DULUTH - The labor of love started almost 10 months ago.
TPC at Sugarloaf superintendent Mike Crawford and his staff began a major rough renovation last June at the Duluth golf course, with eyes on getting it ready for the year's marquee event, the PGA Tour's BellSouth Classic.
BellSouth week is finally here - practice rounds begin Monday and the tournament starts Thursday - and the Sugarloaf staff has the course, and its rough, ready to go. Fans watching on TV or in person will notice the changes immediately because the entire course is covered in vibrant green rye grass, unlike past April tournaments when the rough was brown, dormant Zoysia.
"My opinion is this is the best the golf course has ever looked, hands down," Crawford said.
PGA Tour golfers this week also will notice the improved aesthetics, but how Sugarloaf's new rough will affect play is more of a concern to them. With El Toro Zoysia grass rough in the past, the tournament staff couldn't overseed rye grass for the tournament because it altered the health of the Zoysia throughout the year.
So last summer Crawford and his staff killed all the Zoysia rough on the tournament front nine, stripped the grass up and replanted the rough with 419 Bermuda grass, which can handle overseeding without problems. Rye grass is now going strong along the fairways, making rough a factor for the first time in the BellSouth.
"When they get in the rough and get ready to hit a ball, they have to think a little bit now," Crawford said of BellSouth golfers. "When they hit in that Zoysia grass, it was sitting up. Really there was nothing penalizing about it. Now the ball's going to be sitting down a little bit. They're not going to know if they're going to get all the club on the ball, they may catch a flyer, they may catch it a little heavy or it may knuckle out of there.
"They just don't know what's going to happen. That's the rules officials, the people that run the competition, are looking for ... that extra element that we haven't had here."
Now the rough is certainly substantial, sitting at 2 inches deep for tournament week. It's just not brutal along the lines of club-tangling, four- to eight-inch U.S. Open rough.
But it likely will make a difference this week.
"The intent of this rough is not to make the golf course any more penalizing," Crawford said. "It's already difficult enough. I think 17 under (par) is the lowest score that's ever been shot here in a four-day period (at the BellSouth), with no rough and good conditions. You throw in rough and probably it's going to add a shot to each nine potentially.
"Speculation, I think somewhere around 12 under will win. If you get rain or really cold, it could get to single digits."
The Sugarloaf workers also renovated all the bunkers on the tournament front nine, created a few new bunkers and slightly moved some old ones. Other projects included adding new tees on No. 1, No. 5 and No. 10, as well as raising the front of the fifth green by four inches. The fifth hole is known for where Nick Price took a 10 after spinning (as many players do) shots off the front and back into the greenside creek.
But outside the new rough, the other most noticeable change for players will be at No. 9, typically the toughest hole in tournament play. In the past its small green sloped strongly left to right, dragging balls down to the greenside creek. Bad shots were penalized on that hole, but so were decent ones.
Now the ninth green is 2,000 square feet bigger and it has considerably less slope toward the creek. Tournament officials used to have two places to put the pin on that green - now they have five.
The many projects kept Crawford and his staff busy for the better part of a year, but this week makes the work worth it.
"The challenges that we went through were tough, the 12-, 14-, 16-hour days at times," Crawford said. "When you're doing that, you're saying, 'Wow this is hard work.' We love what we do, but still it's an awful lot of hard work to go through. When you get to tournament time, it's very fulfilling. It's our showcase for the year. We get to show our golf course on television all over the world."