ADVERTISEMENT

Tom Oates: Whether players’ gripes had anything to do with it or not, U.S. Open officials trim grass on four holes

June 14, 2017 GMT

ERIN — Who says the United States Golf Association doesn’t have a heart?

It took one practice day for “fescue” to become a four-letter word at Erin Hills Golf Course, site of the 117th U.S. Open that starts Thursday, and one more day for the USGA to order the lengthy fescue that lines the fairways at the first-time U.S. Open venue to be shaved back on four holes.

USGA officials told the Golf Channel the move wasn’t a reaction to player complaints about the taller-than-usual rough, the most strident of which came from Kevin Na in a video that went viral on social media. Instead, the officials indicated some rough on the fourth, 12th, 14th and 18th holes was trimmed Tuesday due to forecasted storms that were expected make some of the native grasses lay down and cause the lies on wayward shots to become unplayable.

Umm, if you say so. The fact is, many of the lies in the fescue were almost unplayable anyway, which along with wind is the course’s best defense against the top players in the world.

ADVERTISEMENT

Of course, griping about the course setup is standard operating procedure for players at the U.S. Open. However, very few players were complaining after getting their first look at beautifully manicured Erin Hills, with its record-setting length, double-wide fairways, 137 bunkers and ubiquitous fescue that in places is only a stride or two from the fairway.

In fact, one prominent player was both surprised and dismayed when told the USGA was trimming the fescue.

“Really?” Rory McIlroy said. “We have 60 yards from left line to right line (of the fairway). You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here, if we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.”

Many will pack their bags and go home after Friday’s second round, in large part due to the trouble they’ll find in the rough. But this is a U.S. Open course. It’s supposed to be tough. It’s supposed to test every club in the bag. It’s supposed to test players physically and mentally. From all indications, Erin Hills will do that this week.

McIlroy and others put the onus squarely on the golfers to deal with the challenges presented by what Madison golfer Steve Stricker called “probably the best-conditioned golf course we may see ever in a major.” To them, the fescue is just another hazard to avoid.

ADVERTISEMENT

“These are the widest fairways we’ve ever played in a U.S. Open,” said McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion. “Even the first and second cut (of rough) is another 10 yards on top of that. So if you’ve got 50 or 60 yards to hit into and you’re complaining about the fescue that’s wider than that, I don’t think that’s an issue. I get that it’s thick and whatever, but it’s a hazard. If you put red lines (denoting a hazard) just right along that, people wouldn’t complain. It’s a U.S. Open, it’s supposed to be a tough test. And if guys can’t put it into play within a 50-yard zone, I don’t think they’ve got much to complain about.”

Rather than complain, the golfers would be better served to make sure they drive the ball in the fairway. Erin Hills will play at about 7,700 yards, which keeps driver in the players’ hands, something the younger generation of bombers really likes.

Keeping the ball between the fescue will be paramount, though, because reaching the green from the tall rough will be difficult if not impossible. Stricker estimated any ball in the fescue will result in a half-shot to a one-shot penalty. Still, it won’t be the death sentence Na made it out to be in his video.

“I’ve hit it in the fescue multiple times over the last few days,” said Jordan Spieth, the 2015 U.S. Open champion. “I’ve had it to where I needed to hit gap wedge out about 100 yards into the fairway and I’ve also hit a 7-iron on the green out of it. It just depends on where it ends up, what the lie is. It’s not unplayable. I don’t think the golf course is unfair, by any means, because of the fescue. We have a wide enough area to hit it and you need to drive the ball well in order to win a U.S. Open.”

That goes for any U.S. Open.

“A lot has been made about the rough, which is incredibly long, but there’s a huge space in between that long rough that we get to hit it,” Adam Scott said. “So if you’re playing well, hopefully you won’t be out there too many times. And ... if you’re playing poorly at a U.S. Open and you’re hitting it poor enough to go in that rough here, then you probably weren’t going to do too well at the U.S. Open no matter where it was.”

The rains that soaked the course Monday and Tuesday might have more to do with the outcome than the fescue. With the lengthy course softened up by rain, the players won’t get as much roll on their drives, which favors long-ball hitters such as McIlroy, Jason Day and defending champion Dustin Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that I feel like my driver is one of my biggest weapons in my bag,” McIlroy said. “I think if the field has to hit driver more, that plays into my hands. I wasn’t crying when I saw that rain (Monday) night and (Tuesday) morning. It’s a long golf course and it’s only going to play longer.”

Erin Hills’ combination of length and fescue will test the golfers, especially if the wind blows. The players who understand and accept that will have the best shot at winning on Sunday. The complainers won’t be heard because they won’t be around.