We’re having a big debate about mowing the grass, so it must be U.S. Open week. This is what happens every year, whether it’s setup, conditioning, or weather, the course is always the star at the U.S. Open. It leads us into hours of coverage and thousands of words about things like “wiregrass” and “native sandy areas” and “fescue.”
This week at Erin Hills, an 11-year-old course that will be viewed with some skepticism just because it’s new, the big uproar has centered around the knee-high rough. It’s the kind of high stuff you might see off the fairway at a U.S. Open or British Open, but the problems here have centered around how thick its grown in Wisconsin. Wes Bryan gave us the first look a couple weeks ago, when he demonstrated just how fast it can gobble up a ball that’s really not too far off one these uncharacteristically wide fairways.
Then this week, Kevin Na went on a bit of a rant that really ignited this fescue fracas and made it the biggest topic of these pre-tournament hype days. Na lost his ball after taking a couple hopeless swipes through the stuff.
So that’s what we’ve been talking about the past couple days, with a brief interlude from Gary Player, who decided to bring up past U.S. Open course atrocities with a ranting letter on Monday afternoon.
While the high grass isn’t necessarily a problem, and hazards and penalties for bad shots are a part of the game, the big concern was more with how thick this was so close to the fairway. Geoff Shackelford suspected that “overspray” from the maintenance crews had made it overly thick in places just closest to the fairway, having the unintended effect of actually making it better to go farther off the fairway and hit a worse shot into fescue that was not as dense. There was also a fear that we could be in for six-hour rounds with players looking for balls in the fescue and trying to hammer it out of there. Some players said recovery attempts would go only two feet and other times close to 100 yards — it wasn’t going far but it was pretty unpredictable what you could do with it.
On Tuesday, the USGA added another twist to the grass drama. All of a sudden, players started sending social media reports of crews shaving it down. Peter Uihlein came in first.
Guess the USGA decided to be nice this week and cut down some of the rough pic.twitter.com/RPHunJyKx1— Peter Uihlein (@PeterUihlein) June 13, 2017
The immediate reaction to this pretty significant course alteration just 36 hours before the start of the championship was that the USGA was kowtowing to early player complaints like Na’s rant. But the USGA was quick to clarify once the photos of the grass-cutting got out that this was all part of a plan, telling Golf Channel’s Rex Hoggard that it was a “prescribed plan based on the weather.” It was cut back significantly on four holes, including the 18th. Storms over the last 24 hours had added a ton of moisture to what was already almost unplayable stuff and that could have forced their hands to tuck it back before the championship started on Thursday.
Of course, we then had a reaction to the reaction. One of the defining characteristics of this Erin Hills course is its wide fairways. From all accounts, they’re the widest ever at a U.S. Open and just not what you’re used to seeing at the national championship. Many of them are 60 yards wide, with one getting over 75 paces. One narrows to about 35 yards in a tight landing area, which is more in line with a U.S. Open. So it wasn’t crazy to have grass this high and thick close enough to the first cut of rough. You had to hit a pretty bad shot to get there, and it could rightly be viewed as a hazard even it wasn’t marked as so.
Players in this US Open will get no sympathy from those of us who played in '06 and '07 when +5 won both years. 60 yard corridors! #cmonbrah— Arron Oberholser (@ArronOberholser) June 13, 2017
It’s still going to be a penalty to miss the fairway, it’s just in some of these spots, it will be four inches of thick stuff and not two feet.
Rory McIlroy, who should enjoy a particular advantage this week because he’s maybe the best driver in the world, was not crazy about the move. His response, in effect, was that if you can’t hit a 60-yard fairway, maybe you should deserve to have to look for your ball in that stuff, or pack up and go home. McIlroy was told of the move in the middle of his press conference, so his comments came candid and off-the-cuff.
Rory's response to the news that some of the fescue is being mowed down: pic.twitter.com/FLvpDDn351— Eric Buenning (@ericbuenning) June 13, 2017
So there you have it. The grass was grown. The USGA went out to cut it. Arguably the biggest name in the game didn’t understand why. It became the story of the day. And we officially have ourselves a U.S. Open.