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Latest USGA quandary: Fuming over fescue

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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.