ERIN, Wisconsin — Rory McIlroy was pissed. Well, maybe not pissed, but incredulous anyway.
Sitting on a dais, fielding questions about the 117th U.S. Open, McIlroy was asked about the mowing that was going on right outside.
“What do you mean?” McIlroy shot back.
At that moment, several maintenance crews were on the course at Erin Hills, a first-time U.S. Open host, with lawn mowers and weed whackers, blowers and mini dump trucks, cutting down some grass on four different holes and hauling it away.
“They seem to be cutting down a lot of the fescue,” responded a reporter.
“Really?” McIlroy shot back. “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 pack your bags and go home.”
Preach it Brother McIlroy!
Just as the Masters has always been about a pristine landscape, the British Open about the wind and the PGA Championship about, umm, whatever it’s about, the U.S. Open has always been about the rough.
Tall grass, thick grass, penalizing grass … forcing players to hit fairways, hit greens and maybe – maybe – that’ll be good enough for a chance to win.
… and then Lee Westwood made a joke …
… the wonder was, would the USGA, which sets up the course and is in need of a controversy-free tournament following last year’s officiating debacle and the whiff at Chambers Bay in 2015, cave?
When the mowers were brought out, the answer seemed … not so clear.
As the USGA explains it, the Tuesday horticulture was a response to heavy overnight rain. You see, some of the fescue – in laymen’s terms: tall grass – doesn’t handle moisture so well. Rather than stand up, it sits down which, in the USGA’s determination, could lead to unplayable lies and thus unnecessarily punishing conditions.
Which is sort of the point, right?
The fairways at Erin Hills are exceptionally wide. There’s plenty of room to land the ball safely – more so this week than most PGA Tour stops – so shouldn’t you be penalized severely if you miss?
“These are the widest fairways we’ve ever played in a U.S. Open,” McIlroy opined. “Even the first and second cut is another 10 yards on top of that. So if you’ve got 50 or 60 yards to hit into and you’re complaining about the fescue … I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Let’s not for a second think that the USGA bended on pressure from Kevin Na or Lee Westwood even. But the stench of last year, when the USGA told Dustin Johnson mid-round he might incur a penalty for moving his ball – a non-decision that drew the ire of no less than Jack Nicklaus – still very much lingers. Couple that with the very questionable decision to hold the tournament in 2015 at untested Chambers Bay, and it’s understandable why the USGA might be a little paranoid this year at the untested Erin Hills.
In all, the grass has been cut back at four holes – 4, 12, 14 and 18 – which Jordan Spieth says doesn’t necessarily make things easier, but rather could entice players to take chances they otherwise wouldn’t.
Still, Spieth is on Team McIlroy when it comes to fairness.
“I don’t think the golf course is unfair, by any means, because of the fescue,” Spieth said. “We have a wide enough area to hit it and you need to drive the ball well in order to win a U.S. Open. I think that’s a fair thing to say.”
Or as Hurdzan Golf Design, the outfit responsible for the fescue at Erin Hills, put it in their response to Na’s criticism:
Dear Kevin, Don’t hit in the rough. Problem solved. Sincerely, Planet Earth.
You hear that, USGA?