U.S. Open: Would the No-Rough/Brown Look at Pinehurst Work for Your Course?

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IJune 19, 2014

Martin Kaymer tees off among the native grass and dog fennel.
Martin Kaymer tees off among the native grass and dog fennel.Associated Press

The USGA is still in the middle of the great golf course experiment at Pinehurst No. 2 where the U.S. Open was played last week and the U.S. Women's Open is being contested this week. It cost $2.5 million to create the brown and rough-less look. And they are not done. When the ladies are finished, Pinehurst will replace the bentgrass greens with bermudagrass, which is easier to maintain in the heat of the south.

For those who like facts, in the redo, Pinehurst reduced irrigation heads from 1,125 down to 450, going back to the old irrigation lines wherever they could locate them. Approximately 90 of the sprinklers are in the fairways, and the rest are around the greens and in the practice areas, according to Bob Farren, director of course and grounds maintenance at Pinehurst Resort.

In all, 35 acres of turf were taken out. That doesn't sound like a lot until you think of it in terms of quarter-acre lots, which would be something like a 140-house neighborhood, gone.  

They have cut back in water use from 55 million gallons to 15 million annually. That will put a positive spin on the water bill and the electricity bill to pump it.

The mowing is now done in two heights: fairway and green. There is no rough mower for this course. (Then again, they have seven or eight other courses that still have rough and double-row irrigation, so the mowers will still get used and the water bill will probably approach the national debt.)

If, like me, you wondered what those green spiky things were growing in the rough at Pinehurst No. 2, according to Farren, they are dog fennel, a perennial (meaning it grows back next year) plant that tends to show up in unmaintained areas, like closed golf courses. You'd call it a weed if it were in your lawn.

According to Farren, they hand pull the dog fennel and then spot treat other unwanted specimens. Nobody really wants to wee a golf course by hand, so the practicality of that is a problem to be dealt with as time goes on. Dog fennel grows to about four feet in height and spreads. You do not want it to take hold.

Down the road and around the bend from No. 2, at Peggy Kirk Bell's Mid Pines Golf Resort, because the roads wind from here to there in that part of the world, they have recently finished a similar "no rough" renovation that has a slightly different look, at least on the holes that were visible in the early evening from the restaurant and grill.

There is almost none of the sandy stuff that framed the Pinehurst No. 2 holes. Instead, the golf course is either fairway, green or pine straw, which has some soil peeking through here and there. There's no rough. It was beautiful, a bit like Augusta National before the second cut got added. It just made you want to go out and play golf.

Pine Needles did not have the brown look of Pinehurst No. 2. It just did not have rough. Whether that's easier or harder for maintenance and whether they will save on water will eventually be discovered. It definitely looked like it would be hard to lose a golf ball. And it was a Donald Ross course, just like No. 2.

Now, if you wanted this look, would it work for you?

For some places, like Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, out on the sandy soil of Long Island, it's probably workable.  Other places just do not look pretty when they are crispy critters. Some courses can't do it because of the composition of the soil.  

I grew up in the Midwest on a course with no rough irrigation (it was added later). In August, our junior golf groups loved the roll of the concrete-like earth. But we didn't take divots. If you hit the ground with your club, it would actually make kind of a twang sound and vibrations would run, painfully, all the way up your arms. You did not want to hit that hardpan.  

If no grass were ever grown in the rough in hardpan areas, a lot of bad things would happen. Dust Bowl kinds of things. The grass holds the dirt to the planet.

However, that doesn't mean that we couldn't cut the grass all one length or lower lengths. It doesn't mean we can't water less.

The result of doing those two things: It would make golf balls easier to find and would give every golfer more distance because there would be more roll. It might even speed up play.

Perhaps those are the takeaways of Pinehurst No. 2's remodel: water less and mow down the rough to the same height as the fairway. Radical? Not really. Sensible.

Think of it as taking a design from the runway in Paris and adjusting the best parts of it to something that is halfway normal for the racks at Macy's. Adjust. Tweak. See how it plays.      


Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.