If you have the good fortune to watch the Masters in person this year, you may notice—as you wander the grounds with your mouth hanging open—that there are metal grates in a number of the greenside mounds. Those grates, and the mechanical hum that periodically emanates from them, are not proof that the tournament is a Matrix-like simulation created by green-jacketed aliens; instead, the grates provide ventilation for Augusta National’s extensive subterranean turf-conditioning system.
I saw an early version of that system while playing at the club in the late nineteen-nineties. A heavy rain had fallen during the night, and near one green I noticed a stove-size machine from which a torrent of water was gushing. A member explained that the system was called SubAir and that it had been invented a few years earlier by Marsh Benson, the club’s senior director of golf course and grounds. The machine I saw was attached to the existing network of drainage pipes beneath the putting surface and was acting like a giant Shop-Vac, hoovering moisture from below. In subsequent years, the club equipped all its greens with permanent, buried units—hence the grates. And it extended the system to much of the rest of the course
Slurping up downpours is actually not SubAir’s primary purpose—as I learned eight years ago from Kevin Crowe, who is the project director of the company that manufactures the systems. (SubAir’s headquarters are in Graniteville, SC, about fifteen miles from Augusta.) Benson’s primary original idea was to pump air into greens from underneath, and that’s what the units mainly do. “The concept is to supply fresh air into the root zone and help provide a more optimal growing environment for the plants,” Crowe explained. The first Augusta green to receive that treatment was the twelfth—a greenkeeping headache since the course was built—and Benson and his staff, after a couple of false starts, noticed rapid improvement in the health of the turf. Removing excess water, by operating in reverse, was secondary.
Is the investment worth it for other non-Augustas? The course architect Tom Doak has said that, during the planning for Sebonack Golf Club (which Doak designed with Jack Nicklaus), he offered “to quit the project” if the superintendent insisted on SubAir. Doak felt the system couldn’t possibly be useful in eastern Long Island, which is about as close as the United States comes to Scottish linksland. The director of construction education and technology for the USGA’s Green Section told me, “If you build greens properly, using our method, we don’t see a need for SubAir.” USGA greens are expensive enough as it is, he said, and their purpose is to provide exactly the kind of gas exchange and enhanced drainage that SubAir is meant to promote. Besides, he said, almost any golf course’s greens drain better, all by themselves, than its fairways or bunkers.
Still, hundreds of golf courses now have SubAir systems in one configuration or another, and Benson’s invention has found many applications outside of golf. The manager of field operations for the New York Mets once told me that he turns on his SubAir system each year in late February, five or six weeks before opening day. He also uses it to clean up after rainstorms and to ventilate the field when it’s covered for concerts. He doesn’t run it during games, however. “It’s loud,” he said, “and the louvers are right by the bullpens.”