When the weather outside is frightful
No worries – with help from on-site meteorologists, tournaments no longer must play the guessing game
November 06, 2018
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
Let’s travel back 25 years or so, when PGA TOUR tournament officials did not yet have access to an on-site meteorologist at each event. There were no Doppler radar maps to check, no high-tech field mill instruments set up to measure the electrical charge in the atmosphere.
There were, however, phone calls to the local TV weatherman for an updated forecast. Or perhaps someone at a nearby airport or the National Weather Service could offer an update on conditions. Occasionally, though, officials just had to do it the old-fashioned way -- look up into the sky, squint at the darkening horizon and go with their gut.
What other option did they have?
Mark Russell, the PGA TOUR’s longtime vice president of rules and competitions, shakes his head when he thinks about those days.
“I don’t know how we did it,” he says. “It was unbelievable. I mean, it's kind of like, what did we do before we had iPhones?
Russell then paused. “A lot of times we probably played farther then we should because we just didn't know.”
As any duffer who has been forced to cool his heels due to a heavy storm or lightning threat knows, golf arguably is the most weather-dependent of any outdoor sport (yes, even more than baseball). On the PGA TOUR, with four days of dawn-to-dusk competition and millions of dollars at stake each week for players, tournaments and media rights-holders, weather certainly can make a huge impact.
For the latest forecast at this week's Mayakoba Golf Classic, check out PGATOUR.COM's Weather Hub.
Although tournaments are scheduled with weather in mind – after all, there’s a reason courses in the Northeast don’t host events in February – getting four consecutive sun-splashed days is no certainty.
It snowed in Tucson when that Arizona city hosted the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Twice in three years, no less.
And what about 2011 when a hurricane forced the cancellation of the final round of The Barclays in Plainfield, New Jersey? Mother Nature kicked off the week with a small earthquake, too.
Or the marine layer – most of us just call it fog – that plays havoc with tournaments such as the Farmers Insurance Open and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on the Pacific Coast. And the Santa Ana winds in the California desert.
Granted, those are the extremes. But when you play a game that goes from daylight to dark completely outdoors, the weather is a constant concern.
Rain – at least, when there’s going to be a lot of it – can dictate where the TOUR rules staff decides to place the holes on the green. The wind direction and its strength might prompt officials to move tee boxes up or back.
Course superintendents even use the forecast to help determine how much to water the greens and whether to single cut or double cut the putting surfaces.
And lightning? Well, there’s got to be enough lead time to get the players to safety as well as those 25,000 spectators or more lining the fairways.
To help tournament officials make those decisions are DTN meteorologists who set up shop at every event. The TOUR has had an on-site weather presence at tournaments since 1996, first with a company called Mobile Weather Team and with DTN since 2005.
As a result, the guesswork that officials such as Russell once relied on has been eliminated.
“It's incredible how far it's come with the meteorologists and the equipment they have and how they can look at things and diagnose things,” he says. “It helps us tremendously.
“I can't imagine doing it without it now.”
Mark Russell, the PGA TOUR’s longtime vice president of rules and competitions, says on-site meteorologists help tremendously. (Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)
Stewart Williams became interested in the weather when he was a kid growing up in North Carolina. There were no storm chasers back then, but he’d get excited when the TV weatherman would say it was going to snow – and disappointed when it didn’t.
“I had to find out why,” Williams says.
So he went to college at UNC-Asheville, taking courses in calculus and physics and thermodynamics and kinematics to earn a bachelor’s degree in Applied Science with an emphasis in meteorology. When he graduated, Williams began working for a start-up company called Mobile Weather.
The first year, Mobile Weather worked with five tournaments; a year later, nearly a dozen. Things began to, eh, snowball, the PGA TOUR took notice and Williams, who now works for DTN, has been an on-site meteorologist at events for more than two decades.
Williams and the other six meteorologists who travel to tournaments (and state fairs, fireworks displays and Notre Dame’s home football games, among other events) provide paramount information to officials who must decide when to suspend and resume play.
“When we started coming on property and setting up, the rules officials could come in and look at the screens themselves and we could show them exactly where the storm is, how fast it's moving,” Williams explains. “Based on what we were telling them, they could see for themselves.
“It just makes the information better and decision-making better. The biggest difference I think we made -- especially in the early days -- our suspension times went down. We were able to tell them, ‘Hey guys, this thing is moving away’ rather than them asking ‘Are we safe?’ or ‘How long do we wait?’”
The tools at his disposal have changed dramatically, too. When Williams first started forecasting the weather at PGA TOUR events, he was using a dial-up modem.
“You’d hear the sound, then you’d connect and it was slow,” he says with a smile. “Now with technology, it’s incredible.”
The electric field mill that measures the current in the atmosphere now travels from event to event on the TOUR’s ShotLink trucks. Williams usually brings two laptops with him that are equipped with the national lightning detection network that reveals where strikes are hitting the ground all over the world.
“When those cells develop real close to the golf course and we're wondering ‘This one hasn't produced lightning yet, but is it going to?,’ well, this thing will measure the charges and actually warn you before that first bolt is going to come out of the cell,” Williams says.
“That would give us another 10 minutes, maybe 15 minutes that we didn't have before. Using that lightning detection and light radar, we have a really good idea when it's going to be dangerous here at the golf course. Hopefully we can give enough time to get the spectators back to the busses.”
But the weather dictates so much more than when to halt play.
Every Tuesday of tournament week, there’s a meeting attended by the rules staff, on-site meteorologist, media officials, tournament director and operations personnel. While it’s part introduction – here’s who to call for different things – the meteorologist will give an overview of the weather.
“The two rules officials who are going to set up the golf course -- there's a guy doing the front and the guy doing the back -- those guys obviously are more zeroed in on what the weather impact's going to be,” Williams says. “That's when you start looking at OK, what's going to be our wettest day? If we're going to have a lot of rain one day, what day is that?”
The information is crucial, according to Russell, who jokes that he’s an amateur meteorologist.
“We'll talk with the superintendent and his staff and find out which greens are more susceptible to puddling and we want to make sure that we keep the hole in a position where we're going to be able to play golf if we can,” he explains. “We call that our high-and-dry set up.”
The direction of the wind, as well as its velocity, also plays a part in the way the rules staff decides to position the tees.
If a hole is playing into a strong wind, the tees might be moved up. Or, if a tailwind makes a hole too short, it might be played all the way back. Crosswinds also are taken into account – if there’s a left-to-right wind blowing across a green situated by a lake, then don’t look for the hole to be too far to the right side.
“Really strong wind days, if we're getting gusts 25 to 30, usually you're going to know that a couple days ahead of time,” Williams says. “They'll plan for that. They will work with the agronomist and the superintendent here. They may not double cut the greens and roll them. They may just single cut it the day before or that morning have the grass a little bit longer and maybe even add water to it so that it grabs the ball so it won't blow.
“Wind has that big impact on what they do to the golf course.”
Brandt Snedeker, the 2012 FedExCup champion, says the information meteorologists such as Williams provide is vital to him as a player.
“I never thought I'd be a weather fiend like I am, but it's just part of life,’ he says. “You want to know when the wind's blowing, what time it's supposed to switch. They get it down to the hour out here -- say at 2 p.m., it’s supposed to switch to the east/northeast.
“You want to know that and have an idea that it's going to switch at some point today (or) it's going to rain for the week or it's going to be dry all that kind of stuff.
“You're always very intimately involved with what's going on with the weather because it's dramatically can change your course of your game plan for the week, your schedule for the week, all that kind of stuff.”
Williams says he can even provide the agronomists and superintendents evapotranspiration rates that measure how much moisture is evaporating out of the leaf of the grass and reflects the humidity.
“If it's going to be really windy behind the cold front and the air gets really dry, those ET rates get really high,” Williams says. “Air dries out real quick. Well, that has a huge impact on the golf course.
“The grass may start wilting. They may want to put extra water on the course that day to get it through the day because obviously, we want firm and fast. We want the same conditions for every four days. So we're kind of here for everybody.”
Interestingly, though, Russell says fog can be some of the most challenging weather in terms of administering a golf tournament.
“Like at San Diego or Pebble Beach where you have maybe six holes fogged in where the players can't see and other 12 you can play,” he explains. “That's always a very difficult situation because the players have to play under the same conditions at the same time, so that makes it very difficult. Are we going to play or are we not going to play and when are we going to start back?”
Weather plays a factor in course setup and greens speed on the PGA TOUR. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Making a decision on whether to move tee times up or back and play threesomes off two tees to try to avoid bad weather is difficult. For one thing, it needs to be done as early as possible so television partners can be ready and the media can let fans know what it happening. And as we all know, the weather can turn on a dime.
“It's Mother Nature,” Williams says with a shrug. “If you think you got her figured out, she'll pull a fast one on you.”
Sometimes the decision to play early proves prescient. Take the RBC Heritage in April. With severe thunderstorms in the forecast on Sunday, the decision was made to move tee times up. Not only was the tournament finished before the storms hit, there was also time for a three-hole playoff between Satoshi Kodaira and Si Woo Kim before the heavens opened up.
Sometimes the decision not make any changes also proves spot-on. Consider the Travelers Championship in June. The Sunday forecast by Wade Stettner called for a slight chance of thunderstorms after 4 p.m., with a better chance after 6 p.m. No tee time adjustments were made, and the tournament was completed just before the heavy rains fell. In fact, the trophy presentation to Bubba Watson was moved from the 18th green to the media interview room in order to avoid the downpour.
Sometimes decisions are made but Mother Nature simply doesn’t cooperate. This year’s BMW Championship at Aronimink was plagued by rain. Tee times were moved up for the final round on Sunday, then moved back multiple times but there was simply no opening to play. The final round was pushed to Monday, and while the forecast again was not favorable, the FedExCup Playoffs event was able to finish and send the final 30 players to the TOUR Championship.
“It's hard to make those decisions 24 hours ahead of time,” Williams says. “If we could make that decision Sunday morning and say ‘Hey guys, I think we're going to be good. Let's just go one tee,’ it would be great. We don't have that option, so we do the best we can.”
Decisions to alter the format of play are made in consultation with tournament directors, sponsors and TV partners. But every effort is made to finish a tournament by Sunday night, although playing Monday is an option.
During the 2017-18 season, three tournaments finished on unscheduled Mondays – the Farmers Insurance Open, the Barbasol Championship and the BMW Championship.
“When you're making these decisions, you have to look at the big picture,” Russell says. “You're going to always get some criticism because that's the nature of the business. But you're not worried about that you have to do what you think is right and what's right for the golf tournament.”
Sometimes that means stripping the tents, leaving shells of iron, when a tropical storm blows through in hopes of playing the next day. And Williams vividly remembers multiple conference calls with emergency management officials at Plainfield that year when Hurricane Irene took aim on the New Jersey coast.
“They're concerned because this is a public event and it's a big deal,” he says.
Williams says he never gets tired of people asking him about the weather. In fact, it’s kind of flattering.
“They have confidence enough to ask and believe in what you say, so it's part of the job,” he says. “I'll get calls from people at home all the time – ‘Hey, how long is this storm going to last here?’ And I'm not even there.”
Williams says players like Brett Quigley and Davis Love III, both avid outdoorsmen, would sometimes try to get a sense of what their off weeks might be like. Ditto for the guys who might want to go fishing on the Florida coast.
“Especially in the springtime if there's a really strong east wind or northeast wind, it's usually not very good for fishing because it makes big waves and churns things up,” Williams says. “They like the calm conditions. It's pretty funny that for their own personal reasons, they want to know what's going to happen at their house.”
Snedeker jokes that he had a different approach.
“I was like, Hey, I know you have a special website that you go to get all your weather stuff,” he says with a grin. “Would you give me the password so I can get in there and use it when I'm not out of here on TOUR?”
On nice days when the sun is shining, Williams likes to get out and walk some holes – more for exercise, really, and socializing with other members of this traveling circus called the PGA TOUR. He also takes the time to catch up on travel arrangements and the like.
Those are also Russell’s favorite days.
“We refer to that as a walk-around day,” he says, “You know, when you haven't got a chance of rain and there's not a cloud in the sky.”