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On the classic links of the U.K., Open-style rough has become an invasive irritant

Askernish Old
John Garrity
The author took this shot last July at Askernish Old, the Tom Morris "ghost course" on South Uist Island, Scotland.

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND -- So far, my favorite image from the 2012 Open is Phil Mickelson searching for his ball on a dune top at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Searching on his hands and knees. Pawing through the long, tangly grass like a birder looking for starling eggs.

A close second is Tiger Woods throwing his whole body into an approach shot from the left rough, only to have his ball squirt out a few yards and plop back into les herbes folles.

You see, I adore links rough. I love the knee-high wisps of golden fescue that make the verges look like Kansas wheat fields. I love the snarly marram grass that keeps the dunes from blowing away. I can even muster up a compliment for the bottom-feeding, wide-bladed catfish grasses (my term) that grow at the foot of the fescues. Those things are weeds, and I like ’em.

But I only like ’em for one week a year.

This past Wednesday I played a round with friends at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, the venerable links that has hosted nine Opens and padded Padraig Harrington’s bank account. Royal Birkdale ties with Turnberry as my favorite Open rota course, and it currently ranks No. 17 on John Garrity’s Top 50 blog. But after taking one look at Birkdale’s heaping helping of off-the-fairway herbage, I had to invoke the In-the-Hay Rule. “Anything in the hay, take a stroke penalty and drop a ball.”

What else could I do? The wind was up, and Birkdale’s fairways were mere slivers of civilized turf winding through acres of deep, golf-ball-munching rough. We had neither caddies nor forecaddies, and there were no gallery members to conveniently topple upon being struck by an errant drive, providing a starting point for a ball search.

To put it bluntly, every wayward strike resulted in a lost ball. One member of my threesome, a single-digit handicapper whose name rhymes with “chipdunk,” started with a dozen new Titleists and finished with just the ball in his hand. He could fairly blame a rented driver that had him hitting an uncharacteristic push-fade, but the real villain was the rough. Without the In-the-Hay Rule, our four-hour round would have taken six.

It’s not a Royal Birkdale problem. It’s a classic-links-meets-modern-technology problem. Today’s good player hits the ball so far that a fast-running links course plays about a thousand yards shorter than its listed length. That causes embarrassment for your Muirfields and your Royal Portrushes, whose members, understandably, don’t want some bloke off the street going round in 61. Their easy answer: tighter fairways and thick rough.

I just discussed this with Golf World’s John Huggan, who in addition to being a fine writer is an actual Scotsman. “The links game is supposed to be strategic, not penal,” he said. “A proper links is based on the Old Course at St. Andrews, and the Old Course is all about width. But now we seem to be swinging to the other end of the spectrum. The links at Gullane are a good example. They have practically no fairways at all.”

When hacks like me complain about the rough, I told Huggan, greenkeepers and club secretaries point out that they can’t control the weather. Wet weather produces deep rough, and it’s not the kind of rough you can top off with a gang mower.

“That’s true,” Huggan said, “but you can always adjust the fairways. Which is what they’ve been doing, only in the wrong direction. The tipoff is when you see bunkers in the rough. Those bunker used to be in the fairway.” He shook his head. “It always goes back to the ball.”

I’m with Huggan, although I’d argue that narrow fairways are okay if the first cuts of rough are the aforementioned wispy fescues. I played St. Annes Old Links yesterday evening with two other writers, and we couldn’t have had a better time. The fairways weren’t silly-wide, not at all, but the drives that went missing at Birkdale wound up in playable lies at St. Annes. I know that because we found those balls and got to hit them again.

Am I whining? I don’t mean to. The links courses of Britain and Ireland are golf’s greatest treasures, and I’ll keep playing them as long as I can fog a mirror. But I’m going to have cards printed up with Alister MacKenzie’s ninth and most important rule for How to Create a Golf Course: 9. There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls (excessive rough).

I’ll leave that card on golf shop counters from Askernish to Royal Cinques Ports. And who knows? Maybe Phil and Tiger will do the same.

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