The best thing at ‘nasty-a**’ Baltusrol? The challenge.
SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — It was only days ago that Steph, my Baltusrol caddie, announced the news that would come to ruin my day.
“We grow our own rough here,” he said. “Our very own strain of grass.”
He was not, it turned out, speaking in euphemism.
Some time ago, Steph explained, the club decided its two golf courses — the Upper and Lower, the latter the site of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship — necessitated the creation of a sod farm. The farm, it was decided, would help with replacing fairway turf during periods of heavy play. But it could also be grown up to build in the course’s best hazard: the rough, which by mid-summer is as thick and as juicy as anything in the world of golf. These days, the rough is made of 11 strains of grass, a variety chosen and carefully looked after by the Baltusrol course maintenance team.
“Nobody else has this,” Steph told us with a chuckle. “You can tell your readers you played THE Nasty Ass Baltusrol Kentucky Bluegrass.“
He was not, it would also turn out, kidding.
The rough at Baltusrol is equal parts long and brutally thick. It stops the clubface like a windshield stops a raindrop. The best you can hope for is a decent lie. Anything less than that? Well, thanks for coming out.
I arrived on site for this week’s Women’s PGA anxious to see how the rough — which had grown considerably since my round a little more than a week earlier — would fare against the best players in the world. Quickly I found it was a topic of conversation.
“You need to hit the fairways,” said Nelly Korda. “I feel like just in general, this rough is really thick. I’ve tried to hit 6-irons out and they come out as knuckleballs and dead left.”
“The rough is super thick” added Rose Zhang. “The chipping techniques that I’ve been using this week are definitely different from any other chipping techniques that I’ve been using.”
When play began, things weren’t much different. Korda struggled with accuracy all day on Thursday, hitting just eight of 14 fairways. She shot five over, then missed the cut on Friday afternoon.
Zhang faired only slightly better, hitting nine of 14 fairways on Thursday, and needed the best scrambling performance of her young career just to stay afloat on the Lower Course on Thursday.
“I had great course management,” she said. “I made a lot of clutch par putts, showed that I had the grind in me, and anyone who shoots red figures here should be pretty proud of what they were doing out there.”
By the end of Friday, the number of players who’d recorded two days in the red was even fewer.
But the real story through two days at Baltusrol is not the rough — though the rough is fun. It’s the golf course, which has proven to be all the things it was promised to be when the men’s PGA rolled through here in 2016. And that is kinda the point.
In recent years, as the prodigious, sometimes overwhelming might of men’s golf has led the sport to outpace some of its best tests, women’s golf has given the sport a glimpse of championship golf as it was originally intended to be. And the timing couldn’t be better, because in recent years, the women have increasingly been given the opportunity to play the kinds of championship tests that were long reserved only for the men.
“When I just walked out here yesterday and I played the front nine, I couldn’t believe what kind of condition the golf course was in,” Korda said Tuesday. “I think that the women’s game is really making a step forward where we get to play all these historic venues.”
Of course, there’s a lot made of the fact that the women’s game benefits from hosting championships at great courses, but there’s considerably less said about the fact that great golf courses benefit equally as much.
While the men bomb over treelines and ignore intention at the “cathedrals of the game,” the women are forced to think and feel their way around the course the way its creators originally hoped. Bomb-and-gauge is not an option. Proper execution is not enough. And heaven forbid the weather turn, as it did on Friday morning at Baltusrol, leaving the course playing what felt like several miles longer than intended.
What is left is a proper test of golfing mettle and skill, the kind that so rarely arrives in the men’s game. At Baltusrol, it means a proper championship challenge. So much was obvious watching the grouping of Zhang, Minjee Lee and Lexi Thompson, who sloshed their way through the rain on Friday afternoon. Approaches into the wrong side of the green were rejected by subtle but devastating breaks in the putting surfaces; missed fairways were attacked without impunity; only the most precise putter could find the bottom of the hole with anything approaching regularity.
“First and foremost, you really do have to grind when you’re out here,” Zhang said. “You’re not going to hit perfect shots, and even if you do hit perfect shots, you need to be in the position to where you place the ball properly on these greens.”
And as for what makes this different from an average week on the LPGA?
“All of it,” said Korda with a laugh. “You need length. You need to hit the fairways, and you need to position really well. The greens are really big and they’re undulated.”
Those who haven’t found a little bit of everything through two days at Baltusrol will find themselves watching the weekend from home, like Korda. Those who have?
Well, there’s still two more days for the Lower to show its nastiness.