What's up with the fescue cutting at Erin Hills? A closer look

Bradley S. Klein/Golfweek

What's up with the fescue cutting at Erin Hills? A closer look

PGA Tour

What's up with the fescue cutting at Erin Hills? A closer look

ERIN, Wis. – Course setup and conditioning are always issues during practice rounds. That’s especially the case with a new layout like Erin Hills, home of this week’s U.S. Open. The problem becomes when those setup questions linger into Thursday. The hope here is that the issue of fescue gone wild will have been put to rest by the time the first round starts.

The trouble started when players went to social media to post their concerns – or mockery – of the knee-high native roughs that frame the holes here. Postings by Kevin Na and Lee Westwood went viral. Next thing you knew, mowing teams were dispatched onto the course to whack back some of the tallest, densest fescue that was close to lines of play. It looked like the U.S. Golf Association was reacting.

Rory McIlroy very nearly went ballistic in questioning his colleagues for complaining when the fairways here are 50 yards wide and framed by a swath of playable rough. “We have 60 yards from left line to right line,” he said. “You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here. If you can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.”

Actually, the cutbacks of fescue started more than a week ago, before the players arrived en masse, before the bellyaching from some golfers. The USGA and the Erin Hills maintenance crew have been pulling back some of the denser, taller fescue to uncover bunkers that had gotten overgrown, opening up more lines of visibility. On the 338-yard, par-4 second, crews removed the tallest fescue from the back of a massive fairway carry bunker. The move created more options for players to try the 280-yard carry and benefit from the downhill slope behind – without the risk of losing a ball that made it over.

USGA championship agronomist Darin Bevard explained it as he drove by. “We’re doing it for playability, visibility and aesthetics. Not to make the course easier, just to make it the way we wanted it to play before the fescues got so high.”

There’s a lot of turf out here on this 652-acre site. About 100 acres of it comprise a tangle of various fescues, not all of them ideal. There are denser growing chewings fescue and creeping red fescue alongside of more ideally suited hard and sheep fescues.

It’s not an easy tangle. The crew regularly cuts and harvests the stuff, shipping it off to local Amish farmers who use it for cattle feed. In a barter exchange, the Amish community handcrafts woodwork accessories for Erin Hills – water coolers, benches and signposts.

Lately, the fescues have sprouted as if on steroids. A cool, wet spring set the stage, followed by a burst of uncommonly hot temperatures the last two weeks that saw the fescue grow by as much as a foot. The chewings and creeping red fescues in particular got heavy-headed.

Fescue on the par-5 18th. (Bradley S. Klein/Golfweek)

Earlier in the week, superintendent Zach Reineking told USGA officials that if rains came, those tall fescues would lay down, rendering them unplayable. The irrigation system isn’t directly to blame. The spray heads are set inwards to keep the main spray away from peripheral roughs. But in a region where winds can vary despite prevailing from the west, drift from the sprinklers is inevitable. And when the areas near to fairways and shorter roughs get wet like that, they pose the danger of a lost ball for a golf shot that is only marginally offline.

That’s why the USGA staff mandated cutbacks. The last few days they have been in small swaths, totaling about an acre in extent across the entire golf course.

On the 637-yard, par-5 18th Wednesday morning, a crew was at work cutting a line of dense fescue starting at about 250 yards out from the green. It took all of 30 minutes to complete the job; 4 yards wide, 60 yards long, with not much more complicated machinery than a 20-inch wide push mower and some aggressive raking out. Then it was onto another spot, just to the left of the tee shot landing areas on the 492-yard, par-4 eighth, this one all of 4 yards wide and less than 20 yards long.

A crew cuts fescue on the par-4 eighth. (Bradley S. Klein/Golfweek)

The tweaking continues. Until the bell rings Thursday morning. And then we can put the great fescue caper behind us and focus on play.

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