It must be US Open week because the pros took one look at Erin Hills, site of the 117th US Open, and you heard more bellyaching than a hospital emergency room.
It usually takes one practice shot from the heavy rough for them to pronounce the course unplayable. On cue, Kevin Na posted a video on Instagram where he dropped a ball in the wispy fescue grass and struggled to find it let alone advance it. Na characterized the fescue as “almost unplayable.” Later, Billy Foster, the longtime caddie of Lee Westwood, emerged from the fescue on his belly in another video, lifted a ball in the air and proudly proclaimed, “Found it!”
The cacophony of complaints is a tradition as long as the U.S. Open final round being played on Father’s Day. Michael Hurdzan, one of the three architects who combined to design Erin Hills, took to Twitter with his retort: “Dear Kevin, Don’t hit it in the rough. Problem solved. Sincerely, Planet Earth.”
Hurdzan added a postscript, noting that the fairway width this week probably is two-to-three times that of most Tour stops. But Na’s moaning is to be expected. It is as much a rite of June as weddings, and it seemed about right for an Open. What came as a complete surprise was the USGA’s response. On Tuesday, out came the weedwackers. They hacked the fescue lining the fairways on hole Nos. 4, 12, 14, and 18. As USGA executive director Mike Davis put it, “They could feed a lot of cattle with all the fescue that’s been harvested.”
The grounds crew hacked away as Rory McIlroy was in the midst of his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday. When informed of the move, McIlroy expressed surprise and disappointment.
“Really?” McIlroy said. “We have 60 yards from left line to right line. You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here, if we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well as pack your bags and go home.”
Which begs a question: Did the championship just sneak up on the USGA? The staff has been planning the course setup for five years. The 2011 U.S. Amateur held here was supposed to serve as a dress rehearsal to workout such kinks. It appears to be a knee-jerk reaction due to player complaints. When has the USGA ever made the course easier ahead of its championship? This is the same governing body that once planted a 15-foot-high tree overnight between the first and second rounds in 1979 at Inverness Golf Club when players aimed tee shots into an adjoining fairway to shorten a par-5 hole. This is the same association that when asked during the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot if USGA officials were trying to embarrass the best players, USGA president Sandy Tatum replied, “No, we’re trying to identify them.”
In the USGA’s defense, it has been one of the rainiest springs that Wisconsin has ever had, and wet weather is forecasted for the tournament, which could make the already dense fescue in the course’s native areas even more unwieldy.
But there seems to be another motivation behind the USGA’s haircut to the fescue grass. In a nutshell, the USGA can’t afford another blunder. In 2015, the greens at Chambers Bay were browns. Player complaints were justified. Last year, during the final round, neither contestants nor fans watching knew who was leading the tournament and by how many strokes as the possibility of a penalty being levied against Dustin Johnson for his ball moving on the fifth green took too long to be determined. Add in another rules controversy at the U.S. Women’s Open against Anna Nordqvist whose club touched a granule of sand during a playoff and the USGA has had a lot of egg on its face of late.
“We want to avoid those things,” Davis said. “But sometimes things happen.”
Sometimes, even golf’s governing bodies get gun-shy just as sometimes Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson take the conservative route to the green. In this particular circumstance, the USGA is playing it safe to avoid any further embarrassment. Since when is the penalty for missing the fairway not part of identifying the best player? As McIlroy said, “It’s a U.S. Open, it’s supposed to be a tough test.”
The USGA has enacted new rules to avoid past blunders, instituted new protocols to handle future controversies, and heard the cries from the players and peanut gallery to do better. It deserves credit for looking in the mirror and not liking what it saw. It can do better.
However, the 11th-hour cutting of the rough is indicative of how concerned the USGA has become to avoid conflict this week at all cost.
“It’s good, as long as they don’t go overboard and try to make everybody happy,” Paul Azinger said.
Happy? Davis and the USGA seem to have forgotten that it wouldn’t be the US Open without a little complaining.
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