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US Open 2022

Let’s wade into this deep US Open rough, inch by terrifying inch

A look at the rough along the 15th fairway — a place where you don't want to be.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a golf ball. White. A Titleist. Pro V1.

He dropped the ball into the grass behind the fourth hole at The County Club, where it settled like Little Red Riding Hood, lost in the forest on the way to Grandma’s house. The grass engulfed, imprisoned, damn near swallowed the ball. A splash of white, then part of the black script logo of the company could just about be seen.

“There you are,” said Dave Johnson, chief greenskeeper, director of grounds on the course.

This was a first introduction to The Rough. Not the real Rough, the abominable, indomitable, treacherous dark force — the US Open Rough — that will be cursed and bemoaned by the most famous golfers in the world for four championship days, viewed by the normal laymen choppers and hackers with the same cautious respect as, oh, the view from the top of the Empire State Building or the edge of the Grand Canyon.

This was the baby rough, or maybe the rough in a third-grade classroom, learning its multiplication tables and ready to grow.

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“This is 3½ inches?” Johnson was asked.

“Three and a half,” he answered.

“And it’s going to be 5½ by the big day?”

“Yes, it is.”

This was a month ago, middle of May. Maybe you remember the day. The month started with a streak of cold weather. High winds. Low temperatures. Frost sometimes overnight. There was a feeling that spring never would arrive. Then on this one day, May 13, the temperature changed, took off its zipper jacket, bounced into the 70s, shorts and t-shirts, maybe the reappearance of those huarache sandals. The world became ready to explode.

You could just feel it. Construction crews were building grandstands, setting up elaborate corporate tents — a man from Florida, right over there, was measuring the entire golf course with his special gizmo to supply yardage distances for the books for the famous golfers to consult for each hole — and now nature finally was going to join the effort.

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The 235 acres of the TCC campus, the same ground walked by Francis Ouimet when he came across the street from his house to stun Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, would add some familiar muscle.

Fifty different strains of grass, maybe 80, maybe more, a top-of-the-head estimate, grow in a semblance of harmony on the property. Seeds fly here and there during the spring, catch hold, and grow in new places. A golf course is a living, breathing organism. Come before the people arrive, early in the morning, after an overnight rain. The grass will be alert. Standing up. Different.

Things look pretty shaggy near the 10th hole.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The rise in the overnight temperature was the key here. Once the ground stayed above 50 degrees, keeping the warmth generated during the day, the magic began. Some of the same rough Francis Ouimet encountered in 1913 would be back to cause more trouble.

“The course changes,” said Boston businessman and member Steve Pellegrino, vice chairman of this Open. “If you play this course in April, into the first few days of May, it doesn’t matter where you hit your golf ball. You’ll find it.

“Then the natural grass arrives. The maintenance staff can’t keep up. By Memorial Day, you’ll feel like you’re playing in the US Open. Then, in the summer, everything changes again. The fescue browns up, starts to disappear. The course becomes more playable again.”

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The word “fescue” will be repeated often during the Open. This will be the most dramatic grass in the roughest of rough, tall as 3 feet, maybe taller in some places. Balls will be hard to find in the fescue, which was introduced — like golf — into North America from England in the tag end of the 19th century. Balls will be hard to hit in the fescue, dramatic pictures of grown men in expensive clothes flailing and failing in the attempt. Life will not be good in the fescue.

The second most prominent grass in the rough will be ryegrass. Practice chipping out of ryegrass may be done at the unkempt sides of most Massachusetts highways. Watch your back. The rest of the 50, maybe as many as 80, strains of grass will add to the puzzle.

“Look at this,” said Pellegrino, pulling a shoot of one variety of grass from the 10th green, right near the Little Red Riding Hood golf ball. “This is called poa annua.”

Not a single blade, the poa annua had shoots coming from all angles, like branches on a tiny green tree. Round objects, seeds, were on each of the branches. Think of the subtle influences all of this could have on the flight of a single golf ball. It would be like hitting out of a side serving of broccoli rabe. Will some poor soul be lamenting his fate, not even knowing it had been determined by a swatch of poa annua?

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“This can be nasty,” Pellegrino said.

Sand and tall grass help protect the 18th.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A run-through, a dress rehearsal, was done a year ago at The Country Club, the rough allowed to grow to its Open tale-of-the-tape heights and weights and consistency. The US Golf Association inspectors came, inspected, and liked what they saw. The course looked appropriately terrifying.

The same preparation was followed this year. Spraying of herbicides in the rough was stopped weeks ago. Compost — that black stuff right there — was added to help the natural grass (the polite term for the rough) to grow. The compost came from an interesting source, the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Merrimack, N.H. The sheath from the wheat is the major ingredient.

“So a man can drink a beer at the Open and walk on the byproduct of that beer at the same time?” Dave Johnson was asked.

“This is true,” he replied.

Johnson’s day will start at 3:30 a.m. during the tournament and conclude around 10 at night. His normal staff of 36 will be augmented by more than 100 volunteers from around the country, many of them famous in the greenskeeping business.

Greenskeepers from other US Open sites such as Bethpage Black and Shinnecock and Baltusrol and all the rest will do menial tasks, everything designed to make the test a true test for the people involved. Hit the ball well and there will be a reward. Vary ever slightly, well, say hello to the fescue. Say hello to the 5½-inch collar of natural-grass doom around every green. Say hello to the full-grown rough.

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“What club do I use to get out of this?” Brendan Walsh, head professional, director of golf at The Country Club for the past 24 years, was asked by a sad excuse for a local golfer who imagined the difficulties that lay ahead for the 156 visitors from around the world.

“The most lofted club in your bag,” Walsh replied. “And you take a more vertical stroke. Really get down on the ball.”

“These guys, the pros, of course know about the lofted club and the vertical stroke, right?”

“Yes, but they still have to hit the ball.”

Welcome to the botanical fun house, kids.