Rough Justice

The greens were lumpy, the fairways mere ribbons, and the scores ... oh, my! Yet everyone came away thinking that Winged Foot was fair
June 25, 2006

You might not knowthis, but Zeus was a sweetheart. Yeah, he hurled thunderbolts, but that was hisjob. In person he was laid-back, amiable, a pipe smoker. When Zeus ruined someGreek's picnic or sank a barge, he'd say, "It's B.C.--it's supposed to behard." ¬∂ I thought of Zeus last week. A bunch of us were in Mamaroneck,N.Y., for the U.S. Open, and--as is always the case at the Open--the golf godswere playing rough. They sent Tiger Woods home after two days. They rained ninebogeys, three double bogeys and a triple bogey on Sergio García in 36 holes.They teased Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie for 71 holes before rippingtheir hearts out on the threshold of glory. They made the West course at WingedFoot Golf Club so treacherous that the field's average score for four roundswas 74.99, almost 20 over par. "I don't know why," said a discouragedMickelson, "but this certainly is the toughest U.S. Open venue."

But when you wentbackstage and talked directly to the gods, you got a very different picture.Take Winged Foot's course superintendent, Erik Greytok. Judging from the roughhe had grown for the Open--heavy, moist blankets of grass thick enough toimmobilize a dachshund--I figured him for a chain-smoking martinet with asadistic streak. Instead I met a pleasant young man in shorts and a polo shirtwho looked about as excitable as a suburban gardener. There was a sign on hisoffice door: PLEASE DO NOT ENTER THIS ROOM UNLESS IT IS AN EMERGENCY.

"At around9:30 in the morning," Greytok explained, "I like to take acatnap."

I noticed asimilar lack of frisson in Mike Davis, the USGA's new director of rules andcompetitions, who succeeded Tom Meeks. Davis is the USGA's resident scourge,the man responsible for the association's course setups, the man who narrowedWinged Foot's fairways and chose hole locations so tough that they'd shock apriest in the confessional. But when I caught up with him last Fridayafternoon, Davis had the relaxed demeanor of a pensioner. We sat in a golf cartoff the 18th fairway and chatted for 30 or 40 minutes, and in that whole timehis radio earpiece chirped only once. "The radio has been wonderfullyquiet," he said. "I don't remember a U.S. Open where it's been soquiet."

Winged Foot, itturns out, is where the golf gods go for R&R. Unlike most U.S. Opencourses, which require extensive tinkering and months of hard labor to berendered unplayable, Winged Foot is pretty much impossible by nature. Thegreens are small with high sides and swoopy contours. The bunkers are deep andunforgiving. Narrow fairways dart left and right, denying long hitters theopportunity to employ the bomb part of their bomb-and-gouge tactics.

"The pros misstheir shots right or left, not short or long," golf architect Rees Jonestold me during the third round, "and this is one of the hardest courses inthe world to recover from the sides." Jones, who stretched the A.W.Tillinghast--designed West course by 300 yards in preparation for this year'sOpen, laughed when I asked if he wanted credit for some of the hard-to-reachhole locations. "This may be one of the few courses where hole locationsdon't matter," he responded. "You could put the hole in the middle ofthe green, and the players still couldn't get close."

The golfers musthave understood that, because there wasn't a lot of grousing at Winged Foot."There's been some conversation about greens being a bit bumpy," USGApresident Walter Driver acknowledged during a Wednesday-morning pressconference. "These are poa annua greens, and given the weather and thesoftness, that's not to be unexpected." Television closeups showedfast-moving putts bouncing and slow-moving putts zigging when you expected themto zag. Woods called the greens "slow and bumpy." Darren Clarke, whenasked if they were the worst major-championship greens he had ever encountered,said, "Yes, comfortably."

There were alsosome furrowed brows about the 1st green, which is pitched so severely that theUSGA couldn't measure its speed; there was no surface level enough to use thestimpmeter. "It's the most treacherous green on all the U.S. Open courseswe use," said Davis, "and we have some doozies." (To no one'ssurprise, the 450-yard par-4 ranked No. 1 in difficulty with a 4.47 strokeaverage over four rounds.) As for the alleged slowness of the other 17 greens,Davis pointed out that Winged Foot's ridges and undulations made any stimpspeed over 12 problematic. "If we had pushed it to the high 12s," hesaid, "we couldn't have used 20 percent of the hole locations."

Mostly, though,the players seemed content with the course setup and grateful that the highwinds predicted for the weekend never materialized. The rough, in particular,inspired fewer angry tirades than usual. Yes, it was deep. (Mickelson's caddie,Jim MacKay, worried that his man might mistakenly hit one of the many Pinnaclesand Top-Flites lost by club members.) Yes, it was dense. (Padraig Harrington'sthird round ended disastrously on the 18th when his all-out swing with a hybridclub produced a shot that barely cleared his own shadow.) But for the firsttime in U.S. Open history the rough was--how shall I put it?--fair.

The difference wasa graduated mowing scheme (sidebar, page G8) championed by Davis. "I alwaysthought it was ridiculous to see a guy miss the fairway by four feet and haveto wedge out," Davis said last Friday. "This in-between height givesplayers a chance to hit a great recovery."

Or not. Playerswho muscled shots up near the green from the intermediate rough often foundthemselves in poor position to get up and down. By tournament's end the tieredturf had exacted a half-stroke price for each missed fairway. (At the 2005 U.S.Open, by way of comparison, Pinehurst's rough cost the competitors a third of astroke per mistake.) That benefited Geoff Ogilvy, who hit eight more fairwaysthan Mickelson on the way to his five-over 285, the first over-par winningtotal since Andy North shot 285 (one over) at the 1978 Open at CherryHills.

"Personally, Ilove it," said Davis. "It rewards the shotmakers."

The shotmakerssometimes think they are the gods. Mickelson made that mistake on Sunday whenhe tried to reach the 5th green with a five-wood from a grassy pocket in theleft rough. He had 179 yards to the hole before his attempt and perhaps 178afterward: The ball popped to knee height before plopping back into the thickstuff. Lefty took a deep breath and changed clubs, but he bogeyed the shortpar-5, the easiest hole on the course.

That was a mereprelude to the fan favorite's gods-forsaken play on the 72nd hole. Needing apar to secure the third leg of the Mickelslam and a 5 to get into a playoffwith Ogilvy, Mickelson drove wildly off a hospitality tent, tangled with a treeon his second, then buried his third in a greenside bunker, effectively handingthe championship to the Australian. "I thought I could get it around thetree," a chastened Mickelson said.

If Montgomerie hadseen a tree, he might have hanged himself from it, having cost himself at leasta chance at a playoff by plopping his approach at the last hole into thegreenside rough. "You wonder sometimes why you put yourself throughthis," said the 43-year-old Scot, who had blown a precious opportunity towin his first major. He added, "It was a very fair test of golf, the mostdemanding test we've ever had, and 285 is a great score. I think the USGA setup the course very well, and all credit to them."

That was music tothe ears of Davis, Jones and Greytok. The USGA man, the course doctor and thegreenkeeper spent most of Sunday watching their greens bake in 90° heat, butthe poa putting surfaces--though brown and crusty in spots--held up. It was thegolfers who wilted.

"Winged Footwas Winged Foot," Davis summed up, accepting handshakes and backslaps inthe clubhouse. "I can think of a few minor things we might have donedifferently, but the course was wonderful. For me it was fun to sit back andwatch it happen."

Nice guy, Davis.Wouldn't hurt a Phil.

"If we had pushed [green speeds] to the high12s," Davis said, "we couldn't have used 20 PERCENT OF THE HOLELOCATIONS."

PHOTOPhotograph by Fred Vuich OFF-LINE
Mickelson, who hit only 24 fairways all week, got away with this miss on Sundayat 17, but paid dearly on 18.
Every day Ben trimmed the 20-foot-wide Stover Cut to exactly 31/2inches.
Davis enjoyed a "quiet" Open.
Driving into the rough cost Kenneth Ferrie and the other players ahalf-stroke.