Tiger Woods and the Rough: What Would Happen Without It?

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IJune 14, 2013

Tiger Woods tweaked his wrist or elbow at the U.S. Open
Tiger Woods tweaked his wrist or elbow at the U.S. OpenRoss Land/Getty Images

Yesterday, Tiger Woods winced in pain a few times when hitting balls out of the rough.  Several years ago, at the U.S. Open at Oakmont won by Angel Cabrera, Phil Mickelson actually injured his wrist practicing in their rough. You have to ask yourself, where did the idea of rough come from?  Do we need it?

Comparing any U.S. Open to St. Andrews Golf Links, the mother ship of golf, you have to wonder would it be better or worse to play professional golf and major championships with no rough?  Or certainly with no more rough than Augusta National has, an inch or inch and a half.  Would it actually identify the best player that week?  

Where did rough come from anyway? And why hasn’t someone other than Bobby Jones (at Augusta National) just decided to get rid of it? 

In days of yore, sheep mowed the grass by chomping.  A fairway or the short grass was defined by their eating habits.  Sheep also created bunkers, burrowing down into the sand to protect themselves against the wind coming off the ocean.  Pete Dye has always said so. John Hopkins, formerly of The Times of London agrees this is true.

Today, practically speaking, nobody except the guy in the GolfNow commercials uses sheep.  And no one wants to maintain PGA Tour length fairway grass throughout an entire golf course.  It would be prohibitively expensive if it were bentgrass, for example.  But what if the rough was cut down at least to Augusta length rough?  What would happen then?  

A couple things come to mind. Instead of golf balls getting caught up in grass around hazards, like bunkers and water features, they’d have more of a tendency to roll right in. 

Think about shots that have rolled casually from the 18th green at TPC Doral into the lagoon on the right.  Recall the numerous balls that have held up in the collar of rough around the island green at the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.  Good shots would become really good shots, and bad shots wouldn’t be saved.  For spectators, it would be riotous.  Really good golf would have to be played every week and nobody’s average shot would get saved by grass blades. 

Except when playing penal golf courses, the average golfer would spend far less time looking for “lost” balls because if they were on the planet, they’d be visible and findable.  They might be in the water or nestled in tree roots, but no one would have to launch a search party to find a ball because the grass would be short enough for the golf ball to be visible.  

When it comes to who created rough in the first place, the USGA Research team at Merion GC did not know the actual origin, but they provided historic citations referring to rough.  In 1907, in Great Golfers in the Making,  Frank Scroggie wrote that "McFarlane had been driving wildly, having repeatedly left Tait in the rough."

Two years later, Garden Smith in Golf Illustrated wrote, “When [pot bunkers] are used to guard the edges of the curse so as to take the place of the universal gorse or ‘rough’ which used to be there.” 

That does make you wonder, if pot bunkers replaced rough as hazards, why do we now double up with both? 

But perhaps the best is Henry Cotton, who in 1952 wrote, “When the war ended in 1945, so many golfers had got used to laying ‘around the park’ that the days of rough as we used to know it were ended.”

However, before writing about golf was commonplace, and before literacy was widespread, there was artwork. 

The oldest golf print is generally believed to be the Blackheath Golfer published by L. F. Abbott, and engraved by V. Green in 1790.  There’s no rough on the golf course.  Early photos of Harry Vardon and Willie Anderson show no rough. But perhaps they were posed and not on the course.

Surprisingly, USGA researchers agreed that eliminating rough is currently a big discussion in their circles, and they said, “Wait until next year!”   What they meant is that next year the U.S. Open is at Pinehurst, which has been recently redone.  There are only two mowing heights there: greens and fairways. The rest is waste area sand. At last we will find out if growing all the rough is necessary.


Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unlessotherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGAof America.