Wicked, brutal and nasty.
The three witches from Eastwick? The ill-advised calling card of a law firm? The head-banging identity of a heavy metal band?
Nah, those are just a few of the words that immediately came from the mouths of players when asked to describe the rough rimming the South Course at Torrey Pines in San Diego, home to the 121st edition of the U.S. Open.
Yes, those and similar words are annually used when players are asked to give their accounts of the high grass at the national championship, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to listen to how the competitors will deal with it.
The rough, after all, is where many scorecards go to die.
“It’s wicked. Spotters are going to have to really be on their game because around the greens you can hit some shots five feet off the edge of the green and really have to look hard to find your ball,” 2015 U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth said. “It seems like there’s some graduated rough on some holes, and even that first cut (on the fairway) on 12 and like 14 are the two that come to mind, even the first cut is mowed into you.
“So, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You’re not really advancing more than a 7-iron for a lot of those lies, just trying to tumble it down the fairway.”
Rough at the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. (Photo: David Dusek-Golfweek)
But back to the greenside rough for a moment. As Spieth said, the rough around the greens will swallow golf balls whole. Well, add feet. A clip shown on Golf Channel showed Viktor Hovland working out of some rough near a green and the grass reached to his shins.
Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion who won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January, is one of the best in the game around the greens. But he’ll have his hands full this week.
“It’s nasty,” he said. “On hole 9, I threw two balls down, and they landed just about the same spot. One hopped into the rough, and one of them kind of got in the kikuyu and sat up because it’s so thick, where I felt like I could almost hit driver off it. The other one was maybe three feet from it and sank to the bottom.
“I could advance the one that sank to the bottom maybe six inches in front of me. I’ve seen some guys go underneath some golf balls this week already.
“Now it’s just going to keep growing, keep getting longer and longer. So, it’s going to be a true test around the green, but it’s going to be a fun test.”
Fun? OK, if you say so, Mr. Reed. The South Course will play as one of the longest in championship history, to around 7,600 yards to a par of 71. The rough will make it play even longer as most players will favor accuracy over length and try and keep the ball in play with shorter clubs off the tee.
And the rough will have many players, if not all, doing a bit of praying.
“Overall if you look at the rough, it’s sort of spotty,” world No. 6 Xander Schauffele said. “You can get either get a really, really bad lie or not that bad of a lie, almost a flier, which is kind of tricky to judge as well.
“I’m no agronomist, but there’s probably anywhere from three to six different kinds of grass on property, and depending on where you miss it, you can either get really lucky or really unlucky.”
The rough is so penal that 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland is hoping to hit sand if he misses fairways.
“It’s brutal,” he said. “They’ve mowed it a little bit since Sunday because you were losing balls around the greens. But it’s tough. We don’t usually see rough like that.
That makes driving the golf ball in the fairway even that much more important.
“I think you’ll be a little more aggressive into the greens. Driving the golf ball in the fairway is huge this week. I’m going to try to miss in the fairway bunkers because you can at least advance it.”
Last year at Winged Foot in New York, Bryson DeChambeau blasted his way to the U.S. Open title, choosing to let the big dog eat despite the wicked, brutal and nasty rough. His way of thinking was that you’re going to miss fairways anyway so why not be as close to the greens as you can be. With his power and shorter clubs into the greens, DeChambeau laid waste to those who insist accuracy rules in a U.S. Open as he missed nearly half his fairways in regulation and still won by six shots and was the only player to finish under par.
“I’d say the rough is a little different, so it’s not going to be as easy to get through, I think, with the wedge out here at Torrey Pines compared to Winged Foot,” DeChambeau said. “But having said that, I think it’s going to be the same sort of strategy. If I can keep hitting it to the front of the greens, two-putting when I get into trouble, I’m going to give myself a great chance this week.
“When I hit it in the fairway, I have to take advantage of those holes, have to take advantage of the par-5s out here. If I can do those two things, I feel like I’ll have a great chance at contending.
“I really don’t know if bunkers or rough is better, but for sure just getting it as close as I can to the green is going to be a strategy of mine.”
John Wood, longtime looper for Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan, will be toting a mic this week instead of a golf bag as an NBC analyst. He wonders what is in store for rough in the future at the U.S. Open.
“It’s a quandary right now. If Bryson were to do something similar to what he did last year, I think there’s going to be a lot of head scratching going on,” Wood said. “Typically, a U.S. Open was a Tom Kite or Curtis Strange – get the ball in the fairway, get it to the middle of the green, get your par and move on.
“It’s changed a lot the last few years. Long hitters have a huge advantage.”
And if DeChambeau or another banger bombs his way to victory, Woods thinks the U.S. Golf Association will have a “big, long talk about what to do in the future,” when setting up courses. Thicker, longer rough? Less rough?
Whatever happens, the rough will be a talking point every year.