As Director of Agronomy at award-winning Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Ken Nice has a keen interest in the Open Championship. He and his staff take pride in providing Bandon’s guests the same firm, fast and bouncy playing conditions found at links courses like Royal Liverpool, where the claret jug will be presented on July 20. A native of Corvallis, Oregon and married to his wife Pam for 23 years, Nice has served as a superintendent for Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old McDonald following a stint as an assistant at Bandon Dunes. Despite the demands of his position at one of the world’s top golf destinations, he still manages to shoot in the low 80s. His best score is a 73 in 2003 at Pacific Dunes. During the winter, Nice is also the varsity basketball coach at Bandon High School. No matter the season, he knows the vagaries of fortunate and odd bounces off hard, dramatic and sporting surfaces. A GCSAA member for 17 years, Nice was interviewed by The Grain’s Terry Moore.
When someone is watching the Open Championship, what would you want the average golfer to appreciate?
I want them to notice how the ball is releasing and moving on the ground. A shot’s adventure continues when it hits the ground. You don’t know how and where the ball will bounce. The galleries overseas rightly applaud a three-iron that is struck well short of the approach and ends up thirty feet from the hole. The release and roll of the shot has to be calculated into the equation and it’s wonderful to watch. In the U.S., galleries like the wedge shot that hits the green and spins back toward the flagstick. Links courses may not appear to be the prettiest at times. There are more shades of brown than shades of green and that’s a good thing.
What’s the super’s regimen for fast, firm and bouncy turf found at Bandon Dunes and at the Open Championship?
We’re certainly blessed with several favorable elements. One, is the moderate climate that is conducive to fine fescue grass. Secondly, the soil conditions here are excellent: sandy, free draining material throughout the resort. Thirdly, we keep the fertility way down so you’re not growing a lot of organic matter. And finally dilute whatever organic matter you are producing with a regular top-dressing program.
At Bandon as well as other links courses, we’re not trying to optimize yield as if it were a crop. Instead, we’re trying to produce conditions for a turf’s surface. In short, we want the surface to hold up to and recover from every day golf traffic but really not much more than that.
How important is it for a superintendent to be a decent golfer and able to understand the nuances of the game?
It’s absolutely important. All of us here at Bandon are golfers. We know exactly what we’re trying to produce in terms of a surface. We try to play weekly so we can monitor the conditions and note if any areas are getting too soft. We want to know that the approaches are bouncy and are as firm as the greens. We want to see if we can putt from well off the green, if that’s an option. We often ask ourselves at a given hole, “Can I putt this ball even if I’m a hundred yards from the hole?” That’s the “fast” test of the firm and fast equation.
How else do you measure true links golf?
A golfer should be able to bounce a wedge or bump some iron into the approach and have it release consistently onto the green. We always keep an eye on that aspect. We’re creating a surface for golf, creating a surface for a game. We’re not necessarily making the course pretty or green but obviously you want grass everywhere. It’s the playing characteristics that are the #1 priority.
What overseas links courses have you visited and how have they inspired your work?
I haven’t been to Royal Liverpool, the venue for this year’s Open Championship, but I’ve visited a number of great links courses such as St. Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Dornock, Royal County Down, Ballybunion and Royal Portrush, to name a few.
From a playing perspective, these great courses and their surfaces deliver a powerful message. And I refer back to them often as we continue to strive for authentic links playing conditions. I want to go back to Castle Stuart in Inverness, Scotland designed by Gil Hanse. A friend of mine, Chris Haspell, is the Head Greenkeeper. The two of us report back and forth to one another about managing fescue. Castle Stuart is a modern links course that serves as a good comparison to what we’re trying to accomplish at Bandon,
Speaking of fescue, how do you manage your greens?
With fine fescue you must have the discipline to keep your hands off it. It can handle a very low fertility situation and dry conditions but it doesn’t want a lot of surface disturbance. In other words, we’re not verticutting, watering and grooming it like bent grass or poa annua. Fescue is at the opposite end of the maintenance spectrum.
On our greens, we don’t mow them as low as many other courses. Our mowing heights are almost double the heights of most courses. Due to fescue’s tolerance level, we stay above two tenths of an inch all the time. Yet we can still keep our green speeds up in a range acceptable to modern golfers—between 9 and 11 on the stimpmeter.
How did you get started in the business?
It’s funny how things work out because I got into the golf business a little late. I went back to school and Oregon State University’s turf management program at age 30 and earned my degree at 32. I had an avid interest in the game and was always fascinated watching the British Opens telecasts and the rugged nature of the courses. After Oregon State, I took a job at Astoria G & CC on the north coast of Oregon. It was the closest thing for me at the time to linksy seaside golf. Two years later, I took the assistant superintendent’s position at Bandon Dunes. My passion for links golf and the British Open made a difference and certainly got me here.
Whom do you admire in the golf business?
There are so many people I admire from Tom Cook, my professor at Oregon State, to our visionary owner Mike Keiser, that it’s difficult to list them all. But in terms of an agronomic and greenkeeping model, the lessons of the late Jim Arthur (author of the seminal Practical Greenkeeping) have been very influential. Arthur worked 18 years for the Royal & Ancient and advised on the maintenance of hundreds of British courses in his career. Arthur taught me a simple maintenance recipe of not over-loving your turf grass.
Image courtesy of Bandon Dunes