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Rough Justice - The History, Theory and Folly of Roughs

This article courtesy of the Golf Architecture Magazine

By Dr. Michael J. Hurdzan, ASGCA
Hurdzan/Fry Golf Course Design

Roughs, those areas of grasses cut higher than fairways and bordering them like a fur collar on a coat, have become a common form of hazard on golf courses; perhaps too common and to the point of ruining the game. A look at the history, theory and folly of rough might serve to refocus our thinking and restore some vital elements back to the game of golf - like strategy for example.

First the folly. There seems to be an attitude amongst organizations that hold golf tournaments to feel that they need to defend par, the honor of the golf course, or the tradition of their competition. These bodies must worry and fret that a competitor might post a score of perhaps 20 under par or better, and that this somehow would diminish the value of their championship, and having a deep rough will protect against that. The most obvious overuse and abuse of rough was once seemingly the sole purview of the US Open, but at Carnoustie in 1999 the practice was extensively employed, and even Augusta National started to grow rough to repel Tiger attacks. William "Hootie" Johnson, Chairman of Augusta National, said, "These young men are hitting the ball a long way. We (Augusta National) felt we could no longer let them swing from their heels." Jack Nicklaus added, "Now Augusta National looks like a U.S. Open Course". Tournament play might be one thing but many golf courses and country clubs are even trying to grow U.S. Open roughs for everyday play.

The theory of rough is that if a competitor is not "sure" with his shots and can’t keep them within the narrow confines of the manicured heaven of the fairways, then his ball may come to rest in the manicured purgatory (because it isn’t easy to get out) of the rough. Typically the fairways are 28 - 30 yards (25 to 27m) wide and mowed at ½" (12mm), with perhaps a "friendly rough" (talk about an oxymoron) of 1 ½" to 2" (37 to 50mm) high grass while the rough is mowed at 4" to 6" (100 to 150mm) high. "Real Rough" is usually classified as "jungle". At many competitions the rough has been so fertilized and watered, that forecaddies are required to spot the ball when it lands, and place a small flag by it so the competitor won’t lose his golf ball. Then the player is expected to thrash the ball out, for there is virtually no hope of hitting a real golf shot, and get on with his game.

The difficulty of rough for the golfer is, of course, trying to get the clubface on the ball to impart backspin, when it is nestled like an egg in a nest of leafy green vegetation. Competitors have injured wrists and backs trying to hack their way to freedom. When a ball is struck with virtually no backspin, it’s commonly called a "flyer" because it travels farther on a lower trajectory. Perhaps these shots should also be called "runners" because it more aptly describes how the ball reacts when it hits the ground. The golfer’s misery caused by rough are compounded by today’s penchant for ultra fast greens, which in turn means they are flatter, with little or no frictional resistance to roll because of the micro fine mowing height of greens, with no grain, making it virtually impossible to stop even a shot with lots of backspin.

A shot from the competitive rough to a modern green is more luck than skill. In fact one only needs to look at the hot new golf equipment of recent times which include lofting irons, utility woods that promise being able to dig out the golf ball and give high trajectory shots that stop quickly, and golf balls designed with dimple patterns to produce high, soft shots. Many club fitters are encouraging customers to not even buy 2, 3, and 4 irons and instead substitute more utility woods and wedges to handle flat, firm greens and deep roughs.

In my 50 years of being around the game, I can’t ever remember one person saying, "gosh, I love hacking golf shots out of ankle deep roughs," and I honestly don’t expect to hear that in my next fifty either. Shots out of the rough are no fun and can even be downright discouraging, which isn’t why we love and play the game. You might ask, "but isn’t that the purpose of a hazard (of which I have just established it is) to impose a penalty on a wayward shot?" Of course it is, but when it is overused it will destroy any strategic qualities the golf course might offer and simply makes it a penal golf course.

In speaking again about Augusta National, Jack Nicklaus said, "It’s changed the nature of the golf course. The Masters has always been a more difficult golf tournament than any other; open fairways with hard, fast greens. Bobby Jones wanted it to be a second shot course." Ben Crenshaw said of the Year 2000 Augusta roughs, "I would say what it has done is to make the course less interesting. This course does not play like it did before (the added rough). It was the most vastly interesting course I had ever seen because it was not dictated to where you had to put your drive. There were some spots where you wanted to be in the rough."

The Old Course at St. Andrews has wide landing areas with virtually no rough and hence it offers multiple avenues between tee and green, which is the essence of strategy. Oh, sure there is a fair amount of gorse and areas of long grass, but these are not formalized on either side of the fairway like a noose around a condemned man’s neck. Not only is there no design creativity in simply ringing a fairway with rough, it is boring, artificial, slows play, and puts a premium on mechanically hitting straight shots, instead of allowing golfers to invent creative, recovery golf shots.

At this point I trust I still have a readership, and that I have sufficiently established the theory and folly of rough. To further validate my points I believe it is instructive to now look at the history of rough.

In the earliest days of golf some believe it was a game first played by the Dutch on ice, and later by Scots on linksland, mostly in the late fall to early spring when native grasses were short and dormant after a season of grazing by livestock. In the spring and summer, grasses were at their optimal growth and since no mowing was done, the entire golf course or "green" looked like rough, making it easy to lose the expensive feathery golf balls.

At some unknown point in the last half of the 1800’s, the game became popular enough that efforts were made to keep summer grasses shorter, first by increasing the herd size of grazing animals, then using men with scythes and sickles, and still later by horse drawn mowers. Each of these progressions resulted in more precisely controlled turf heights and more discrimination about where they should occur. Obviously the animals didn’t give a hoot so to speak, whether they were grazing on a tee, green, fairway or rough, and so they nibbled everything to the same height. The guys with the scythes and sickles were a little more cerebral about what they were doing, but not much, for their job was to cut the grass, probably once or twice in the late spring or early summer, everywhere, and probably at the same height. (If you have ever cut large acreages with these tools you can relate to the imprecision and difficulty involved.)

The horse drawn mowers not only improved the speed and efficiency of mowing, but also improved the precision, for now there was a reel and bedknife that could be adjusted for height. However this also added to the expense and inconvenience of golf course maintenance for golfers, so probably some Club Secretary wanting to save money, gave the mow men instructions to only cut certain areas and let other areas grow. This miserly move was the genius (?) that gave golf the concept of rough.

When golfers complained about losing golf balls in the unmown grassy areas, they were probably told then, as now, "Well that’s part of the game, and you must simply learn to stay in the fairway." Also the compromise of being able to play golf in warm weather seemed worth the inconvenience of longer grass just off the fairway, and soon rough became internalized as simply part of the game. I estimate this to have taken place around 1875 and by the early 1900’s, when mowing machines powered by internal combustion engines were starting to be introduced, rough was an established and integral part of the golf course and became an accepted form of hazard.

Although 20th century golf course architects now commonly use rough as part of their design strategy, fairways then were usually 50 to 70 yards (45 to 65m) wide to give the golfer plenty of options about choosing the best line to the green. A major principle of strategic design philosophy was that individual and daily decisions should be encouraged on how to attack any given hole location, based upon the wind, dryness of turf, personal strength, and the most prudent and proper balance of risk and reward. One day might favor a drive to the far right of the fairway and the next day it might be to the far left on that same hole. Golf was a thinking person’s game requiring inventing and hitting creative golf shots.

This wonderful form of golf is still found on many historic linksland courses, but it has been sadly lost on most modern courses. Strategic golf has been choked to death by rough, drowned by irrigation, and buried by trees. Allow me to explain.

Wide-open fairways with some bordering rough became a hallmark of golf courses with unwatered turf. By necessity the rough had to be pushed back to allow for the run of the ball once it landed on baked summer ground that were covered best by dormant grasses. Then starting in the 1920’s and in full swing by the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, fairway irrigation started to become a normal golf course fixture. Typically the irrigation pipe was a single line placed right in the middle of the fairway. But sprinkler heads only threw water effectively out to about 60% of their total precipitation pattern. This meant a sprinkler head rated to throw 90’ (27m), only provided significant water out to 54’ (16m), with the remaining 36’ (11m) outside the radius only getting a fraction of what the inside got. This further meant that the greenkeeper had to either over- irrigate the inside 54’ (16m) to properly water to outside 36’ (11m), or more commonly he would correctly water the inside and hence underwater the outside. So now the middle 108’ or 32m (54’ or 16m either side of the irrigation pipe) of the fairway was nice and green in the summer drought, but the rest of the turf was still more brown than green.

At this point someone reasoned: (1) since we can now irrigate the fairway; (2) the ball doesn’t run as far as it used to before irrigation; AND (3) if we let the grasses beyond the irrigated area grow higher they won’t be so brown; so (4) we’ll simply move the rough in closer to the center of the fairway. This logic slowly reduced fairway width from 50 to 70 yards (45 to 65m) wide to a near 35 or 40 yards (32 or 36m). Since rough requires less care than fairway, the golf course management could also reason that narrow fairways would help hold down maintenance costs that were then spiraling upward.

Where environmental conditions of a site permitted tree growth, the next step in the evolution of rough, was usually for a group of skilled golfers, but amateur arborist’s, to reason that if each hole was framed in trees, this would make the golf course even more attractive, and what better place to plant them than in the rough - usually near the fairway rough interface. Naturally these well meaning, but usually uninformed folks, either planted the wrong species or they didn’t allow for the mature height and width of the tree canopy, or both. Soon shade and competition from tree roots made growing turfgrasses under these trees extremely difficult, and the usual solution was to again narrow the fairway by letting the turf under the shade or dripline to grow taller. Finally about 1960 and continuing on yet today, fairways have narrowed to the point where there is no room for a truly strategic golf experience, and hence most golf courses today, either accidentally or intentionally, are of the penal style of design. Risk and reward is almost non-existent except on linksland courses that haven’t succumbed to the perversion and folly of rough.

If golf course management or a golf course architect wants to establish or restore the most exciting brand of golf – risk and reward – then efforts should be made to once again produce wide fairways. Push back the rough lines, cut down the trees and use rough as a hazard as sparingly as possible, and the game will be all the better for it.

by Dr. Michael J. Hurdzan
Courtesy of the Golf Architecture Magazine - click for more