Got your motor running? Open I and Open II, coming at ya. The men are here, and the ladies are on deck. By Monday, June 23, we’ll know so much more. Did Phil become the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam? Is Inbee back to her old tricks? Did Pinehurst, the old gal, reestablish herself as one of the Big Three, along with Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes, where every American golfer must go at least once or risk dying a discontented death? Will the lawnmower finally be coming to golf-course roughs near you?
Last year at this time, some of us had the hope that the U.S. Open at Merion would be some sort of referendum on distance. Playing a par-70 that was not even 7,000 yards long, Merion seemed poised to show the ridiculousness of the modern golf ball that can be driven 350 yards by golfing savants such as Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson.
Mike Davis, USGA bossman, predicted that wouldn’t happen, and he was correct. For one thing, the wet rough at Merion was so penal guys did anything to avoid it. For another, Merion reinvigorated a quaint feature of yesteryear: the dogleg. Three-fifty don’t do nothing when the fairway makes a right at the 250 bush.
Too bad, really: I’d love to see a ball for the elites that maxes out at about 300. Not for you. Not for me. For them.
This year, that same some-of-us gang is hoping to come away with a new mission statement about rough when these Opens are over, and this is it (summon your best Reagan here): Mr. Greenskeeper, cut down that rough!
That’s what the gentlemen architects, Messrs. Coore and Crenshaw, did at old No. 2. No rough. Instead, you will definitely find your ball and have a chance to play a recovery shot from a scrubby waste area or off pine needles or through a sparse stand of pines. Pine Valley and the Pacific Grove muni are pretty much like that, and those are two of the best. Medinah for the 2012 Ryder Cup had virtually no rough. Fun!
The only reason Merion had such absurd rough was because the USGA, despite its claims to the contrary, really does want a score right around 280 to win its premier championship. Sure enough, Justin Rose came home last year in 281 strokes, one over par.
A while back, the often-cranky golf blogger Geoff Shackelford, posed a question in a headline on his self-named website that cannot be improved upon: Can We All Agree That Harvested Rough Is A Silly And Cynical Stain On A Golf Course? Yes, yes it is!
Jack Nicklaus has been saying just that forever. Unfortunately, many of the courses he has designed are turned over to people he cannot control, and they are enamored of their rough. They are proud of their ability to grow rough. It’s nothing to be proud of, people! Anybody with a garden hose, seed and fertilizer can do it. We’ll see what Valhalla, the Nicklaus course in Louisville, is like when it hosts the PGA Championship in August. The PGA usually gets it about right, with a too-respectful nod toward American golfing traditions.
Some of the great links courses of Scotland, like Western Gailes and Lufness New, are so choked with rough during wet summers as to be unplayable with fewer than three balls and more likely six. That’s not golf. That’s getting a seaside windburn/suntan. Bayonne Golf Club, across the Hudson from Manhattan, is an extraordinary course and such creative use of restored wasteland it might have turned T.S. Eliot (author of "The Waste Land") into an optimist. Except that the rough there actually renders the course where two duffers (90-shooters) cannot really have a match. There will be far too many Xs. Golf is meant to be played.
Imagine if there was a rule where you could only carry one ball. Lose it and you head in. Donald Ross designed courses with that principle in mind. That’s why we still love his courses a hundred years later.
During these two Opens at Pinehurst, something like 900 scorecards will be turned in. It is possible that there will not be a single lost ball on all those cards. If there are 10 lost balls, all in, that would be a lot. The No. 1 culprit for lost balls is rough. The No. 1 issue plaguing the game right now is slow play. Nothing — nothing — slows play like spending five minutes, or more, looking for a ball. If you don’t think people take more than five minutes to look for a $4 golf ball that’s MIA you’re not wearing a watch. Four bucks, and two shots.
Everybody likes things best from the period when things were fresh and new and exciting for them. Sam Snead started playing Pinehurst in the ‘30s. He loved it, deeply, “until they went in there and f—– it all up,” he told me one day late in his life as we sat in his living room. (I was drinking a Coke out of a glass that had Julius Boros’s face painted on it. Shameless name-dropping, I know.) Everybody has a different impression of Pinehurst, because it changes so regularly. Arnold Palmer first played in the '40s and Jack Nicklaus in the '50s and my friend Fred Anton in the '60s and Curtis Strange in the '70s and Jackie Nicklaus in the '80s and Phil Mickelson in the '90s and Michael Campbell and Jason Gore in the Aughts. If they were providing details for a police-station sketch artist, no two drawings would look alike. None of them played the same course on their inaugural trips.
These new players — Bubba and Dustin, Inbee and Lexi — are playing yet another Pinehurst. I hope this one is the best yet. I say that because Pinehurst is a great American golf resort and it deserves two great championships. But much more significant than that, I’m hopeful these back-to-back Opens are a referendum on rough. You want to get dad a gift for Father’s Day he’ll treasure forever? How about a golf course where he never loses a ball in the rough again?
A man can dream.