Skip to main content
Publish date:

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

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.

The Cruelest Cut

The tiered rough at Winged Foot got a lot of attention,as did Ben Stover, the guy whose job it was to keep it shorn just so

BEN STOVER didn't get much attention when he was athird-string quarterback at Iowa State, so he was unprepared last week whenreporters and photographers sought him out at Winged Foot. "It's kind offunny," said the 23-year-old apprentice course superintendent. "Theguys on the crew say, 'What's next? Are you going to be on Letterman?'"

Stover, a brawny redhead who looks more like anoffensive lineman than a signal-caller, owes his 15 minutes of fame to theUSGA's decision to install graduated rough at its championships. In late April,when it was time to start grooming Winged Foot for the U.S. Open, coursesuperintendent Erik Greytok assigned Stover the task of mowing strips ofintermediate rough between the 11/2-inch fairway borders and the 51/2-inchprimary cuts. Greytok called this 20-foot-wide swath of 31/2-inch grass theStover Cut--because, as he explained last week, "we really didn't know whatelse to call it."

Every star needs a star vehicle. Stover's was aJacobsen HR 6010 rotary rough mower, which cuts a 10-foot swath when both boomsare down. "It's nice to have fold-up booms, because you have to staggeryour wheel marks. Otherwise you leave ruts," said Stover, who trimmed hiscut every evening at the conclusion of play. It's also nice to have an army ofvolunteers with rakes to fluff up and straighten the grass behind you.

Stover is no overnight success. He ran his ownlandscaping company when he was a teenager in Muscatine, Iowa, and went on tostudy turfgrass management at Iowa State. Two years ago he landed an internshipat Winged Foot during the club's staging of the 2004 U.S. Amateur. He returnedin January to work for Greytok. The rest, as they say, is history.

"The course is tough, but it's not unfair,"said Stover, watching first-round play on a monitor in the crew's food tent."The guys who are in the deep stuff around the trees are having trouble,but they seem to hit it pretty well out of my cut." Asked if he thoughtfuture U.S. Open roughs might carry his name, the rookie greenkeeper smiledshyly. "That's the goal," he said.

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

PHOTO

Photograph 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.

PHOTO

JOHN BIEVER

 LAWNMOWER MAN

Every day Ben trimmed the 20-foot-wide Stover Cut to exactly 31/2inches.

PHOTO

JOHN BIEVER

 GOODSTART

Davis enjoyed a "quiet" Open.

PHOTO

FRED VUICH

 HIGHPRICE

Driving into the rough cost Kenneth Ferrie and the other players ahalf-stroke.