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Blue skies may mean brown links

Northern California's extended drought could produce one big unplayable lie

A few weeks ago this item appeared on the Associated Press sports wire: "The drought that has afflicted northern California has placed in jeopardy the Pebble Beach Golf Links, site of the PGA national championship in August.

" 'We're hoping to be able to get enough water to water the greens and tees,' one highly placed PGA source said. 'There's no chance of watering the fairways. If we can get water for the greens, we'll be O.K. If not....' He didn't finish the sentence."

In mid-March there was rainfall in northern California, the first of any significance since early December and enough to dampen divots on parched fairways from Morro Bay to the Oregon border. Snow fell in the Sierra and water ran in the gutters of San Francisco. The "rainy" season was almost over, though, and the precipitation only temporarily alleviated the pressure on harassed golf-course superintendents. When a congressional subcommittee investigating drought conditions asked a National Weather Service hydrologist what it would take to bring California's water supply to normal levels this year, the hydrologist replied. "Extreme flooding over most of the state."

Golf fans may remember that the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, one of the first tournaments on the PGA tour each season—an event that is supposed to be storm tossed, wind lashed and precipitated upon—has been played under blue skies the last two years. Blue skies are fine for Southern California, where water planning is based on a semipermanent state of drought, but the north depends on rainfall and natural runoff from the rivers to fill its reservoirs and cannot survive too many blue skies in January.

Last year was bad enough, with runoff 40% of normal, but 1977 is turning into a disaster. In the same manner that California's earthquakes are measured against the quake of 1906, until now its droughts have been compared to that of 1924, when runoff was 28% of normal. This year, it has been predicted, runoff will be 18% to 25% of normal.

"We've just never seen two years this dry back to back before," says Lawrence W. Mullnix, head of the state water project.

"If we have another year like this one next year, we'll virtually lose control of our system," says David Schuster of the federal Central Valley Project. "We'd come right down to dead storage on our reservoirs."

In a few places that point has already been reached. One is Marin County, on the north side of San Francisco Bay, where residents have been on mandatory water rationing since Feb. 1. Another is the Monterey Peninsula, the site of some of the finest golf courses in the world. Since Feb. 19, individuals in the area served by the Cal Am Water Co. of Monterey have been rationed to 50 gallons a day, about one-eighth of their normal usage. The seven golf courses in this water-service area—Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Spyglass Hill, the Monterey Peninsula Country Club's shore and dune courses, Old Del Monte and Pacific Grove Municipal—have been restricted to 50% of the amount they used in the corresponding month last year.

They are lucky to have that much. At first, it was proposed to the state Public Utilities Commission that in view of the emergency, golf courses be cut to 20% of their usage. Quick reaction by the mayors of the affected towns and representatives of the tourist industry persuaded the commission and the citizenry that 20% was not enough to keep a course going and that, at least for the time being, the loss of the golf courses would be an economic disaster equal to that caused by the drought. Golf produces revenue second only to tourism in the area, and most of it stays right on the Peninsula.

Half rations will be enough to keep putting greens, collars and approaches—the prime real estate on a golf course—in good shape. With proper management, there will be enough for the tees, too, and, in some cases, the landing areas in the fairways. But the rough and the dispensable parts of the fairways, such as the first 150 yards or so off the tees, will have to be left to nature.

"We've used too dang much water in the past. We can get along with less," says William H. Bengeyfield, an agronomist who is the head of the USGA's Western region. "In the end we may have better golf courses because of it."

Indeed, the practice of overwatering in order to obtain greenness, abetted by automated watering systems, has promoted the growth of grass with shallow root systems—like the despised weed known as Poa annua. As long as the ground is damp, Poa annua thrives and renews itself semiannually. But while a dry period will cause grass with deeper roots, such as bent and Kentucky blue and the fescues, to enter a dormant state, it will kill the Poa annua. Because killing Poa is what superintendents spend considerable time trying to do anyway, the drought may prove one part blessing to nine parts curse.

For golfers, the Monterey Peninsula courses are in ideal condition nowadays. The fairways have dried out to the extent that they have the burnished look of a British seaside course, one never watered by man. A well-hit iron shot produces a soul-satisfying crunch as the club head bites into the turf, and the greens are fast and firm.

The superintendents are happy, too, but only for the moment. "We're getting compliments on our courses right now." says John Zoller of the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. "If we can keep our greens and trees watered, the consequences won't be too bad. Might even be an improvement."

Nobody knows how long the golf-course water allotment will continue. For one thing, public patience could run out at any time. Living on 50 gallons a day, which means collecting shower water in order to flush the toilet and pouring whatever is left on the azaleas, can get tedious. People who have watched their lawns die as sprinklers continue to keep golf courses alive might take the short view and cry. "Enough!" Or, Cal Am's water sources could begin to give out. increasing the desperation of the situation and making golf courses an unaffordable luxury even in a tourist economy.

Fearing a shutoff, the clubs have already investigated alternate sources of water. Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and the Monterey Peninsula Country Club have drilled 12 test holes among them, but 11 came up dry. "There doesn't seem to be much ground water on the Monterey Peninsula," says the MPCC's Zoller. "We drilled five holes and got one that can produce 70 gallons a minute. The quality is borderline, but if total restriction comes, it will keep us in business, although only for the greens."

Cypress Point's members have found a man down the coast south of Carmel who owns a creek and will sell them water when the time comes. The club plans to rent tank trucks to transport the water, but the amount available will be barely enough for the greens. Cypress Point is small and private and would survive a ban on watering better than Pebble Beach, a daily-fee course on which as many as 200 rounds a day are played.

"Two hundred divots from every fairway every day with no water to renew them, and Pebble Beach will look like the Battle of Hastings," says agronomist Bengeyfield.

Moreover, hauling water is costly. Monterey Peninsula normally will use 50,000 gallons per course, three times a week. At present, Zoller pays the water company 40¢ per 1,000 gallons. If he has to buy water from an independent supplier in the Carmel Valley, the price will be 8¢ a gallon plus $30 an hour for hauling.

While the cost of keeping the greens and fairways alive may seem high, the cost of letting them die would be higher. Resodding 18 greens, for instance, would cost about $27,000 plus labor, and the new sod would need at least a month to take hold. Even then, the greens probably would be bumpy for as long as a year. Disc reseeding is cheaper, but the greens would be virtually unplayable for three to five months. If the fairways need reseeding, the cost would approach $20,000 per course, and it would take from two to eight months for the turf cover to return.

Should the drought persist through next winter, there is no doubt that all golf courses will be cut off from the water supply. Zoller hopes to get through this summer without further restriction. "The water company is depending on wells," he says. "There is no storage at all. If the wells maintain their present efficiency, we could make it."

In any case, the next step, everyone agrees, is toward effluents. A golf course that abuts on a sew-age treatment plant counts itself lucky these days. The Olympic Club in San Francisco and some municipal courses are already using secondarily treated non-industrial effluents for irrigation. Says Bengeyfield, "It is a great source and a cheap source. The ground is the best purifier of poor water."

Del Monte Properties, which owns Pebble Beach and two other courses, investigated such a hookup with a treatment plant in nearby Carmel, but logistical problems and the maze of health regulations proved discouraging. "But effluents are in the future for all of us," says Zoller.

In the meantime, with or without water, and definitely without a sturdy stand of rough, the PGA Championship will begin at Pebble Beach Aug. 11. The PGA says it has never considered moving it anywhere else. "The PGA doesn't believe in a penalizing rough anyway," says a PGA official. "Because of the links' structure at Pebble Beach, we know it will play right."

With USGA rough at Pebble Beach in 1972, Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open with rounds of 71-73-72-74—290, which is two over par. This year, because of the drought, there was no rough for the Crosby. On the last day, when the entire field played Pebble Beach, more than half shot par or better.

The 1977 PGA Championship may well be a major tournament in need of an asterisk.


Depleted reservoirs, like Los Padres, located in the upper Carmel Valley, have forced water companies to severely ration their supplies.