Rough times ahead at Harding Park
August 05, 2020
By Ben Everill , PGATOUR.COM
PGA TOUR – The CUT
PGA Championship preview
SAN FRANCISCO – Just how rough is rough supposed to be?
For some at the PGA Championship this week it is going to be a rough time indeed as officials have tried to protect the shorter TPC Harding Park from the power of the modern day player.
For the thousands of everyday golfers who make the trek around this public gem the natural defenses are cold temperatures and fog that combine to make the ball travel shorter distances in the air and on the ground and the cypress trees that line and shape the routing.
The rough is usually a minor inconvenience. But not so this week. Officially the mix of Poa, Bent and Rye grass that flanks the pristine (and narrow) fairways will be three and a half inches long to start the 102nd PGA Championship. But from the first tee shot on they may not touch it at all. The official line is it will be “cut as needed.”
Traditionally Harding Park has been a happy hunting ground for the bombers. At the 2005 World Golf Championship – American Express Championship Tiger Woods would battle John Daly for the title in a playoff. At the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play in 2015 Rory McIlroy played Gary Woodland in the final. In those weeks the rough was not as lush as it is now.
At 7,251 yards this is the shortest PGA Championship since 2013 when Oak Hill measured out at 7,163 yards. There are a mix of shorter and longer par 4s this week as they play it to a par 70 leaving players with the decision of just bombing away as far as they can and hoping any miss into the long stuff is nullified by being able to use a short iron or wedge, or to dial back a little and ensure accuracy.
The prevailing talk around the course during the practice rounds is there will be a big element of luck when it comes to lies in the rough. It is patchy, meaning within a foot or less you could get lucky and have the ball sit up or you could find your ball buried. Ian Poulter gave a nice tutorial on his Twitter feed. Tony Finau explained after his first look.
“It's about a 50/50 chance as far as the lie. I've had two lies yesterday on Hole 12 that were three feet apart. One I could easily get a 7-iron on and the other one I was just trying to hack out 40, 50 yards,” Finau said. “It's almost luck of the draw when you hit it in the rough. I think you're going to see some guys get fortunate and hit it on to the green and I think you'll see some guys hack it out and not hit it anywhere.”
Louis Oosthuizen was spotted on the par-4 ninth, a 505-yard brute usually played as a par-5 for the public, trying his luck from the rough in practice. He had a few cracks at it with a fairway wood and at best could only trundle it down the fairway with a flight common to us weekend warriors who top their fairway woods, from great lies, more often than not.
“There will be plenty of times where guys will not be able to reach the green. They will probably be able to give it enough of a go to get close-ish, but that's usually where you get in a right mess when you try to force it to go for it,” six-time major winner now CBS analyst Sir Nick Faldo said. “That only comes to discipline of when to go for it from the rough and when to really lay up and take your medicine. It's narrow; narrow with firm greens, that's as good as it gets.”
Woods knows all about discipline on this track from not just his professional success but also his amateur and college career.
“It's not as long numbers-wise, but the ball never goes very far here. It plays very long, even though it's short on numbers,” 82-time PGA TOUR winner Woods says.
“This golf course in particular, the big holes are big and the shorter holes are small. It can be misleading. They have; pinched in the fairways a little bit and the rough is thick; it's lush. With this marine layer here and the way it's going to be the rest of the week, the rough is only going to get thicker, so it's going to put a premium on getting the ball in play.”
So Woods says it’s about getting it in play. Long and straight will always work. But Bryson DeChambeau, who has taken golf by storm with his new hulked up frame and 400 yard drives has other ideas.
“This golf course suits a bomber if you can hit it straight ... I'd say it's pretty straightforward to be honest with you and there's not really too much to it if you could just keep it in the fairway out here this week,” DeChambeau stated.
“But as the rough stands right now I think the risk is definitely worth the reward. if you do hit it into the rough I still think you can get to the front of the green and from the front edge on these greens you can kind of get to any pin. So for me as of right now I'm going to be hitting it up there as far as I can and hopefully wedging it close and making some putts this week.”
Dissecting the course then becomes the when and where you might rev things up and when you might step back.
“There's a lot of long irons into these par 4s … I hit three long irons on the back nine and obviously it's a little cooler, a little windy. But still at the same time if you're in that rough, there's no chance you're hitting 4- or 5-iron into these greens,” two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka says.
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“You have to drive it well and put it into the fairway. The rough out here is pretty thick. You can get some pretty juicy lies and not advance it very far. But it all depends. Is it going to be wet? I think it will be, especially in the mornings, so it could be quite tough to control your distance, spin, things like that. But I don't think it's overly bad right now. Come Sunday it might be different. Might grow two inches, who knows, an inch. Anything could make a big difference.”
You can comfortably claim the first hole is open slather at just 371 yards and dead straight. The second has more meat at 449 and a slight curve to the right but still invites a bomb. The fourth is the first par-5 and it turns sharply to the left meaning cutting the corner means taking on cypress trees.
“It's going to be a test, with the overhang of these cypress trees there may be a couple lost balls here; cut a corner and ball hangs up there, that could happen very easily here and has happened and I'm sure will this week as well,” Woods adds.
Adam Scott, who with Woods is one of just three to have played in 2005, 2015 and the 2009 Presidents Cup at the course, adds it’s not just the hungry branches to watch out for.
“Those trunks can be thick and there’s plenty of them. If you get a deep lie behind one you won’t have an angle to the green. You need to factor that in also,” Scott says.
The fifth is another straight and short hole at 417 yards but those trees are framing both sides. Six, at 459 yards has a little protection from a dogleg to the left, seven is just 322 yards. But the ninth is tough as Oosthuizen would attest. Finau tried to wind up here in practice despite the dangers and saw his ball sail way left. His reload split the fairway though and was very long.
“I am going to open up a little bit more this week. This golf course allows to you do that. Last week, not so much. But this golf course is a big course. I have seen a few holes where I can go ahead and give it extra and try and attack this golf course that way,” Finau says.
“Distance is a big key this week, and we talked about the rough, you've got to hit the fairways. But if I am going to miss a fairway, I want to miss it as far up as I can to give myself a chance to still hit the green.”
The 10th is a par-5 allowing for aggressiveness off the tee, the 12th at 485 yards might ask for some conservation. The 13th is 468 yards and has a turn to the right before the green comes back in on the left. A miss to the left off the tee here would spell trouble with OB, rough and tree issues.
From that point comes the lake holes as Lake Merced frames the left side of the run home. The 14th at 461 yards invites a whack, as might the 403-yard 15th. The 16th is just 331 yards but the cypress trees wait on the right and the penalty area sits left. Finally 18 brings a forced carry over the water on the 466-yard finisher that turns sharp left after the tee shot.
“Here’s a tip,” an anonymous caddie said while mapping the course. “Watch a lot of guys aim near or at the fairway bunkers on a bunch of holes knowing a good shot will find the fairway but a slightly off one with find the sand instead of the rough. The bunkers will be helping players this week. They won’t be the hazard.”
When that’s the case things are rough indeed.