A Brief History of Rough at St. Andrews

Checking in on the debate over the Old Course’s least important but most controversial hazard


Dropping a ball into long, lush rough and watching it more or less disappear before turning to their camera phone and commenting on how brutal (always “brutal”) the grass is, then posting the video to social media, has become something of a ritual for players at major championships. It happens in the lead-up to every U.S. Open, a good many PGA Championships, and the occasional Open Championship, especially after a wet spring in Britain or Northern Ireland.

Not so much at St. Andrews, though.

Rough, as we know it, isn’t really a thing on the Old Course—never has been. True, the amount of maintained rough at St. Andrews has grown steadily over the past 100 years, and there’s probably too much for purists now, but most of it is fairly thin and wispy, not the dense, impenetrable stuff the USGA prefers.

If you go more than a few decades into the past, you’d have a job finding many references to rough on the Old Course. English golf historian Lee Patterson says that in all the books and passages he’s read about the course he can’t remember a single mention of rough. “One thing that every piece I’ve read by Alister MacKenzie, Bernard Darwin, and other Old Course experts has in common is the complete absence of the word,” he adds. “They all mention wind, bunkers, undulations, straths, etc., but never rough.”

In 1905, obscure Scottish author David Salmond did mention it in his book Reminiscences of Arbroath and St. Andrews when he wrote that the Links in 1855 had been “much rougher than I found them on subsequent visits,” and that “The greens were in the ‘rough.’” W. T. Linskill, who later wrote the well-known book St. Andrews Ghost Stories, said that in the 1860s “all the grassy-hollows were overgrown with long, rank benty grass or rushes.”

The rough and long, benty grass Salmond and Linskill encountered was, of course, very different from our modern concept of thick grass on either side of the fairway—the carefully maintained and delineated swathe of turf of specified height and color. Salmond’s “rough” could have referred to any shabby, tumbledown patch of broken ground that animals, weather, and traffic had combined to dishevel.

A late-19th-century illustration of the St. Andrews links, published in Horace Hutchinson's book Famous Golf Links

The time Salmond is writing about came after Allan Robertson, the game’s best player and St. Andrews’s foremost maker of featheries, had cut back the “whins”—that is, gorse—bushes to widen the course, which was becoming dangerously congested. The admittedly pretty and fairly useful (as a livestock barrier and for winter cattle feed) but highly flammable and un-golfer-friendly weed may no longer have crammed players into so confined a space, but its removal exposed ground that was far from nurtured or refined. Grass mowers had been invented by this time but weren’t used on the course until the 1870s. “Sheep and rabbits kept the grass short,” says Kiwi course architect Scott Macpherson, who now lives in Edinburgh and, in 2007, published an incredibly thorough history titled The Evolution of the Old Course. “Sheep were still on the Old Course into the 1940s, in fact.”

Macpherson adds that Old Tom Morris, Robertson’s apprentice and the man who took over upkeep of the Links in 1864 on his return from Prestwick where he had been Keeper of the Green since 1851, began using mowers in 1872. “It was a high-wheel or side-wheel cutter and used exclusively for the greens,” Macpherson says.

The Open Championship was first played at St. Andrews in 1873, when Tom Kidd shot 91-88 to pocket the £11 first prize. Three years later, Bob Martin was the controversial winner when he tied David Strath, who refused to return for the playoff because his approach to the 17th (35th hole) hit either a spectator or another player and the R&A hadn’t decided whether to disqualify him. In 1879, Jamie Anderson, runner-up to Kidd in 1873, won his third straight title, shooting 84-85 for a three-stroke victory. In Macpherson’s telling of the three championships, and in newspaper articles, rough is never mentioned.

One man who certainly did mention rough on the Old Course and, indeed, studied it closely, was wealthy Bostonian and acclaimed sportsman Joshua Crane, who caught the golf bug to such an extent that he took a flat in St Andrews in 1929 in order to play the Old Course as well as Britain’s other great venues and conduct research into the characteristics of each. With a very detailed procedure he described as “objective” and “scientific,” Crane awarded points for design and layout: tees, greens, fairways, traps, routing (“parallel holes”), rough, exposure to wind, order of holes, and—to a lesser extent—conditioning. According to Crane’s criteria, the Old Course had numerous shortcomings, such as parallel holes and inadequate rough, and was ranked dead last—14.7 points (the calculations were complicated but this represented a significant gap) behind Muirfield, which has fairly dense rough on either side of the fairways.

Though he gave Crane’s findings no merit whatsoever, golf architect Alister MacKenzie called himself a friend and spoke at length with the American (together with architect Max Behr, who was also in St. Andrews) about his method. In The Spirit of St. Andrews, MacKenzie remarks that he and Behr “chaffed” Crane “unmercifully.” “You give so many marks for rough,” MacKenzie told him. “We suggest that this be reversed and that it should read ‘the absence of rough.’”

Course architect Clyde Johnson, who interned with Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf in 2012, set up his own design firm—Cunnin’ Golf—in 2015 and who now resides in St. Andrews, says that MacKenzie’s devotion to the Old Course was complete. “I think you see that in his work at Royal Melbourne and Augusta National,” he says. “There, the playing corridors are broad and open and the use of slope and contour in relation to angle make for playable golf for everyone while demanding shot-making and thoughtful strategy for those looking to match or better par. Rough was/is the antithesis of this approach to golf course architecture.”

It’s likely, then, that MacKenzie probably wouldn’t approve of the rough that has appeared on the Old since he last saw it, even if he were pleased that it remains relatively wide and eminently playable. “My guess is he’d be unhappy with the amount of rough on the current course now,” says Robert Crosby, an Atlanta lawyer and respected golf historian. “His glorious 1924 map of the Old Course shows none, as far as I can tell. Part of the inspiration for his work on the drawing was that TOC was, in his view, the greatest course in the world. The absence of rough was undoubtedly part of that. Further proof of his views? Augusta National had no rough.”

Alister MacKenzie's map of the Old Course, courtesy of PBA Galleries

You can add Michael Clayton’s voice to the list of rough-skeptics. The Australian played three Opens at the Old Course (1984, ’90 and ’95) and suspects that introducing more rough would actually make the course play easier. “It would stop the ball from rolling into the bunkers,” he says. “And besides the bunkers, there’s gorse and the OB fence down the right, especially on the back nine. The ground is hard and bouncy, and the grass is short around the greens, which can take your ball well away from the flag, and then there’s the wind and the burn. In terms of importance, rough comes in a poor eighth.”

Like Crosby and Clayton, Johnson would like to see less rough at St. Andrews and is particularly keen to see certain patches go. “I wish they’d mow the platform between the fourth and 15th as fairway, as it used to be,” he says. “That’s a good place for the weaker golfer to aim on the difficult, long par-4 4th, and it would also give players a better angle into a far right pin on the 15th, a hole that has certainly seen the rough grow up on either side of the fairway.” Johnson would also like the area short and right of Miss Grainger’s Bosoms (two round mounds named in honor of local 19th-century golfer Agnes Grainger) on the 15th hole to be short grass. “A weak fade off the tee would then chase further in behind the mound on the right,” he says. “That area also gives the only real angle into pins tucked tight behind the front left pot, even if it is blind from there.”

Even more important for Johnson would be a fairway cut all the way up to leading edge of every bunker—“unless they’re isolated within a dune complex,” he adds. “Beyond that, a band of rough to the right of the fourth, fifth, and sixth is part of the jeopardy of playing towards the edges of the fairways. And, to be fair, some of that rough is a little wider now following the welcome removal of gorse over the past five years or so.”

The big, ugly elephants in the room, though, are the areas of rough left of the 16th fairway (added in 2010) and on both sides of the 17th fairway (the left side has had it for decades, the right since 2015)—rough that Crosby describes as silly. “Both additions violated the spirit of the course and were really a crying shame,” he says. “At the 16th, the farther left you went, the more difficult the approach became, but rough stopped the ball from ever getting there. And, at its best, the 17th tempts players to bite off as much as they dare to gain the best angle. Rough on the right forced players to hit what is, essentially, a boring, non-strategic shot from the tee. It was maddening and showed the cluelessness of the course’s stewards.”

Johnson likewise isn’t a fan of these areas. “Rough may bring unpredictability to a lie (or, if it’s really thick, force a dull hack back into the fairway),” he says, “but it also takes away the sliding grayscale of risk/reward from the most complex golf course in the world. Imposed constraints detract from its genius. Angles matter at the Old Course.”

According to Sandy Reid, since 2019 the Director of Greenkeeping for the St. Andrews Links Trust, no extra rough has been added for this year’s championship. “Fairway lines are the same as in 2015,” he says, “other than at the 10th and 14th, which have been widened on the right.” Reid explains that he just lets what rough there is grow rather than mow the straight ribbons so familiar at other pro tournaments. Golfers and Sunday dog-walkers have been kept off certain areas for the past year. “We’ve had some ropes around these areas to keep people out of the rough,” says Reid, “but otherwise it’s just left to its own devices.”

News of no additional rough this year should sit well with Johnson, Crosby, Clayton, Macpherson, Patterson, and devoted fans all across the world who believe in a wide, short-grass-covered Old Course.