TPC Sawgrass: Just how do they mow that island green?
Jeff Plotts of TPC Sawgrass
The latest edition of BIGGA's monthly magazine, Greenkeeper International features a conversation with Jeff Plotts to discuss the maintenance of TPC Sawgrass, including the famous 17th hole and how the change to the PGA Tour in schedule has had a massive impact on course set-up ahead of The Players Championship this weekend.
Being at the headquarters of the PGA Tour, I imagine you have some large resources to draw upon?
We have a rather large team, but we also have 36 holes and a very large landscape department. The team is roughly 105 people, including our shop team, landscape team and both golf courses.
During championship week, we’ll have roughly 90 volunteers from all over the world, with 14 different countries represented. It’s a very diverse group that comes together to pull this championship off, but we need them all in order to pull off an event of this magnitude.
Some of those volunteers come from the UK, including the BIGGA members who form the John Deere Volunteer Programme each year. How do you blend all of those different nationalities together into a team?
We all speak the same language when it comes to golf course maintenance. We may come from different areas of the world, we may even speak different languages, but when we get on the golf course, we all speak the same language.
The fun thing about pulling us all together is that we realise we’re really not that different from one another at all.
What is an average day like at TPC Sawgrass?
Well, it’s just like every other facility and we start the morning off by preparing the course for play. We’re open 365 days a year.
We get out and prepare the greens, first thing, and tend to the bunkers, tend to the golf course, and get ready for our first tee times on both golf courses. In that sense it’s no different to any other facility across the world.
Then we move towards projects, to try to get one step better than we were yesterday. That’s our goal. We’re not looking to be successful every day, we’re just looking to be one step better than we were yesterday and that’s how we build on success.
The expectations here, though, are enormously high. The people who play the Stadium Course are expecting The Players’ experience…
That’s right. And, no question, we want it to be championship-ready every day. It becomes easier for us to prepare for The Players Championship if we have the mentality of being championship‑ready every day.
Obviously weather, growth conditions and those types of things play into whether we achieve that and in truth we can’t be championship-ready every day. But if we have the mindset to have that condition, to have that detail, every single day, then getting prepared for the championship becomes that much easier.
Being around PGA Tour headquarters and the amount of professionals, VIPs and special guests that come, we need to be at that level. You know it’s a special, special, place. It’s a beautiful place.
Is there a huge shift from preparing every day and preparing for The Players?
The biggest thing I try to share with people that’s different from the championship week, compared to every other day, is just repetition. Our repetitions get picked up more. We mow all the short grass more often than we would for any other day.
Generally, we’re at the heights that we want to be at every day ‑ if the weather allows us. We want to be at championship speeds for our guests, but if weather can’t allow that, or we’re prepping for a tournament, we may not be there. But, if we can be there, we will.
It’s all about repetition and that gets ramped up for the championship.
Take me through what’s in the shed…
We’re 100% a John Deere fleet. We walk mow all our greens with an 18‑inch walk mower and we are prepping our approaches and tees with a 26‑inch walk mower.
All our fairways are cut with a 2500 triplex unit, which some people mow greens with. But we’re mowing our fairways with that.
All our rough inside the ropes is being mowed with a hand rotary mower ‑ just so we can be really clean.
March poses a little bit of a challenge for us. In late February, the live oak trees are shedding their leaves, so we want to be able to mow the rough and collect the clippings. The best way we found to do that was with a small hand rotary mower. We have a very large fleet of hand rotary mowers that we can use to mow the rough. These act almost like a vacuum cleaner for the rough and help stand the rough up a little bit better than a larger unit does.
The players that come back in March will see a very different golf course than they did last year. Take me through what’s been happening…
We overseeded the golf course in November with a blend of ryegrass and fine fescue.
It was 80% perennial ryegrass and 20% fine fescue to get over the Bermudagrass, which goes dormant in this part of the world during the spring.
We wanted to have grass that was actively growing and something that was very playable and manageable through the winter months leading up to the championship.
On the greens we overseeded with a poa tribe and velvet bent and aesthetically it’s much greener and more vibrant than Bermudagrass is in May. It was difficult to get the turf to really just pop, but we’ve managed it.
You overseeded the entire course, including fairways and rough areas. How has that process gone?
I think we’re right about where we need to be. You know, obviously, I’d like to see the weather get a little bit more on our side, a little bit more sunshine and temperatures to be somewhere around 75 to 80°F consistently. If we could see that we’d be in really good shape.
We’ll have to overseed every year, in November, preparing for March.
How do you maintain the 17th hole?
Sometimes we think we have to put a lifevest on guys that get up there to mow that. But it’s one of those iconic golf holes, obviously, and a lot of people want to come out and that’s what they want to see and that’s what they want to play.
It gets a lot of extra traffic. When you get a hole that receives a lot of extra traffic, it becomes a difficult hole to manage. If you’ve seen it right now, we put a walkway around the back of that green and that kind of stumps people when they see it for the first time.
But it’s just for us to manage the entry and exit points on that green throughout the winter months, when we’re not growing as aggressively as we are during the season.
But that green is very small, so it takes a lot of shots. Most golfers that come here are going to keep hitting until they hit the green, or maybe even hit it twice. That means it has a lot of ballmarks and it’s a challenging green to manage, but our team does a really good job.
It’s very difficult to aerify. You have to be really careful and aerify in a certain way. It takes extra nutrients, just to go through some of the wear problems that we have.
This place has never looked better.— THE PLAYERS (@THEPLAYERSChamp) March 13, 2019
Grab your seats. The show is about to begin. pic.twitter.com/YHtQEQw4K9
With a single entrance and exit, and conditions not in your favour, do you have to be really careful with machinery on there?
Absolutely. That’s where the walkway we’ve created has really helped to balance some of that wear. We do a lot of roping and staking to try to help to keep people from having the tendency to walk in one direction every time. We have to manage the hole. You just can’t let it be.
The tee will get a lot of use as well…
The tee gets a lot of activity. There’s a lot of wedding photos that get taken out there. There’s a lot of extra photos that just happen on the golf course, so the tee gets a lot of wear.
It’s a beautiful golf hole but it holds up to it. Again, our team does a phenomenal job of understanding what that hole means and what it means to this facility and trying to maintain it accordingly. Even our landscape team gets involved on the 17th with the flowers around it. It's just a very important hole to us.
It takes a long time to get the flowers in and work through that process. There are 3,500 flowers just on the tree island. The team have to take a boat out there to fertilise it and make sure it’s tended to every day. That hole is just a really tough hole to manage, even though it doesn’t have a lot of turf.
Interview conducted by Steve Carroll of Sports Publications Ltd on behalf of BIGGA.
Greenkeeper International is the official magazine of BIGGA, the British and International Golf Greenkeeper Association, and is published on a monthly basis. It focuses on Greenkeepers and Course Managers throughout the greenkeeping profession. The magazine combines the latest news and new products with in-depth reports and analysis on issues of importance in golf course management.