Are you dense? Yes, rough at TPC Harding Park, you are

A blanket of juicy, challenging rough has the best golfers in the world on guard at this week’s PGA Championship.


TPC Harding Park rough
At TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, the City by the Bay’s famous marine layer — a dense mass of cool, moist air that accumulates over and near the surface of a large body of water — could make the course’s already intimidating rough even more difficult to play from. Photo courtesy of the PGA of America

Ian Poulter’s 460,000-plus Instagram followers got a show and tell on Tuesday regarding what has become quite the conversation piece in the lead-up to this week’s 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park.

In a one-minute, 44-second video, Poulter demonstrated how the rough at the San Francisco muni could play a major role in who prevails on Sunday. (Even Tiger Woods has weighed in on the thick stuff.)

Poulter placed two balls a mere 6 inches apart in one portion of rough. “This one, obviously, is sitting up very nicely,” Poulter said of example No. 1 as he prepared to take a swing with a 5-iron. In what he called “a lovely shot,” the first ball rolled up onto the green within 20 feet of the cup.

Example No. 2, however, produced much less desirable results. “This one. ... You actually can’t see it. It’s sitting down in the rough. It isn’t going to come out,” Poulter said pre-swing. Indeed, Poulter’s second ball struggled to gain much ground onto the fairway following his attempt to muscle it out of the rough.

“Two very different lies,” Poulter concluded. “And that is not going to be easy.”



TPC Harding Park golf and turf manager Kevin Teahan says the course’s rough — a mix of Poa annua, bermudagrass and ryegrass — could grow to nearly 4 inches by the time the championship ends on Sunday. The formidable rough has been two years in the making, and the process included two aerifications during the most recent growing season.

“We overseeded twice the last couple years to give it a good density,” Teahan told GCM on Tuesday, “and we dethatched it, kept it on a good fertilization plan, got all of the excess material out of it. The thatch can build up, so you get all of that stuff out of there so you can let it breathe. We didn’t let it get out of control. Having a good overseeding program is so important.”

Setup for the 2020 PGA Championship entailed narrowing the course’s fairways from as many as 40 yards wide to 24 yards wide, which means errant shots will be more prone to landing in the demanding rough.

Woods, who grew up in California and played TPC Harding Park in his youth and again Monday and Tuesday, is well versed on the course’s perils.

“They have pinched in the fairways a little bit, and the rough is thick. It’s lush,” Woods — whose 15 major championships trail only Jack Nicklaus’ 18 — said on Tuesday. “With this marine layer here and the way it’s going to be the rest of the week, the rough is only going to get thicker, so it’s going to put a premium on getting the ball in play.”

Tony Finau, who is looking for his first major triumph, also got a taste of the treacherous rough during practice rounds.

“Well, it’s (rough) definitely thick enough this week to be a factor. I played the back nine for the first time yesterday, and I think it’s about a 50-50 chance as far as the lie,” Finau said Tuesday. “I had two lies yesterday on hole No. 12 that were 3 feet apart. One I could easily get a 7-iron on, and the other one I was just trying to hack out 40, 50 yards. It’s almost luck of the draw when you hit it in the rough. I think you’re going to see some guys get fortunate and hit it onto the green, and I think you’ll see some guys hack it out and not hit it anywhere. I think distance is a big key this week, and, you know, you mentioned the rough, we talked about the rough. You’ve got to hit the fairways.”

As he seeks to win his third consecutive PGA Championship this week, Brooks Koepka is fully aware he must improve on his No. 185 ranking in driving accuracy percentage on the PGA Tour this year, as TPC Harding Park won’t do him any favors.

“If you’re in that rough, there’s no chance you’re hitting 4- or 5-iron into these greens,” Koepka said Tuesday. “You have to drive it well and put it into the fairway.”

Had the pros asked Teahan, he could have imparted a fair warning: “We’re not that long of a course, but this rough will punish you,” Teahan says. “It’s our defense.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.