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I.M. Wilde asks, ‘How deep should rough be, and what is its function on a golf course?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


I hate rough. Last week, I spent so much time there, marshals asked if I had a condo! Rough treats me like a baby treats a diaper. The rough is so deep that lost golfers get lost. Pro tournament rough "identifies the best player." Some clubs use coroners to "identify the body."

Try to count the golfers who love hacking it out of rough. You can use a fingerless hand. Who decided that fairways needed fur collars? No one, really. Roughs developed not through logical evolution, but from a lot of things that just happened.

Scotland's early mowing (and fertilizing) machines* didn't cut grass where greenskeepers desired. Instead, they nibbled anywhere, producing random turf patterns. As mowers replaced the animals, someone had to decide where to cut the grass.

At first, they mowed where the sheep mowed, but later reduced fairways to commonly played areas, to save cost. To reduce lost balls, they didn't widen fairways back out – they "refined" the rough, eventually adding irrigation to maintain it more "smoothly" as part of the course.

Labor costs institutionalized rough. It's cheaper to mow 30-yard-wide fairways three times weekly, and 30 yards of rough once weekly, rather than mow all 60 yards as fairway.

As tee shots lengthened, tree planting and deep rough were used to defend the honor of many courses as a "test of golf," like major tournament courses. Trees were planted oblivious to mature height and width, narrowing fairways more. And sometimes clubs deepened rough to keep shots from reaching the trees long ago planted as hazards. But, that deep rough allows escape with only short irons. The golfer may as well have reached the trees.

Is that the true function of rough? Then, what is? Rough provides "speed limits." Without fear of a ticket, who wouldn't speed down the road? How much should that traffic fine be for going just a bit over the speed limit? It promotes accuracy over distance, a good thing if the penalty is not too severe. Mowing affects how much penalty rough extracts:

• If shallow, it defines the fairway, but doesn't affect play, with new technology.

• If moderate, grass blades between ball and clubface, commonly – but not consistently – reduce backspin, causing "flyers" that travel farther and with lower trajectory, and the uncertainty influences play, without lost golf balls, and allowing a chance to show skill.

• If deep, it raises the difficulty and my blood pressure, and reduces pace of play.

• If uneven, it allows luck.

• If thick, it injures wrists, backs and ego.

Deep rough and narrow fairways prevent different angles of play, reducing fun and stifling creativity, and should be avoided at all times for major championship play. Moderate rough is plenty of challenge in long hitters' range.

Higher budgeted courses should use small intermediate cuts inside deeper rough, punishing smaller misses proportionately less. Elsewhere, mowing patterns should make rough strategically guard key areas affecting reaching the green. Fairways and the intermediate cut should be wider farther from the green. If a golfer's strategy is hitting short-iron tee shots for control, his self-imposed penalty is not reaching the green in regulation figures.

Lastly, to make up for mowing more fairway and intermediate rough, the superintendent should scour the course for areas that are so far out of play, they need no mowing at all – returning at least some of the course to the earliest form of rough: very tall grass.