Latest USGA quandary: Fuming over fescue

By Rex HoggardJune 13, 2017, 8:00 pm

ERIN, Wis. – A warning sign was posted at Erin Hills for this week’s U.S. Open: Please keep track of small children, dogs and errant golf shots when entering the rough.

Actually, that would have been a welcome bit of levity given the seriousness of recent U.S. Opens, but then we all know the USGA really doesn’t do funny and when players arrived for this week’s championship not many were laughing.

Although no one has been lost to the wilds of the shin-high fescue rough, the deep stuff has led to a few lost tempers.

Kevin Na was first up, posting a video on social media that included two mighty hacks into the fescue that were only able to advance his golf ball about a foot.

“Now, why can’t we have a lot of past U.S. Open winners get together and set up a major. I’d like to see that happen,” Na said.

Na wasn’t alone in his consternation.

“That rough is un-findable in some places, un-hittable in many places. If you do try to hit out of there it’s going to create some massive, massive numbers,” Brandt Snedeker figured.

At least part of that reaction wasn’t so much a byproduct of the long rough, and ridiculously long golf course, as much as it was a short fuse when it comes to the players’ attitudes toward the USGA. After less-than-stellar greens at Chambers Bay and a less-than-timely ruling at Oakmont marred the last two U.S. Opens, any semblance of a benefit of the doubt is in short supply.

Given the association’s recent history, maybe it should have been no surprise that as the rains relented on Tuesday maintenance crews descended on Erin Hills and began cutting portions of the fescue.

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A USGA spokesman said Tuesday’s maintenance had “nothing to do with reaction from players.”

During a maintenance meeting on Monday afternoon officials addressed how certain types of fescue have a tendency to lay flat when it rains or when the wind blows. As a result, crews “trimmed” portions of the fescue rough on Nos. 4, 12, 14 and 18.

Either way, players didn’t really care why officials had taken such drastic steps as much as they were curious how much of the fescue had been turned to hay.

“It’s extreme, even if it is 50 yards apart,” Adam Scott said. “It will be interesting to see, but I don’t know how big a difference it will make on the next shot. I don’t know if they cut it short enough that guys can advance it 150 yards or 30 or 200 [yards], but it’s probably nice not to see us trudging through and losing balls as often as you would in the longer grass.”

Not everyone cheered the move, particularly considering that Erin Hills’ fairways are the widest many players have ever seen at a U.S. Open.

“We have 60 yards from rough line to rough line. You've got 156 of the best players in the world here, if we can't hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home,” Rory McIlroy said. “These are the widest fairways we've ever played in a U.S. Open. Even the first and second cut is another 10 yards on top of that. So if you've got 50 or 60 yards to hit into and you're complaining about the fescue that's wider than that, I don't think that's an issue.”

Either way, it’s easy to imagine Phil Mickelson sitting at home in sunny Southern California thinking he could do without any type of delays on Thursday at Erin Hills, otherwise he’ll be inclined to jet out for his afternoon tee time on a layout that’s already being picked apart despite never having hosted a single major championship round.

Fescue may be the issue du jour – and as Scott pointed out it seems unlikely the USGA’s 11th hour changes will have much impact on play unless the ground crews can manufacture a few more acres of manicured fairway before Round 1 – but what’s important to point out is that this is a symptom, not the ailment.

The USGA has become the game’s most polarizing organization. Some questioned Tuesday’s nip/tuck as more than simply a “prescribed plan based on weather,” as the association’s spokesman explained. They contend the “trimming” was an attempt to quiet the crowd at an event that desperately needs to avoid another major miscue.

Whether that’s the case really didn’t matter. Not on Tuesday as news of the cutting was met with a mixture of eye rolls and raised eyebrows. It’s not that players didn’t believe the official statement, but they’ve become conditioned to think the worse when it comes to the USGA.

Whether it’s been poor putting surfaces at Chambers Bay or the decision to ban anchored putting, the USGA has become a lightning rod for all the wrong reasons and this week’s early headlines only feed that persona.

Maybe the 117th edition will be the championship officials envisioned when they ventured into Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine to an untested layout. Maybe on Sunday the trimming will seem like a distant memory. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Erin Hills that four rounds of major championship golf and a world-class field can’t fix.

Maybe the USGA will be rewarded with a stress-free championship they so desperately need, but there’s no denying that this week’s event is not off to a good start.

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials phoned Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial. 

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.