2006: Rough Enough - Winged Foot's fairways

For all the attention paid to course setup, graduated rough and the quality of Winged Foot’s greens, this U.S. Open is going to be remembered for its wild finish.

A U.S. Open is all about hitting fairways and greens and not making big mistakes. That’s what ultimately cost Phil Mickelson.

For 17 holes Sunday, Mickelson got away with stray drives, finding only two fairways and otherwise ending up in favorable lies in the rough. But all of that caught up with him on the 72nd hole when he got overly bold.

Despite the high scores, players generally lauded the course setup.

“There’s no problem with plus-5, no” said Colin Montgomerie, who finished in a three-way tie for second after making double bogey on No. 18 Sunday. “I think the USGA set the course up very well, and all credit to them.”

The goal for the U.S. Golf Association going into Winged Foot this year was to provide a consistent set of conditions – and avoid losing control of the course as happened during U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach (1992), Olympic Club (1998), Southern Hills (2001) and Shinnecock Hills (2004).

The big innovation this year was tiered rough. It was the hope of USGA president Walter Driver and Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competition, to establish rough heights so that the relative punishment of missing fairways would match the degree to which the shot was offline.

The plan entailed narrowing the fairways to 24-26 yards in the primary landing areas, framed by three widths of rough, each thicker than the one before and maxing out at 6 inches deep just inside the ropes. There’s no way to maintain thick deep rough outside the ropes because spectators trample that down, but at Winged Foot the USGA billowed out the ropes marginally at the main landing areas.

Judging by Mickelson’s luck in landing playable lies for his wayward shots, the USGA didn’t push the ropes out far enough. They also ended up with a hospitality tent so close to the left rough on the final hole that two players, Mickelson and Vijay Singh, hit it down the stretch.

For the week, golfers hit only 50 percent of fairways (compared with 62 percent on the PGA Tour through June 11) and only 51 percent of greens in regulation (compared with 64 percent on the PGA Tour through June 11).

It’s hard to know, however, whether the tiered rough plan actually worked. There are no data for which part of the rough players hit. What’s clear is that the price to be paid for missing fairways was severe, exactly a half-shot for the week on average, compared to .363 of a shot in 2005. The effects at Winged Foot varied drastically from hole to hole, depending upon length of approach and hole position. Witness Sunday’s statistical oddity on the short par-4 sixth, the only hole with uniform rough rather than tiered rough, where the thick stuff exacted a toll of .943 shots (to the flag up front). Missing the fairway on the 449-yard par-4 17th hole, by contrast, was associated with a gain of .086 shots (this to a back hole location, which rewarded a run up).

Rarely has a course played this tough. For the week, there were only 12 rounds under par, none better than 68. The average score was 74.99, more than a half-shot higher than at Pinehurst last year (74.16), more than two shots higher than the 1997 PGA at Winged Foot (73.13) and more than a shot higher than the 1984 Open at Winged Foot (74.39). In recent history, only that infamous 1974 Open at Winged Foot was worse – 76.99.

There was grumbling that the greens were slow and bumpy, especially earlier in the week. The culprit was the Poa annua component of the Poa/bentgrass greens. There still was some moisture in the ground as the championship began, plus some residual seed head production. Because of the severe slopes of these putting surfaces, USGA officials and the Winged Foot crew didn’t need to double-cut the greens, relying only upon single cuts to get the greens to the desired speed of 12 on the Stimpmeter. Any faster and they would have been unplayable. That’s why the crew never rolled the greens. Had they done so, the greens would have picked up too much speed in the morning.

If players were coming up short all week (co-runner up Jim Furyk leaving his 25-foot birdie putt 10 feet short on No. 15 Sunday was the poster boy for this), it was the product of caution. The players knew that a fall-away area often lay behind the cup and that a bold putt could mean a long recovery.

The first green was so steep that USGA officials didn’t bother to measure it with a Stimpmeter. There was not enough level ground to get a reliable read, but officials did let the players know earlier in the week to expect No. 1 to putt slower than all of the other surfaces.

“We had to select the four easiest hole locations there for the week,” said Davis. The first was, by far, the hardest green to putt – with an average of 1.99 putts per player, .20 putts more than the next toughest green (No. 18) and .25 putts per green harder than the average green at Winged Foot. Players took 31.32 putts per round, compared with 29.11 per round for PGA Tour events this year. That’s nearly nine shots for the week on the greens alone.

Add in the punitive rough and the pressure of a national championship and you have slow burns everywhere at Winged Foot. None of them, however, comes close to the major meltdowns at the 72nd hole for which this event will be remembered.

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