LONDON, Ont. – Winter was not kind to the London Hunt and Country Club, and Stacy Lewis heard stories about the poor condition the course was in.
But when the No. 1-ranked golfer on the LPGA Tour arrived for this week’s Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, she didn’t notice the effects of the snow and cold weather.
“The fairways are probably some of the best fairways we’ve had to hit off all year,” Lewis said. “You really can’t tell.”
Sixteen of 18 greens were unplayable, and course superintendent Jayson Griffiths said four or five were “over 90 per cent injured,” including the 18th hole. Of the four acres of greens, three of them were gone.
Players who walked the course in recent weeks could tell there had been damage, and they raved about the improvement.
“Coming into this week I was pleasantly surprised of how well (the greens) were rolling,” Canadian amateur Brooke Henderson said Wednesday. “I can’t imagine the amount of work they must have put in to get this course in such immaculate condition.”
Griffiths said it took “countless hours.” Those were spent preparing, seeding, watering, maintaining and waiting.
The result was something he is proud of going into this tournament, which features nine of the top 10 players in the world.
“It’s just a humbling experience, it really is, and it’s just a lot of hard work,” Griffiths said Tuesday. “I don’t think there was a weekend where both Brent McDougall and Deb (Dale), my assistant, left this golf course. We were watering from morning till night if need be. It was 24/7, 14 weeks to get here. It was just a lot of extraordinary efforts.”
Griffiths began to realize in November how bad a winter this could be, and over time he saw the “worst-case scenario” develop. With the ground frozen “well below four feet” and no irrigation system as a result, he and his staff had a three-day window in April to get the greens back up to par.
A crew of about 18 people seeded, germinated, watered the greens through 10,000-square-foot covers and waited. For a while, the course had just two greens to play on and 16 temporary ones, and members only got to play all of them beginning June 27.
“We keep calling it the fifth season: patience,” Griffiths said “We know that foot traffic on new seedlings, it just would not work. We would not be where we had if we had traffic.”
By the time players saw the course this week, it was tournament-calibre again. That’s essential with a field that features Lewis, LPGA Championship winner Inbee Park, two-time defending champion Lydia Ko and Suzann Pettersen, the top four players in the world.
Tournament director Brent McLaughlin of Golf Canada said the field is “second to none,” as usual.
“We obviously want the best,” he said on a conference call last week. “We are so lucky to have a long laundry list of such great players.”
Among the top-10 women’s golfers, only 2010 champion Michelle Wie is not here. Wie withdrew last week because of a hand injury.
Wie’s absence makes it a bit easier of a tournament on the other top players, but Ko – who won this event the past two years, in Edmonton and Vancouver – would like to beat the best.
“We would never say that, ‘Oh it’s good that she’s out,”’ Ko said on a conference call. “It’s really unfortunate that she has a fracture. She’s such an awesome player, and it would’ve been great to have Michelle there.”
Eight former champions will tee off Thursday: Ko, LPGA Championship runner-up Brittany Lincicome, Pettersen, Katherine Hull-Kirk, Cristie Kerr, Meena Lee, Karrie Webb and Laura Davies. Kerr won this tournament in 2006, the last time it was at London Hunt and Country Club.
How the course plays out the rest of the week, Griffiths said, will depend on how much it rains. Storms moved through the area Wednesday, and there were more in the forecast for Friday.
Ko, a 17-year-old from New Zealand who seems to bring her best golf to Canada, said no matter the weather it’s important to play the course’s giant greens as if they’re in sections.
“If the pin is on the left side you kind of want to think that the green is only that left half,” she said Wednesday. “But it’s going to be tough especially when you miss a couple shots, because even around the greens it’s not like there is fairway and then rough. It’s just rough straight on.”
It’s a difficult course because of that, but Canadian Jennifer Kirby expects a low-scoring tournament.
“The rough is thick, but it’s not too, too bad,” Kirby said. “I think that the scores will be pretty low, but the greens are massive, so I guess it all depends on where they put the pins.”