Colonial course superintendent Ebers works with Mother Nature

Posted Sunday, May. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Fittingly for a man whose job leaves him at the mercy of weather, Scott Ebers finds the silver lining in the clouds.

The course superintendent who makes — and keeps — the grass green and plush at Colonial Country Club says going into this year’s Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial that the bermuda grass growth is about three weeks behind. That means the rough won’t be as high as he’d prefer.

But then again, this spring’s cooler and mostly dry weather has been great both for the bentgrass greens and for the work crews building up the infrastructure that comes with hosting the tournament.

The idea of “perfect weather” for a golf course depends on your perspective. For the greens? The fairways and rough? The work crews?

“There’s something always benefiting one part of it and getting you in the other end,” Ebers said with a what-can-you-do laugh.

There even is a trade-off on how the conditions will impact the golf.

Shorter rough would figure to help scoring this week. But the firmer greens Ebers anticipates should neutralize the more forgiving rough.

And even then, Ebers knows it’s what happens above the surface that ultimately will dictate what scores will be.

“To me, the biggest factor here at Colonial is wind,” said Ebers, entering his ninth tournament at Colonial. “In my time here, it’s by a mile — even more than the rough. We’d definitely like more rough to be a little more penal, but those guys are so good out of the rough now that I think the biggest factor here is wind.

“If the wind stays up or blows hard a couple of days, this golf course still has some teeth. Every time it blows, they shoot two or three under, and they’re happy with that. If the wind lays down, like with most golf courses, they eat it alive. They just eat it alive.”

That, however, is out of his control. And in a sense, as the grass guy, the pros eating the course alive is not completely a bad thing. Low scores, he said, are “in a backhanded way” a testament to the course’s conditions.

“If they shoot way under,” he said, “there’s some level of which you can’t do that on a bad golf course, especially bad greens. If our greens are good, they make putts from everywhere.”

‘Low’ and behold

Zach Johnson won last year’s tournament at 12-under par, matching the highest winning score at Colonial since 2004. Three years ago, with little or no wind blowing, Johnson won with a tournament record of 21-under.

Although Ebers hears voices around Colonial wishing for a return to when the winning score was in the 8- to 10-under range, he doubts that will happen because of how golf has changed.

“You don’t see those scores at most places on the Tour anymore,” he said. “You look at the great old golf courses — they’re hard golf courses. Muirfield, they shoot low numbers all the time. [Jack] Nicklaus has done all he can to make it harder, but if the wind doesn’t blow they’re going to shoot 18-under, 19-under.”

As for what Ebers can control, he gives the course a green thumbs up heading into the tournament despite what he called “the worst year for growing bermuda grass in my nine years here,” including recent stretches like the one where overnight temperatures were around 40 degrees.

“When it gets that cool that many days in a row,” Ebers said, “bermuda grass just stops.”

Even after temperatures warm up again, there still is a lag in the increase in soil temperatures. His crews have adjusted by adding more foliar fertilizer to the course than usual.

“We’re just kind of babying it,” he said. “But at some point, it’s really not doing anything. You’re doing it more because you know you should do something.”

As a result, Ebers hopes the rough will get to 21/4 inches for the tournament. He’d prefer it to be at 3 inches.

The silver lining is in the greens.

“They’re firmer than they’ve been this time of year the past few years,” he said. “Maybe they’ll stay firmer into the tournament, which would be great.”

Plans are for the greens, which are cut to under one-eighth of an inch, to maintain a stimp speed of 12.

That’s as fast as he believes the PGA Tour would want the greens because if the stimp speed reaches 13, certain pin placements would be lost.

“A foot difference from 12 to 13, even though our greens are pretty subtle, can be a huge difference in whether you can pin that spot or all of a sudden it’s not fair,” he said.

Keep ’em moving

Each year, the PGA Tour’s agronomist visits Colonial in March for a checkup and then returns about two weeks before the tournament. Ebers also works closely with the Tour’s rules staff.

“They’re really good to work with,” Ebers said. “They’re not dictatorial, and they don’t tell you what to do. They kind of help you kind of dial it in, make sure that you don’t go overboard in some areas more than anything.”

The goal, he said, is to keep the course where pace of play doesn’t become an issue. The Tour makes a priority of staying within its television time slots. Green speed comes into play there because the Tour doesn’t want greens so fast that the wind is moving balls and causing play stoppages for rulings.

Ebers reduces watering as the tournament nears and tries to cut out all watering during the tournament, again with pace of play in mind. The Tour prefers the course be firm and dry to avoid plugged lies and muddy balls that require rulings and slow play.

With eight Colonial tournaments under his belt, Ebers knows not only what Tour officials expect but also what they hope for, and he knows how to work toward those goals. That’s why although there is no such thing as perfect weather in preparing the course for a tournament, there is perfect weather for the tournament itself.

“I like it to stop raining about two weeks before the tournament and stay dry for a week or so afterward,” he said. “A dry tournament week makes for a quiet week, and dry afterward helps with the tearing down of the infrastructure and setting the entire course back up for member play.”

What he doesn’t want is a hot tournament, citing past years when 95-degree temperatures forced his crew to spot-water during play.

“You have a whole season of bentgrass and you have to have it for the membership, so you can’t just let it toast,” he said. “You’re cognizant of that. You do things sometimes during the tournament that you’d prefer not to, but you have to because of the bent.”

Fortunately, Ebers has experience on his side.

He admits he would have been more panicky if this year’s slow bermuda grass growth would have occurred during his first year at Colonial. But he has learned to accommodate himself more to Mother Nature and adjust to the conditions she dictates.

“I think I’m a little bit more adept than I used to be,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me as much. It still irritates me. But it doesn’t drive me nuts.”

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