ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy began this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational doing a bit of head-scratching.
A past champion and regular contender here at Bay Hill, McIlroy has become somewhat of an expert at navigating what is consistently one of the toughest non-major tests on the PGA Tour. But when he showed up at Arnie’s Place for this year’s edition, he noticed an unfamiliar sight: The rough was up – juicier than usual – especially around the greens.
And gone were most of the closely mown areas that used to surround many of those putting surfaces.
“Historically, it's been you'd miss a green and [the ball would] run off and you'd still have the chip off short grass, for example, and now that's all been filled in with rough,” McIlroy said. “There's just so many areas that there were runoffs and sort of tight areas, which I think lends itself to the better chippers of the golf ball, and that's been sort of taken away this year.
“I don't quite understand why they've done that.”
There’s a good reason, though, says Bland Cooper, the Tour’s competitions agronomist. You see, much of Bay Hill’s runoffs, Cooper explains, weren’t actually runoffs at all, serving more as forgiving spots for members than strategic elements for the professionals.
“The vast majority did nothing for us competitively,” Cooper said. “Designed chipping areas – Pete Dye was probably the best at creating them – are designed to where the ball gets on those closely mown areas and is carried farther away from the green, and then you have a shot where you have to play back to an elevated green or over some bumps … and it makes you think a little bit. These were just expansive, gently sloped areas that were just mown out but really didn’t offer any increased shot value or interesting shot value. It just gave the player who hit a not-so-good shot a better chance to get the ball up and down.”
And when Adam Scott says, “I'm not sure if this course was designed for runoff areas,” he’s right. The shaved areas weren’t installed around the green until a renovation following the 2009 event. While the membership was in favor of the change, last summer the club’s ownership came to the Tour and said it’d like to return the green surrounds to their previous, rough-filled states. The Tour obliged, and Cooper and a member of the Tour’s design team made a mid-summer trip last year to Orlando to check out the adjustments and offer their feedback.
After a few suggestions and tweaks, the areas around the greens had been transformed. Heavy rough had found its way:
- Right of No. 2 green
- Right of No. 4 green
- Right of No. 6 green between the two bunkers
- Right of No. 10
- Front right of No. 12
- Right of No. 14
- All around No. 15, including the back-left portion where McIlroy famously chipped in from on his way to victory here in 2018.
Only a few closely mown areas remain, most notably front left of No. 12 green.
“We felt like it’s a hard golf course,” Cooper said, “and it’s supposed to be hard.”
But do the changes make those holes tougher? Beau Hossler calls it a “give and take.”
“The ball use to be able to end farther away from the hole, but you would have a much better lie,” Hossler said. “This rough is probably as nasty as you're going to get around the green. You have no idea what it's going to do. Sometimes having a 2- to 3-yard pitch out of a squirrelly lie is more difficult than having a 15, 20-yard pitch off a good lie. I don't know. I guess time will tell, right?”
Though an extremely small sample size, here are some scrambling percentages from Thursday’s first round and similar pin positions from last year’s tournament, listed respectively:
- No. 2 – 23/50 (46%) / 35/74 (47.30%)
- No. 4 – 17/34 (50%) / 17/27 (62.96%)
- No. 6 – 16/31 (51.61%) / 9/25 (36%)
- No. 10 – 19/31 (61.29%) / 22/33 (66.67%)
- No. 14 – 40/68 (58.82%) / 43/55 (78.18%)
- No. 15 – 38/72 (52.78%) / 30/57 (52.63%)
As one can see, at least so far, the lack of runoffs, albeit untraditional ones, has made getting up and down tougher. The big exception is the sixth hole, the par-5 that bends around a lake, where balls would run off the right side of the green and mostly end up down behind the backmost bunker. To a back (or left from the tee vantage point) pin, like what players saw Thursday, the shot would be near-impossible.
“The greens get so firm and sloped away from you,” Viktor Hovland said, “you go all the way down in that runoff, and then you've got a left pin and you've got no shot.”
Will Zalatoris, however, argues that No. 6 is actually tougher. He drew a nasty lie and then chipped his third shot through the green, fighting just to save par.
“You used to be able to hit a spinny shot basically off of the fairway,” Zalatoris said. “Today I had nothing. Everyone walks out that way, too, so the grain's going back into you. Honestly, in future years, if they keep that rough, for back pins I don't think I'll ever go for it. Even if I got 210 yards, I don't think it's worth it.”
Despite what the tiny bit of data says, other holes seem easier, as well, according to players. A perfect example is the par-5 fourth hole.
“It’s going to allow guys if they have an opportunity to send it up there,” Patrick Reed said, “because before if you got down there on that right side, you’re dead, and to a back flag you couldn’t hit anything that lands on the green and stays, it’d go over the green, run off the downslope and then go into the rough.”
Added Billy Horschel: “That pin right, today it was front right. I've got a wedge in, and if you missed it a yard or two right, it's running all the way down. Now that there's rough, I can be aggressive. If it's off the green, it's going to be just in the rough there.”
Horschel and his caddie, Mark Fulcher, even have a side bet going on the matter. Horschel believes the rough will make scoring tougher while Fulcher argues the opposite. Though Horschel also concedes that it's mostly lie dependent.
“It's easier if you have a good lie. If you don't have a good lie, then you're like, oh, maybe if I had the runoff and it ran off 8 yards, if it's still in the fairway, I can chip it, putt it. I can do a few different things with it,” Horschel explained. “So, that's what Fooch and I debated on. Would you rather be 10 yards off the green on the fairway cut or be 5 yards off with a bad lie?”
Short-game guru Pete Cowen notes that poor chippers hate tight lies, and typically runoffs expose them. He also explains how better technique has allowed pros to get better out of gnarly lies around the green.
“You can make rough as deep as you want,” Cowen said, “but if you know the technique and understand the four different types of lies – a) ball sitting on top, b) ball halfway down with grass underneath, c) ball all the way down, d) ball on top and sitting into the grain – it makes it easier.”
McIlroy knows his answer to Horschel’s question, and he contends that the real debate is not necessarily between tougher and easier but rather luckier and unluckier. And if anything, McIlroy says, it curbs creativity.
“I prefer the runoffs,” McIlroy said. “I think it separates the good chippers from the bad chippers. I feel like, when you miss a green when the rough is like this, you know, it's half skill, half guesswork and luck. … Whenever you miss greens and there's runoffs and it gives you options, I think that's where the guys with the better short games separate themselves, so that's why I like runoffs. I like that style.
“It certainly makes it a little simpler if you don't feel like you've got a great short game,” McIlroy added. “But like even next week [at TPC Sawgrass], for example, wherever that second cut is, it's not too long; I think even a cut like that, I feel like the guys can really show their skill around the greens if they have that skill, and it's fun to see. It's fun to see different shots and you can play it certain ways.
“Obviously, a setup like this this week, that takes that out of the equation. You basically miss a green, and you've pretty much got just blast it out and try to hole the putt.”