What’s up with those 'not rough' areas? A primer

Dustin Johnson hits a shot from the natural habitat on the eighth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

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U.S. Open

Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort (No. 2)

6/12/2014 - 6/15/2014

Pos Name Thru Today Overall
1 Martin Kaymer $1,620,000 600 -9
2 Erik Compton $789,330 270 -1
2 Rickie Fowler $789,330 270 -1
4 Henrik Stenson $326,310 115 +1
4 Jason Day $326,310 115 +1
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PINEHURST, N.C. – Well, what are they?

They’re not roughs, because there’s no rough grass there. And it’s not really a waste area, whatever that term means. Back in 1999 and 2005 when the U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst Resort's No. 2 Course, it was 35 acres of dense, thick Bermudagrass. But now it’s gone, all 35 acres of it, during the restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw that wiped out the old, turfed-over areas lining the fairways and converted into sandy, scruffy broken ground anchored by 200,000 hand-planted plugs of wire grass. It now plays “through the green” even though it’s not very, well, green.

Jason Dufner found out about it when hitting his second shot Thursday afternoon in Round 1 on the par-5 10th hole. After thinking about how the ball might come out of the wire-grass turf, he opted for caution and just pitched out about 80 yards rather than risk a full-bore shot. It’s the kind of calculus that Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association executive director, was hoping the players would make.

First, as to what to call the stuff, somewhere during the week, Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course and grounds management, started calling it a “sandscape.” And the name is perfect. That’s because these areas are naturalistic, partially reconstructed and partially built anew. Like landscapes, only made of sand. In this case, they were rebuilt by the Coore-Crenshaw design/build team based on old photographic evidence of the way this course in the North Carolina Sandhills looked and played when its current routing and grassing scheme was finished – in 1935. It’s also the way it played for the next two decades.

Drawing upon ground photography, aerials, soil probes and no small measure of intuition, they brought Pinehurst No. 2 back to the way it was in its heyday – before the Bermudagrass rough took over in the 1960s. That meant clearing out turfgrass and bringing back old bunkers and open, sandy ground. The wire grass was put back in, and then came a big surprise: a succession of some 70 species of wildflower plants, grasses and sedges popping out of the long-dormant seed bed, all of it documented by agronomists. The wildflowers and grasses form a thin, patchy netting – less than a cover, more like a sprinkling of plants. It emerged in conjunction with the wire-grass clumps and the hollows and ridges of sand – not to be confused with formal bunkers – to provide uneven lies, uncertainty and guesswork.

Except it’s not clear the sandscapes are creating as much uncertainty and trouble as setup officials had anticipated. Earlier in the year, the USGA's Davis predicted that the sandy areas would create an easy shot one-third of the time, a bail-out recovery with a short edge one-third of the time, and the other third there would be uncertainty. Turns out, based on circumstantial evidence gleaned during the opening round, that there’s clean recovery possible about 80-85 percent of the time, and no more than 15-20 percent of the time is there serious uncertainty or wedging out. The parched areas have a lot of flat, sandy areas. They also have areas of thin coverage where the ball settles and can be struck cleanly.

In the past, traditional rough took its toll on U.S. Open players here: in 1999, to the tune of just under one-third of the time (0.302 of a shot); in 2005, just over one-third of a shot (0.363). This time around, it’s somewhat lower, 0.298 of a shot. The reasoning has to do with the marginal ease that players have in hitting out. They are more able to hit full shots out – in some cases longer than from fairways – though the ball comes out without spin. Of course often it has a lower trajectory because they can’t hit down on the ball as they can from fairway-height turfgrass, and the ball is harder to control than when hit out of the fairway. But they are getting it out.

With the roughs removed, the fairways were dramatically expanded, at least until about the 300-yard point off the tee, where on many holes the landing areas were necked down. There’s no question the fairways this year are easier to hit – 71 percent of the time in the first round, compared with cumulative four-round totals of 66 percent in 1999 and 51 percent in 2005. The wider fairways have contributed to a major jump in greens hit in regulation: from 47 percent in 1999 and 50 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in this year’s first round.

If the lies in the sandscape are not quite fraught with risk and uncertainty, they do make it hard to control the full shots that do come off the club. Repeatedly, iron shots played out of the rough had no spin and ran on and over greens. So even if the sandscape is not terrifying, it does pose strategic problems of control.

That also suggests that players might not need to be as cautious off the tee as they thought during practice rounds. Any strategic choice of clubs involves a risk/reward calculus. If the sandscapes aren't as punitive as first feared, there’s more reason for bold play off the tee, the more so because Ross’ greens here at Pinehurst No. 2 are best approached with a short club lofted very high and landing softly with a lot of spin. Whatever the calculus, it’s based on stuff that’s not rough. Nor is it waste area, hay, fescue or dirt. Call it sandscape.

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