PGA TOUR RBC Canadian Open

Water and a delicate ecosystem make the RBC Canadian Open at challenge

Glen Abbey Golf Club (Golf Canada/ Bernard Brault)

Andrew Gyba knew that taking the superintendent’s position at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont., came with a series of unique challenges. First of all, Glen Abbey, a Jack Nicklaus design that opened 40 years ago, was partly built on a flat plain, with the most interesting holes plunging into a river valley where air circulation and light have been a challenge since the course’s inception. But more than that, Gyba had no experience preparing a golf course for a PGA Tour event, and, as practically anyone who follows golf in this country knows, Glen Abbey was created for the RBC Canadian Open, and has hosted the tournament regularly throughout its history.

“You hear the horror stories about how difficult the tour will be to deal with,” Gyba says. “And they knew I was coming in with zero experience at a PGA Tour event. But they offered a lot of help. They just want to put the best product out there for the week the tournament is here.”

This year Gyba faces interesting challenges. A spring with little rain has turned into a summer with nearly no precipitation. And water use is always a delicate balancing act for the Canadian Open.

“There was a time, I think, when the science of using water wasn’t really understood,” Gyba says. “What we’ve learned is that water can kill a course if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

How to create a playing surface—greens and fairways—that measure up to the consistency of what the PGA Tour’s best expect, while also allowing the course to be played in corporate events leading up to the tournament is a challenge. And how and when water is used is a key.

Bill Paul has seen it all when it comes to the Canadian Open. The long-time tournament director, who now works trying to locate or create venues for future tournaments, has attended or been part of every Canadian Open held at Glen Abbey since its first in 1977. Paul says the course’s conditions have always been a challenge, but they’ve improved as the years have passed.

“I think in the early days the guys were experts in their time,” says Paul. “But now the superintendents are better educated. The tour guys are better. And there’s more of a science to maintaining the course. They’ve certainly taken a really thoughtful approach to how water is used.”

Water has long been an issue for Glen Abbey, which is set in a residential community, with Sixteen-Mile Creek running through the valley holes. The course has a mix of holes that have poa greens, and others where newer bentgrass was used following the ice damage of 2014. It makes for an interesting mix and raises the question of how Gyba gets consistency out of two different types of grasses.

“How do you get a new bentgrass green to react the same as a 40-year old poa green?” he asks. “Speed comes from firmness. So everything is done by hand. We rarely water the greens—especially the low spots—by hand so we don’t overwater them.”

He says proper water management throughout the course is key.

“There’s a time when the science wasn’t understood—it was water all the time,” he says. “But what we’ve learned is that water can harm a course and we’ve got more appreciation for consistency. If you’re just turning the sprinkler heads on mindlessly, no golf course will hold it and the water distribution of your sprinklers will make the low points wet. You’re watering now for your wettest spot on a hole. You want just enough so a player won’t stand on it and find it squishy.”

Instead Gyba wants to water for the driest parts of the course. That means instead of watering at night, he irrigates at a minimum in the dark hours, with significant hand watering during the day. Then he uses he carefully monitors any watering in the morning. “I light up only the areas that are dry and get them to match up,” he says.

Paul says there were opportunities for the RCGA, which owned Glen Abbey until 1998, to redo the course’s greens with a newer bentgrass. For some reason they never pulled the trigger, and now Gyba deals with the mix of turf. Adding to the challenge is the microclimate created in the river valley where holes 11 through 15 run. Air circulation has long been a problem in the area, though Gyba says he manages the troublesome greens—namely the par 4 11th and par 3 12th—by using the alternate greens built for both holes.

One of the key issues facing Gyba is how he balances the demands on the course for the tournament with that of the regular members and corporate outings that dominate Glen Abbey for most of the year. How do you grow rough without turning a company outing into a six-hour blood bath where no one is happy? How do you keep the greens in the shape you need and be able to push them to speeds of more than 12 on the stimpmeter?

Gyba has most of this down. To deal with pitch marks on greens he keeps the putting surfaces relatively firm. He grows the rough to three inches for Monday of tournament week and allows it to naturally lengthen from that point.

“We are dialing the moisture percentages down and there’s a point where the green plays firm and fast, still has an adequate amount of water for the plant, and are resistant to ball marks,” he explains.

On the actual tournament week Gyba has a staff of 80, including other ClubLink employees and additional superintendents, to assist with his efforts. The PGA Tour sends Harry Schuemann, one of its agronomists for competitions, to the Abbey regularly. While many pundits and outside observers feel the PGA Tour has mishandled club courses by forcing them to grow the rough too high—only to cut it down tournament week, Gyba hasn’t any issue. He says the tour spent more time with him when he was new to the Abbey, but that they’ve helped him put forward the best course available.

“They want the best possible product they can put out there, and they are incredibly understanding,” he says. “They look at the means you have, and say what they’d like. But then they work within those parameters.”

What does Gyba want? He wants the course to be a little brown, with the fairways turning colour as the week goes on.

“You want to have some aesthetic appeal,” he says. “But in a perfect world on Monday you’d be green tee to green. And then we turn the water off and as the day goes, some of the humps and mounds start to turn. That’s not the end of the world. We’re never going to be Chambers Bay at the U.S. Open. I think the players appreciate how we keep the golf course.”

Sure he hears criticism when Bubba Watson or Jason Day smash a drive 350 yards on 17 or 18, but Gyba says that’s balanced out by the firmness of other areas of the course.

“I’ll have people say ‘Are you kidding me, Bubba hit it 380 on 18?’ But that makes no difference,” he explains. “If you make him respect the approach shot and worry about the downhill putt, then you’re making the course work the way it should.”

In the end, Gyba says running the tournament at Glen Abbey remains a thrill, even if tournament week is tiring. Paul, who has seen numerous superintendents work the tournament, says the experience is invaluable, and benefits both the course and the golfers who play it.

“One thing is clear,” Paul says, “when the Canadian Open leaves a tournament, the super will be better at his job and his members will have a better golf course.”

This article appears courtesy of the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association and initially appeared in the organization’s magazine, On Course.