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Smoke haze, ash all part of Australian Open challenges

Saturday 07, Dec 2019

Golf course management is all about dealing with challenges and Phil Beal has had to cope with many over a 30-plus year career as a course superintendent. However, he can’t quite recall the surreal conditions that have prevailed here at The Australian Golf Club this week as the course hosts its fourth Emirates Australian Open in six years. With bushfires raging across NSW, smoke haze has blanketed Sydney all week, just one curveball that Beal and the crew have had to contend with. The smoke was that thick earlier in the week that some of the crew, such as Marcus Strand (pictured), resorted to wearing face masks.

Every morning, the crew have had the backpack blowers on clearing the greens of ash which has settled over night prior to cutting. Indeed, look at The Australian’s mowers and utility vehicles and they are all covered in a thin veneer of black soot. And on top of that the greens have given Beal a few unwanted headaches as well… all part and parcel of tournament week.

Despite all the challenges - not to mention a very dry tournament lead-in - Beal’s crew has again showcased why Australian greenkeepers and turf managers are considered among the best in the business, presenting The Australian in superb condition. 2015 champion and home club hero Matt Jones has relished the conditions they have presented and after rounds of 67, 65 and today's 68 he takes a three-shot lead over American Cameron Tringale into tomorrow’s final round.

“The conditions have been pretty challenging to work in,” explains Beal. “The smoke haze was very bad earlier in the week and for the golfers the first round was probably the worst. It has cleared up since then, but it is still very visible.

“Some of the guys on the crew were and still are wearing masks while out on the course and quite rightly too. At one point on Tuesday after lunch I was considering bringing everyone in as the smoke was that bad. Every morning there has been ash everywhere, so we have had to blow off the greens before we cut. It’s amazing how much ash there is. I don’t think it’s had an effect on the greens but you just don’t know.

“The greens have been a little bit weird this week, more so than in previous years. We usually get into them on the Saturday morning before tournament week with a double cut at 2.8mm and the speed comes to straight away. But it didn’t this time. So we’ve been playing around with them all week trying to get some firmness in them and getting a consistent speed out of them.

“They haven’t had a good water for 9-10 days now and I wish now that I’d dumped them on Sunday. When they’ve started to dry out we’ve started to handwater them probably a little too much, so they’ve been a little bit softer than I would have liked and can’t get the speed as easily as in previous years. We have been single cutting and rolling to get the pace, but I don’t think the rolling is lasting all day. It has been a little frustrating, mainly because the rest of the golf course is absolutely pure which has been really pleasing.”

As mentioned in last week’s edition of The Cut, 28 course volunteers arrived last Saturday, taking tournament crew numbers up to 50 for the week. As well as a number of interstate superintendents, there is a strong international contingent present this year. Irishman Sean Breen, who is full-time on The Australian crew, has had his brother Chris riding shotgun for the week. Russell Lewis has journeyed from Hale Golf Club near Manchester in the UK and Max Hope has come all the way from Gleneagles in Scotland. UK greenkeeper Bill Whybrow has also returned for a second crack, having volunteered the last time The Australian hosted the Open in 2017. The crew also includes two female turf managers – Martyna Synak, assistant superintendent at Oatlands Golf Club in Sydney, and WA-based Brittney Goldsworthy.

“The whole of this week has been superb,” reflects Beal. “The volunteers are a super bunch and we’ve got a great mix this year – a few course superintendents, some internationals and Martyna and Brittney here with us as well which is sensational. They have all gelled brilliantly and have gone about their work setting up the course so easily and seamlessly in the mornings. Having the course closed last Saturday and Sunday made it so much easier to get them around the course and show them their various tasks and since then they have smashed it. I couldn’t be happier with their efforts.”

The ASTMA congratulates Phil and the whole Emirates Australian Open course team on another great performance and wishes them all the best for their final round preparations which kick off at 4.15am tomorrow.