In Oakmont's aftermath every golf writer in the country offered his two cents about the nastiness of the U.S. Open rough. Sadly, most commentary was throwaway loose change (sorry, brethren) focussing on Phil Mickelson's remarks rather than playing conditions themselves. Phil's a baby, most said, claiming that no one else complained, and that it couldn't have been any worse than previous Opens. But those scribes were off base in three ways. First, whatever you think of Phil, running him down is meaningless as a rebuke of his criticism of the rough. (The dead white males called this sort of thing an ad hominem attack. Logic: Phil bad, Phil no like rough, therefore rough good.) Second, plenty of other people complained. Who? Ben Curtis, Chris DiMarco, and most notably, Richard Lee and David Howell, who voiced their dissatisfaction by leaving town early.
Third, this was healthier, thicker rough than the US Open has ever seen. Of course, this was easier to gainsay than explain, which is why virtually no one explored the topic. Besides, turf growth ain't sexy. Well, at least not to most of us. By I for one find it fascinating. So I made some phone calls to find out just how the rough got so tough.
First I called a couple of superintendant friends (one of them with major championship experience). They laid the foundation, familiarizing me with words and phrases like "fertigation" and "potassium silicate." Then I called USGA Director of Competitions Mike Davis. Davis, a candid guy, demurred on this particular issue. When it came to rough thickness, as opposed to height, he said, "I don't grow the grass, I just cut it," and directed me to a colleague, USGA head agronomist Tim Moraghan. I tried to reach Tim (another good guy, who I've know for a long time) but got no callback. (Yesterday a USGA spokesperson told me Tim might be unreachable for a while.) Today, though, I had a nice long chat with John Zimmers, the head superintendent at Oakmont, and the guy who (even more so than Tim) was in the best position to describe what was done to toughen up Oakmont.
Again, I warn you, this stuff ain't sexy. But I think what you'll read below (if I haven't already lost you) will come closer than anything else you've read in describing why that grass was so tough to play out of.
A little background: Zimmers has been at Oakmont for eight years, but has seen plenty of other Opens. He's a member of what's known in greenskeeping circles as the Latshaw Mafia, a group of young men who apprenticed under Paul Latshaw, the American dean of superintendants, who's run the yard at just about every golf course of any importance in this country, from Augusta to Congressional to Winged Foot and so forth. He and his progeny (including one real son, Paul B., who's now at Muirfield Village) have presided over something like seven or eight of the past ten US Opens.
Anyhow, Zimmers ticked off for me the four primary agronomics advances that made Oakmont machete-worthy. Here they are.
- Fertigation. This word's really two words, "fertilizer" and "irrigation." What it means is running liquid fertilizer (recall Mickelson using that phrase) through the irrigation system to promote grass growth. Zimmers told me that a good number of the country's best courses have been fertigating (as it were) for a few years, but guessed that Winged Foot was the first Open site to do it. Oakmont, of course, was the second.
- Potassium silicate. "The hardest thing to do," Zimmers said, "is get your grass to stand straight up." This is where potassium silicate comes in-- it's botany's answer to Cialis. Where other greenskeepers use potassium nitrate, this silicate stuff dramatically hardens the plants' cell walls, to the extent that the grass takes on a waxy look. Zimmers was the first Open superintendent to use it.
- Lawn mowers that think they're vacuums. Perhaps the principal reason, in Zimmers' opinion, that this rough was the toughest ever was lawn mowers. He said that he and Eric Greytok, who oversaw last year's Open at Winged Foot, have been working closely with mower companies to develop machines that optimally suck up grass while it's being cut. The problem in previous years, Zimmers said, was that grass cut every evening during the Open (including after competitive rounds) would to varying degrees just sit there weighing down the live blades, effectively making them lie down. This new generation of mower, however, siphons just about everything up into the bag, further helping the live grass to stand up straight.
- Bluegrass overseeding. This isn't so much a new development as a peculiarity at Oakmont which, as far as rough difficulty was concerned, was the coup de grace. Three or four years ago, Oakmont introduced the notoriously hearty grass into its native poa annua to spruce up areas that used to reside underneath their famous 5,000 removed trees. Gradually, that bluegrass outcompeted the poa. No further explanation necessary, as anyone who has ever played out of bluegrass can attest.
So, what have we learned from all this? Not just the reasons that Oakmont's Open rough was the most beastly ever, but that the USGA now has a second kind of technology to worry about. Turfgrass science is progressing just as fast (if not at this point faster) than ball and club science. Unless you're the kind of person who watches golf tournaments while wearing black leather, you're probably rooting, like me, for the USGA to think about exercising a little caution next time around. Even if you don't like Phil.