JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – As long as Ken Mangum serves as Atlanta Athletic Club’s director of golf courses and grounds, he will not allow the club’s Highlands and Riverside courses to rest on their laurels.
For as well maintained and well received as the two courses have been during this week’s 114th U.S. Amateur Championship, Mangum knows they can be tweaked and improved.
That might smack of heresy, considering that in this century alone AAC has hosted two PGA Championships (2001, 2011), a U.S. Junior Amateur (2002) and this week’s U.S. Amateur. But Mangum likens himself to the little Mikey character who will eat anything in the 1970s Life cereal commercials.
"I’m always looking for the next best thing, Mangum said. "I’ve already got several more zoysiagrasses we’ll look at for the next generation [of green renovations]. There’s always something better out there; we just have to find it.
Mangum’s pursuit of the ideal turfgrass is one reason why Atlanta Athletic Club has the only courses featuring a combination of Zeon zoysia and Diamond zoysia fairways, Tifton 10 rough and Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass greens.
Following the 2011 PGA Championship, Golf Digest course reviewer Ron Whitten wrote, Mangum came up with the perfect prescription of grasses for a Southern venue championship setup. … He’s the guy who, history will record, tilted the axis of major-championship golf distinctly to the South.
While Rees Jones may be noted for his recent reworkings of the Riverside and Highlands courses, Jones deflects much of the credit to Mangum.
He understands turfgrass as well as, if not better, than anyone else I know, Jones said. He is always ahead of the curve and a lot of the courses’ successes are due to Ken.
In the mid-1980s, Mangum was serving as golf course superintendent at Idle Hour Club in Macon, Ga. The course had two consecutive extremely cold winters that essentially killed the bermudagrass greens.
I gave them three options, Mangum said. "We can replant and do what we’ve been doing; replant and cover and not overseed, which is what people do on the ultradwarfs now; or put in bentgrass.
Heeding Mangum’s advice, Idle Hour switched to bentgrass, which garnered a great deal of attention considering that not many courses in the Deep South were using bentgrass at the time.
The change put into motion a series of fortuitous encounters that eventually led Mangum to his current position at Atlanta Athletic Club.
When they call, you come, said Mangum, 61, of Anniston, Ala. "When you knew the history of the athletic club, it was pretty much a no-brainer.
In 2013, Mangum received both the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award and the USGA's Ike Grainger Award, for 25 years of volunteer service to the USGA Green Section Committee. In January, he will be inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
During Mangum’s quarter-century at AAC, he has served as the project manager for six major course renovations. The courses have improved through unintended one-upsmanship. For instance, after the Riverside Course reopened to acclaim in 2003, focus turned to upgrading the Highlands Course.
Here is [the Highlands], our championship golf course, we just held the PGA on it and it’s now our second-best golf course on the property, he said. We didn’t see that coming. We just tried to build the best course we could. So the reason Highlands is where it is today is because we were forced to go back and rebuild Highlands to try and make it better than Riverside.
Among the more notable Highlands changes were fairway bunkers being re-positioned to challenge today’s longer hitters, greenside bunkers being made deeper and moved closer to the greens, narrower fairways, and teeing grounds repositioned on slightly sharper angles to the landing zones.
While Mangum has continually incorporated cutting-edge turfgrasses, he credits the USGA for its crucial role.
In the early 1980s, the USGA funded turfgrass research by Dr. Milt Engelke and Dr. Jack Murray, who went to Asia and selected plants for their breeding programs. Ultimately both zoysiagrasses used at AAC came from their work.
The various grasses around AAC have also had environmental impacts. Fairway and rough grasses now require 50 percent less mowing – which increases the lifespan of maintenance equipment and cuts down on fuel consumption – and the fairways need only 25 percent of the nitrogen inputs that the bermudagrasses required. Also, AAC has installed an irrigation system that allows the fairways and rough to be watered independently.
There is little doubt once this U.S. Amateur concludes that Mangum will be looking for ways to take Atlanta Athletic Club’s courses to an even higher level.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.