Players Finding the Rough is Tough

Is extra length really the way to “Tiger-proof” a golf course. Growing the rough out may be a more effective, and fair, way to put the teeth back into many tour tracks.

Long RoughWhat’s good for the grass is looking to be bad for some of the biggest hitters on the PGA Tour. Thanks to a wet winter, many courses in Florida — Bay Hill and the TPC of Sawgrass in particular — are sporting some extra-thick, Velcro-like rough. Guess what? Mother Nature is doing a better job “Tiger-proofing” these golf courses than an army of bulldozers adding extra length.

Ever since Tiger Woods bombed his way to a dramatic victory at the 1997 Masters Tournament, golf courses that host PGA Tour events have been undergoing a ongoing attempt at becoming “Tiger-proofed.” In most cases, this has meant one thing: lengthening the golf course.

The supposed wisdom behind this trend goes something like this: if Tiger, Phil, Vijay, Ernie and the rest of the boys keep hitting it so far, we’ll just make the courses longer. If they’re hitting driver and sand wedge into 420-yard par-4s, we’ll pump them up to 450 yards. That’ll show ’em!

Great idea, right? Wrong. It has backfired. Completely. The game is much more oriented toward “smash golf” now than it was eight years ago. All the game’s top players have adopted a similar philosophy of distance first, everything else second. The guys who have the power to go deep are still hitting driver-sand wedge into those par 4s, even though they’re longer. But the players who don’t possess the long-ball ability are now at a huge disadvantage. At the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, some players couldn’t even reach the fairway on a few holes. Meanwhile, Tiger outbombed Phil for the title.

Fast forward to this year. Tiger, Phil and Vijay all started the year with impressive wins in California, and Tiger surged past Phil at Doral to start the Florida swing. All three players have firmly embraced the “ball go far” style of play. They’d all rather hit driver in the rough but have a wedge to the green instead of playing for accuracy with a 3-wood or long iron and hitting a 7-iron into the green.

Phil Mickelson in RoughWait a second. They’re not afraid of hitting out of the rough? That’s the problem. They should be! Well, maybe not afraid. But the rough should at least be a factor. That’s what happened at Bay Hill and again at Sawgrass. The tall stuff was extra tall and milkshake-thick at Bay Hill, and the long-and-wrong crew had not much to show for their efforts other than clean shoes. Kenny Perry, one of the straightest drivers in the game when he’s on form, won the blue jacket.

The rough was even more penal at Sawgrass, where three-plus days of heavy rain heightened the difficulty. Who should win but the PGA Tour version of the Tortoise, Fred Funk — the straightest driver in the game, and now the oldest Players Championship winner ever. The hares were all too busy trying to find their wayward drives in the hay to keep The Funky One from grabbing the big check for more than $1.4 million.

The lesson is simple. Stop making the courses longer. Make the rough longer. Put a premium on accuracy, not raw distance. Make hitting driver on every hole a risk-reward play. It can still be a strategy, but penal rough gives the short-but-straight hitter a chance to get in the mix. Playing from thick rough keeps players from controlling the spin and distance on their approach shots, making scoring difficult. Not impossible. Just difficult. The way it should be. They way it is now at the Masters ever since they—gasp!—added some light rough a couple years back.

When the course and rough are extra-long, the advantage still goes to the bombers. But take a 7,200-yard course and put a little fertilizer on the rough. Suddenly you bring a lot of different players into contention, and you didn’t even need to call in Pete Dye or Tom Fazio to make it happen, and the USGA didn’t need to change the performance specs on golf balls or drivers. Sometimes, nature knows best.

3 thoughts on “Players Finding the Rough is Tough”

  1. Finally, an accurate article about what’s wrong with the Tour and its misguided practice of making courses longer instead of more difficult. The big hitters can’t handle real rough. Great post, thanks, too bad Tour officials don’t understand it. They’re secretly very unhappy that a guy like Funk won a premier event.

  2. great write up.

    Reminded me my favorite interview with David Duval after US Open at Pinehurst couple of years back:

    “all players are whining about how unplayable rough is. I said – what the heck man, you are not supposed to be there in the first place!” 🙂

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