This PGA Championship mystery has players and caddies spooked
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It is the question that may come to define the PGA Championship as we know it: Where on earth did the rough at Oak Hill come from?
Through one day at golf’s second major, the answers tell the story — if only because no two of them are alike.
“It’s not quite like a U.S. Open,” offered Patrick Rodgers, who took to greenside chipping practice from the deepest stuff he could find on the practice range Monday afternoon.
“No, it’s not that thick,” Rodgers said. “Maybe more like a Memorial Tournament.”
Just as the words left his mouth, Rodgers’ ball flubbed from the rough and rolled a dozen feet past his target. His next one was better — his ball gently tumbling next to the flag — but the damage had already been done. He grimaced as he dropped two more balls into the turf and got back to work. Evidently, the Memorial can be tough, too.
A walk around the East Course on Monday revealed Rodgers was far from the only victim. All throughout the day’s practice rounds, golfers could be seen clubbing their way through the grass with a morbid curiosity. Some needed two or three shots to trust their aggressiveness through the weeds, like an explorer testing a blunt machete. Sam Burns took the unusual step of beginning a practice session from the rough, but abandoned that effort after successive cold-tops traveled a combined distance of 100 yards.
While almost everyone agreed that the rough at Oak Hill wasn’t nearly as high as what’s expected from Los Angeles Country Club at next month’s U.S. Open, there was more disagreement around how difficult it’ll play once things get underway this week.
“It’s almost like Winged Foot,” said Joe Greiner, caddie for World No. 6 Max Homa. “It’s not quite as thick, but the grass is different here. The blades are thicker — and stickier.”
While there’s some room to quibble with the severity of the putting surfaces here in Rochester, Winged Foot isn’t a bad comparison. The greens are also postage-stamp small and rimmed with similar dollups of lush green grass, threatening even the least offensive miss. The fairways are city-sidewalk narrow and angled rudely toward danger. At Winged Foot and at Oak Hill, the punishment for a near-miss is almost worse than that of a dramatic miss, where at least one has the benefit of pedestrian traffic trampling some of the thick stuff.
“The lie might not look that bad,” Greiner said. “But it’s still really tough to get the club out.”
It’s only Monday, which — depending upon your perspective — means only two things: There are two more days to grow it out further, or two days to cut it. In some ways, the PGA of America has the advantage of player goodwill rarely afforded to USGA course setups. That could be enough to survive the thick stuff through the weekend. But with rain and cold weather expected in the coming days, things could quickly grow out of control.
That could spell danger for the PGA of America’s course setup hopes, but it might also spell delight for the Rochester faithful, who it turns out, have an opinion on the rough, too. The origin of that thick stuff, they say, is a century’s worth of it.
“My favorite tournament here was in 1980,” one fan in a bucket hat offered with a smile. “Jack won here at six under, and the rough must have been five inches high.”
The fans of Western New York may have traded their folding tables in for folding chairs this week, but they certainly haven’t traded their ruggedness. The course they hope to see doesn’t resemble Winged Foot or Muirfield Village, but the Oak Hill of their memories. That rough has bestowed headaches upon six major championships worth of pro golfers over these past eight decades. This weekend, nothing would make them happier than to reach number seven.
“I hope they don’t cut it,” the same fan said. “It’s more fun that way.”