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What is the Pinehurst rough that’s making the world’s best look stupid?

The native soil areas framing the US Open venue give it a very distinctive look. But it can also be deadly for the unwary and unlucky

 

Max Homa’s caddie probably should have had a word. His tee shot at the 5th had nestled in one of Pinehurst No. 2’s tricky zones – the sandy native areas that have defined this course since its restoration a decade ago.

It was a time for discipline, a time to avoid a disaster. It’s a near 600-yard par 5 after all. Get it back onto the fairway and move on.

But Homa had a wooden club in his hands and launched it at the surrounding tufts.

The ball barely left the ground, scuttling the grand total of 62 yards. For a moment, Homa, the World No. 10 and the destroyer of so many internet swings, looked like the choppers who sent him their videos.

What it showed, though, was the Russian Roulette nature of the Rustic Rough – as the PGA Tour’s website called it earlier this week – at this classic course.

Every player who finds it runs the gauntlet. Every ball that enters it jumps around in a potentially deadly scorecard game of jeopardy.

“What’s all in there is what Donald Ross called ‘the perfect rough’,” explained USGA chief championship officer John Bodenhamer.

“Why? Because when a player hits a shot into those sandy natural areas, it’s a walk up that fairway of a bit of anxiety, a bit of emotion, because they don’t know what they’re going to get.

“The randomness of that, it’s not just five-inch green lush rough. It can be something gnarly, wire grass, or it can be a perfect sandy lie.

“I think you’re going to see some players walk to their golf ball and be unhappy, and others are going to be thrilled that they can spin their ball off of those tight sandy areas. We think that is pretty cool, and we think that is exactly what Donald Ross intended.”

Pinehurst rough

Pinehurst rough: ‘I think for the viewer at home that’s more exciting’

Xander Schauffele might not see it that way. His tee shot at the 11th in the second round took a big bounce off the short stuff and came to rest perilously close to one of those raised clumps of grass.

He spent some time pondering how to extricate himself from this tricky spot but the ball swallow dived almost as soon as club made contact.

Then there was the 5th, where Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, and Rory McIlroy found themselves going back and forth as the sandy areas took their toll.

“You get down there and it’s kind of luck of the draw whether or not you have a shot,” said the World No. 1, who came away with double. “Preferably I would have loved to have hit like a little runner out of there, but I had a bush in my way to where I couldn’t play the runner that I would have hoped to.

“Really all you’re trying to do from there is get it up on to the green somewhere, and I felt like I took the best route I could think of at first, and just because it’s so unpredictable.”

So while we haven’t got the traditional lush thick stuff we’ve come to expect from a US Open venue, what is it that is nestling to cause such trauma?

It’s a natural sandy soil, which were filled in with clumps of wiregrass, and laid with pine needles, during the restoration of 2010 and 11.

Part of the reason was to reduce the amount of water needed on site, but what these un-irrigated areas also did was introduce an element of unpredictability,

A decade on and nature has done its thing – with all kinds of plant-life moving in to give golfers nightmares.

The narrow fairways that pinch in on various holes around the course only makes those areas even more visually terrifying.

So while it’s very difficult to lose a ball, players never really know what they’re going to face from this Pinehurst rough until they get right on top of it. A clean lie, a chip out? Or, as Homa found out, a shot to humble even the most accomplished golfer.

Not good for their hearts, but great for the viewer. That’s certainly McIlroy’s view anyway.

“I think a course like this definitely demands a different skill set and also some creativity,” he said before Thursday’s first round. “I think that will be on display this week. I’ve already seen some videos online of people maybe trying fairway woods or having lob wedges or putters.

“Even if you get half lucky and get a decent lie in that wire grass, sandy area, being able to hit a recovery shot.

“I think for the viewer at home that’s more exciting than seeing guys hack out of four-inch rough all the time.”

Pictures courtesy of the USGA

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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