I'm just a dirt farmer from upstate New York," Craig Currier told a well-wisher last week.
"Yeah," came the reply, "but it's a better class of dirt."
Currier's grin acknowledged the accuracy of that statement. Even in the dull overcast and rains that prevailed throughout the U.S. Open, the Bethpage Black course produced a bountiful harvest of praise. The players said the greens were as fast and true as any they had played, the roughs the densest in memory. The bunkers, all 12 acres of them, looked as if they had been raked by an army of Zen gardeners. "I've been around major tournaments since 1989," said Frank Rossi, a turfgrass specialist from Cornell, "and I doubt if there has ever been a finer-conditioned course."
The praise lavished on the course inevitably fell on Currier, who has been superintendent of the five courses at Bethpage State Park since 1997, when the USGA awarded the 2002 U.S. Open to Bethpage Black. "What Craig has done here is outstanding," said Tim Moraghan, the USGA's director of championship agronomy. "When he started, the fairways were mostly weeds, the bunkers were a disgrace and everything was overgrown. Now everybody says it's the best-conditioned U.S. Open course." Surprisingly the turnaround was accomplished by a young man who had not previously held a head superintendent's job. Course architect Rees Jones, when introduced to the tall, guileless Currier in 1997, had to ask how old he was. Currier answered, "Twenty-six." Jones smiled and said, "When the Open is over, you're going to be 41." Jones, who worked closely with Currier while renovating Bethpage Black, now hails him as a greenkeeper's greenkeeper. "I can't say enough about the guy. He's no excuses and all solutions."
Normally the superintendent at a major championship doesn't draw attention unless he provokes the golfers a la John Philp (who defended his brutal setup of Carnoustie at the 1999 British Open by saying, "Christ, [the players] don't know what a low ball is"). By its very nature the job enforces anonymity. Like a playwright the greenkeeper does his work before either the actors or the audience arrive; and like a janitor he has to clean up everything after the show. "I'm kind of overwhelmed by the attention we're getting," Currier said last week, carefully avoiding the use of the first-person singular. "Obviously we're happy that people like what we've done."
Currier was similarly low-key at 4:30 last Thursday morning, when he briefed his battalion of salaried workers and sleepy volunteers in the lunchroom of Bethpage's sprawling maintenance compound. Without preamble he went over mowing assignments, told the crew members who would be rolling the greens to "keep rollin' until you run out of time" and reminded everyone to use plastic rakes to fluff up trampled rough. "The last few days have been fun," he said. "Now we get to see some scores go on the board. This is what we've been waiting for."
Watching everyone pour out the door into the darkness, one could easily have mistaken it for D-day of a military operation. But to Currier, sliding behind the steering wheel of a flatbed utility vehicle, the analogy was overblown. "Everybody thinks this is such a hard week," he said. "This week is easy. The course is right where we want it, and I've got 110 guys who know what they're doing."
Only 110? It seemed like hundreds when, as first light suffused the eastern sky, Currier turned off Round Swamp Road and drove up to the 1st green. Four mowers cruised up the fairway in staggered formation, their cutters raised. ("We're mowing in only one direction from green to tee," Currier explained.) A half-dozen men with blowers and rakes worked around the fairway bunkers. In the distance, at the elevated 17th green, 15 or so more swarmed over a bunker complex of Pharaonic proportions.
Hopping out of his cart, Currier strode onto the 1st green, where USGA officials and a hole-cutting team were plotting cup locations. Handed a putter, Currier stroked three balls from 20 feet at the existing hole. He missed wide right, sent the next racing 12 feet past and rolled the last well to the left. "Glad I'm not playing today," he said, handing over the putter. Behind him a worker pushed a purring reel mower over the luxuriant fringe grass. Another worker, seated on a yellow speed roller, scooted sideways from one side of the green to another.
"Flat greens," someone muttered sarcastically. A ball on a test roll was veering as if attracted by a magnet.