SAN FRANCISCO — Hear that?
Like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the pros have had little to say so far about the rough on the Olympic Club’s Lake Course. “I remember the rough being more of a ‘chip-out’ rough in ’98,” said a smiling Matt Kuchar, who was an amateur with a full head of hair when he first encountered U.S. Open-style rough on the shores of Lake Merced. “The rough is spotty,” echoed a smiling Steve Stricker, who finished T5 in ’98. “It’s up in some places and down in others.”
What’s the emoticon for “gobsmacked”? Pros NEVER equivocate about U.S. Open rough. They come back from a practice round claiming to have lost five balls, a 7-iron and a caddie. They accuse the greenskeeper of injecting roots with Miracle-Gro. They say it’s the thickest rough in the history of the game. (See Bethpage 2009, Oakmont 2007, Oak Hill 1989, Oakland Hills 1951, ad infinitum.)
Not this week. The ancient pros — the pensioners who are well past their Champions Tour days — are especially dismissive of the Lake Course’s relative hirsuteness. “We didn’t have any days like this in ’66, days where the moisture is out of the rough,” said 80-year-old Billy Casper, who won that year in an 18-hole playoff with Arnold Palmer. “We had the moisture in the rough every day because we had overcast days. And you had to be very careful what club you selected out of the rough, as with Arnold at 16 when he tried to hit a long iron after hitting a bad pull hook that hit a tree and bounced down into an area where nobody had been. He gambled with a long iron, and he only moved it 50 or 60 yards into another set of rough that was extremely heavy.”
Well, you get the idea. That '66 rough was BAAAAAAD.
But it was nothing compared to the chlorophyll factory that covered the Lake Course the week of the 1955 U.S. Open, won by Jack Fleck.
“The guys I talked to said 1955 was the worst rough they’d ever seen,” saidys Neil Sagebiel, a fellow I met 20 minutes ago in the back of the media tent. “It was this Italian rye that was shin deep just five or six yards off the fairway. And it held the moisture.”
Sagebiel is too young by decades to have witnessed Fleck’s upset of the great Ben Hogan, but he’s the author of The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open. So he’s an authority. And Sagebiel says you could have lost a process server in the ’55 rough.
“I don’t think they had cut it for a month before the tournament,” Sagebiel continued. “Players always complain about the Open setup, but Porky Oliver played six holes on the previous Sunday and lost 12 balls. It was so bad that the USGA’s Joe Dey had the rough trimmed a couple of inches before the tournament.”
That left Mickey Rooney visible from the waist up, but it didn’t do much for the golfers. “Hogan was one back when he pulled his drive into the rough on the last hole of the playoff,” Sagebiel pretended to recall. “People lined the fairway on both sides, but they had trouble finding his ball. That’s how thick it was.”
No, here’s how thick it was: It took Hogan three swings to get back to the fairway.
“It was too hard, really,” said Sagebiel, nicely understating the moral of his story.
Nearly six decades have passed, so you may be wondering what relevance the ’55 rough has to this week’s rough. Answer: None. But U.S. Open rough is always relevant to the poor saps who wind up in it. So I marched out Tuesday afternoon and took some scientific measurements with a delicate instrument I carry to all the major championships: a Marriott pen.
I found the Lake Course rough to be as Stricker described it: Spotty. The cuts bordering the fairways are inconsequential, but the graduated cuts up to the gallery ropes are lush and clumpy. And when I say clumpy, I mean growing in dense tufts that lean every which way. I measured patches no more than two inches deep (up to the letter ‘t’ in ‘Resorts’) right next to straight-standing grass that swallowed the entire pen before it hit bottom.
That explains the paucity of “worst rough ever” quotes. There are plenty of miserable lies, but there are just as many sigh-of-relief lies that don’t require a full-swing-sideways wedge to the fairway. Which could, perversely, lead to “flier” lies — the kind that leave a player gaping in horror as his ball soars over the green and into a grandstand. “The thick stuff I find a little more manageable,” Kuchar admitted. “You kind of just make a big explosion out of it.”
But you can’t make a big deal out of it. Not this year.
It’s kind of sad when the pros don’t have something to whine about, don’t you think?