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Jun 13

U.S. Open’s Erin Hills – Rough

Year After Chambers Bay, Still Fighting About the Rough

It is difficult to recall any golf course that has undergone more abuse than Chambers Bay did last year when the U.S. Open headed toward the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. Open, perhaps in a struggle to gain the iconic identity possessed by other golf majors, seems to be touring new and interesting venues rather than clinging to one special place. In a way, that’s a lot of fun, seeing courses in majors we haven’t seen before. Still, it’s hard to know what they’re really going for. Erin Hills Golf Course in Wisconsin is the site this year, and is rated fairly high in the Golf Digest course rankings – 42nd best in the United States. Not bad – there are a lot of courses in this country. Still, while the Masters shows itself to the world as the southern version of a Currier & Ives, and the British Open remains a sparse and scary piece of real estate patrolled by ancient ghosts, wild winds, and hostile rough, something just isn’t working for the U.S. Open.

Arguing about the course is a favorite game for touring pros, and the crowd is pretty well divided over this year’s stickiing point. It’s the same as always where the U.S. Open is concerned. It’s the rough, the super-rough. I didn’t know until today what the word “fescue” meant, but a surprised Rory McIlroy saw the maintenance engineers mowing some of it down before the beginning of the tournament. All right then, if you didn’t know it, either, fescue is a perennial grass from the genus Festuca, often cultivated for pastures, or an annual grass from the genus Vulpia, for dry climates. Apparently, the first definition is what is going on at Erin Hills. The grass makes for effective rough, perhaps too effective, some say. It’s not being cut down because someone complained, but because it rained last night, and fescue droops in the rain. The USGA is afraid of it creating unplayable lies. It’s a rough game of golf where one inch to the left or right means that one’s ball is unplayable.
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“But wait,” says McIlroy. The width of the fairways is enormous, as in 50 to 60 yards. I can probably hit that most of the time, but the pros hit it a lot farther than I do. If anything goes wrong, it could go that extra inch off the fairway and into a no man’s land of rough. Having played in pastures more often a lot of golfers, I think I can be trusted on that description. If that’s the grass Erin Hills is talking about, errant drivers are in trouble, no matter how wide the fairways are. I’ve been there, and I’m telling you, sheep break their teeth on that grass.
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Taking a good look at Erin Hills, it’ a pretty interesting terrain with an ancient history of receding glaciers leaving its mark on the property. In fact, if we choose to look at it this way, it bears a similarity to St. Andrews in a Wisconsiny sort of way. Regardless of any argument about whether the course is fair, the important question is, “Is the course the same for everyone?” For this U.S. Open, like it or not, the answer to that question is “yes.” Does it hurt the ego to win with a 74 instead of a 65? Welcome to almost our world, pros.Besides, you’ve got fairways straight from Heaven.

Perhaps the PGA and its players are a little overly sensitive after the uproar over Chambers Bay. I say “tee it up,” and forget about it. You’re still competing with each other on the same course, no matter how rough the rough is. And as for Erin Hills, give it a break – it looks beautiful from a distance.

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About the author

G.F. Skipworth

has spent every available moment playing golf or studying the greats since the 60s, in between world tours as a classical musician, Harvard studies in Government or as the author of a dozen novels. Nicklaus and Snead may be the statistical greats, but Skipworth is a life-long devotee of Gary Player, and considers meeting the South African at the Jeld-Wen to be an unforgettable milestone. His driving passion in golf these days is to raise viewer interest in the LPGA.