ATLANTA — The good news at East Lake Golf Club, site of the PGA Tour Championship, is that the greens, while far from perfect, are certainly playable.
“When we were told at Cog Hill that the greens down here were not in good shape, I think everyone expected them to be really bad, but they aren’t,” said John Rollins, who is 23rd in the FedEx Cup points race. “I expected it to be a lot worse than it really is. On a scale of one to 10 with 10 being a train wreck, I’d rate them a six, maybe a seven.”
The Atlanta area, along with the rest of the southeastern United States, has been suffering through a heat wave and a severe drought. The average high temperature in Atlanta in August was 96 degrees.
The greens at East Lake are bent grass, which Tour pros like because the surface tends to be very smooth, but the grass does not do well in hot weather. It prefers cooler climates and lots of airflow. Previously, when the Tour Championship was played in late October, the summer’s stress on the greens was a distant memory, and they played fast and silky in the cool fall air. But the new mid-September date for this tournament is forcing East Lake to switch to Bermuda grass, which thrives in the heat, before next year’s Tour Championship.
Mike Crawford, the greens superintendent at the TPC at Sugarloaf in nearby Duluth, Ga., is working this week as a volunteer at East Lake. “We’ve really been growing cool-weather grasses in this area,” he said, “but with technology you can do it.”
Crawford was overseeing a crew that was applying green sand to the second green early Wednesday morning. The goal was to fill in the depressions and the areas where the grass died to make the putting surface as level and smooth as possible. The greens will likely not be mowed during the tournament, Crawford said, so don’t look for them to get too quick.
The forecast calls for cooler weather this week in Atlanta, with highs expected to be in the high 70s and low 80s. With liberal watering, there is little risk of increased damage to the putting surfaces. But how will the putts roll? It depends whom you ask.
Tiger Woods did not complain about the greens in his press conference Wednesday, but he made it clear that he is not a fan of slow putting surfaces. Woods, who ranks 10th in putting average on the PGA Tour, is a perfectionist who prefers putting on fast greens.
“It takes creativity, it takes touch, it takes feel, and you have to start the ball on-line with the correct speed,” he said. “When you get bumpy greens, that’s kind of out the door. You can make a mistake on a putt and pull it, push it, hit it the wrong speed and it can go in. Or you can hit wonderful putts and have them not go in.”
The thought of putting on greens that are less than perfect doesn’t seem to worry the man Woods will play with Thursday and Friday, Steve Stricker, who is ranked fourth in putting average. “I’ve putted well on bad greens; I’ve putted well on good greens,” he said Wednesday. “I think if you are going to putt well, you find a way to do it.”
“These greens aren’t awful. I mean, they’re not like a normal Tour week green, but they roll fairly good,” Stricker continued, adding that slow, soft greens usually yield low numbers.
Jim Furyk, who was the runner-up to Adam Scott last year at the Tour Championship, said, “I think that the greens will probably look good on TV, but I think they are going to put the pins in spots that are well away from the areas where there is a lot of sand. You can tell how weak they are when you repair a divot. There is just no root structure under the ground.”
When asked what it will take to be successful on East Lake’s greens this week, Rollins, walking off the sixth green, may have said it best. “Everybody has got to putt on the same stuff. Some will bounce in the hole and some will bounce out. You’ve just got to be patient.”