Each of the majors has its own cruel way to punish golfers. The Masters does it with greens slicker than a politician's smile. The British Open has cavernous bunkers and freakish weather. At the PGA, it's hellish heat. The U.S. Open's trademark, of course, is thin fairways lined with what the pros call poverty grass, hay, cabbage, gunch and many unprintable names. As Fuzzy Zoeller said of Open rough, "Man, I go rabbit hunting in that stuff. You don't go in there, you send your beagle in."
This year's rough at San Francisco's Olympic Club is expected to be the nastiest yet. "It's more than five inches tall and thicker than the hair on a Labrador's back," says head pro Jim Lucius. It'll be a dog's life for anyone who strays on Olympic's doglegs.
How much will the rough affect scores? Plenty, according to a USGA statistic called Cost of Rough. The stat measures the gap in scoring between players who hit fairways and those who miss them. In the Opens played from 1994 to '96, the years for which the statistic is available, the average Cost of Rough was .458 of a stroke per hole, more than enough to spell the difference between victory and heartbreak.
When Davis Love III (above) three-putted the last green to lose the '96 Open to Steve Jones, everyone blamed his putter. Yet Love had taken 120 putts to the winner's 121. It was the gunch that got him. Love hit only 34 fairways all week, compared with Jones's 41, and wound up with a Cost of Rough 2.975 strokes higher than Jones's. Had he matched Jones's accuracy, Love presumably could have four-putted the final green and still won.
The chart at left shows the fairways hit and Cost of Rough percentages at the '94-96 Opens for this year's money leaders and five other contenders, plus their current fairway percentages and Tour rank in that department. Note that Tiger Woods has been quite accurate driving with his irons in previous Opens. Still, it's more likely to be a straight arrow such as Justin Leonard or Colin Montgomerie who's celebrating next Sunday after everybody else gets gunched.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]