraft training range. He ordered up 7,000 truckloads of sand and went to work.
What emerged was a course of bluff and dune along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline with holes named Gremlin’s Ear and Snake and Cliff Hanger and Widow’s Watch and Pinched Nerve. Each hole has a view of the lake. There are four stone bridges and a stone clubhouse that looks as though it were transported rock by rock from the Scottish countryside. A flock of Scottish blackface sheep roam the grounds.

“We had to hire a shepherd,” Lee says. “Sometimes one of the sheep gets lost and we all have to look for it. You can spend hours out there looking for that one last sheep. It’s like something straight out of the Bible.”

But few characteristics connect The Straits to the old-style links courses more strongly than the wind. Lee, traveling the course, seemed almost always aware of the wind off the big lake.

“Out of the north today,” he says, during our drive. “Look at those waves.”

The wind gave the course its name. Herbert Kohler was walking the property during construction and, apparently teetering in a steady gale that whistled along the course’s heights and raised whitecaps on the lake, the name came to him very naturally.

The attention to detail in the course’s design, construction and maintenance has impressed the world’s best golfers. Lee keeps a file of comments from professional golfers, and he pulled out one from Tom Lehman, three-time winner of the PGA’s Player of the Year, who was interviewed about the course during the 2004 PGA Championship.

“It’s quite a feat of construction,” Lehman said. “I mean, it’s quite a vision they had . . . This golf course is almost otherworldly.”
Lehman also spoke of the course’s ruggedness. Players and spectators alike generally come off The Straits exhausted, Lee notes. During the 2010 championship he spent part of his time giving rides to exhausted spectators worn out by walking the up-and-down course.

Lee enjoys banging around the course in his truck, sharing its charms and its quirks, especially now as preparations for this summer’s championship are well under way. On one jaunt he points out the paths that are designed like narrow country lanes (no carts here; every golfer walks with a caddy). He pauses at the large staging areas for gravel and sand that will serve as platforms for the big corporate suites and viewing stands.

The course is being set up, Lee says, to make it more spectator-friendly, with better walking areas and viewing locations that place golf fans close to the action.

And Lee shares an interesting and somewhat startling detail that, upon reflection, makes perfect sense for a course owned by the Kohlers of bathroom fixture fame. He stops his pickup truck and points to what looks like gravel along the side of the road.
“We used crushed toilets to make that,” Lee says matter-of-factly, but with a faint smile playing on his face.

On this early spring day, the bentgrass on the greens and the fescue in the fairways has yet to begin changing from winter’s browns to the green of spring. But that green will soon enough begin creeping across the course—and Lee will be paying close attention to any disease or other problems that may try to establish a foothold.

For Lee and his staff, preparation for the PGA Championship has been going on for years: the close monitoring and treatment for disease and insects, the careful maintenance of the course throughout the playing season, when Lee’s crews are out morning and night raking, mowing and grooming.

Staff with the PGA have been on the site for two years, working from a large office trailer and keeping track of preparations, figuring out such details as where structures are going to go and where ropes will be placed to guide and control spectators.

The PGA course conditioning guidelines for championship competition give some indication of just how much attention to detail is necessary—consistent green speeds that are calculated with an instrument called a stimpmeter, mowers that are very precisely calculated to mow greens between .150 and .100 of an inch, the required use of bunker sand with grains that are measured so that no more than 25 percent of them are .25 mm or smaller.

“We go out all day with the guys from the PGA,” says Lee. “We’ve learned to pack a lunch.”

So it’s easy to see why Lee’s relationship with the experts at CALS becomes even more important as the championship draws near. Though Lee is adept at dealing with most of the challenges turf has to offer, the researchers at the Turfgrass Diagnostics Lab can often spot problems that remain invisible to most.

Back at the lab, Bruce Schweiger remembers puzzling over disease samples sent in by another client. To the client, the problem looked like dollar spot, but Schweiger knew that was not the issue. CALS entomology professor and UW–Extension specialist Chris Williamson was working nearby, and Schweiger asked him to take a look.

“Oh,” Williamson said. “Ants.”

It turned out that Williamson had done research on the problem some time before and had discovered that, during the mating season, some ant species go to war. They attack each other by spraying a nerve toxin that contains formic acid. That acid burns the turf and leaves lesions that look suspiciously like dollar spots, Schweiger recounts.

Such are the strange problems that could arise to plague Lee and his crew as they tend the course during the championship.

And those worries are on top of the intense maintenance that requires around-the-clock diligence once the event begins. Most crew members stay on-site working hours on end during championship week, Lee says, sleeping in big shelters set up for that purpose, snoozing in reclining chairs and watching the golf action on television screens.

Plant pathologist Paul Koch worked during the 2004 championship as an intern on one of the two- and three-person green crews that are charged with caring for a particular green and making sure during the week that it is cut morning and night and maintained to the PGA’s exacting specifications.

Sometimes, Koch says, that requires a cut of a mere sliver, no more than the depth of three credit cards or so stacked one upon the other.

One damp early morning during the championship, Koch recalls, Lee dispatched crews to squeegee the dew from tees. Koch was met during the chore by one of the professional golfers, who marveled at what Koch was doing.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe you guys are doing this so that we don’t have to walk in dew,’” Koch recalls.

Through the entire championship, Koch says, Lee remained cool and collected.

Of course, going into the week of a championship, Lee has already made sure there is little that can go wrong. A recent tour of the course included a visit to the maintenance building garage, located just outside the door from Lee’s spartan office (aerial shots of the course being the most elaborate decoration).

Lee walked to one of the 60 big mowers lined up and gleaming in neat rows. He tilted one up and suggested running a finger across one of the blades.

It was razor sharp.

Learn more at the following websites:
O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility: http://ojnoer.ars.wisc.edu
Whistling Straits: www.americanclubresort.com/golf/whistling-straits
PGA Championship: www.pga.com/pgachampionship