Getting the rough treatment: La Costa offers PGA Tour punisher in winter

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

CARLSBAD, Calif. - The ball drops dead like it was shot out of the sky by a shotgun-toting pigeon hunter. Straight down into the deep grass with a plop. Forget any type of bounce or roll. It doesn't matter if you're hitting the latest in space-age, long-distance ball technology or a sleeve of Wal-Mart cheapies.

This rough is equal opportunity, taking any kind of golf ball down. Skim the stuff, heck graze it, and the ball's done. A hand might as well reach out of the thick grass and pull the Pro V underneath the earth.

Forget hitting out of the stuff. The first challenge comes in finding your ball.

It is possible to intently follow every bit of the ball flight, see exactly where it lands and still have trouble locating it. Chances are you'll be digging.

"You guys should really invest in a lawn mower," one defeated golfer muttered at cart return.

Welcome to the La Costa resort courses around Accenture Match Play Championship time. In the weeks before and after the tournament, which matches the top 64-ranked golfers in the world Feb. 23-27, nine holes on both La Costa's North and South courses are open for play with PGA Tournament rough. And not just any ho-hum, 25-under PGA Tournament rough. No, this is the six to 10 inch deep stuff that tour officials themselves help supervise when they want to ensure the course carries plenty of bite.

"The (officials) don't come out and do this for every tournament,'' La Costa director of golf Jeff Minton said, grinning. "You're getting an even stiffer challenge."

It is a challenge many average golfers are eager to experience. La Costa started offering hackers the chance to play the tournament course - the 18 combination holes used in the Accenture - last year and quickly sold out on those days. On selected Tuesdays this March and April, the tournament course is available for booking again.

"We've found that people are clamoring to play the course they've seen on TV for years," said Denise Chapman, the marketing director for this golf institution 30 minutes from San Diego.

The open window is after Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson get through with the course however, after some of that rough gets a healthy trim. A better option is to play the North or South course as it's getting prepared for the pros. This is when you'll be able to truly test your game against ornery PGA conditions, as frustrating as that exam may be.

"I just watched a member try to play a 5-iron out of the rough," Minton said, shaking his head sympathetically. "Just not happening."

You probably have a better chance of seeing Alyssa Milano dancing down the fairways in a string bikini than hitting a successful mid-iron out of this stuff. Not that it's not fun to try. Those who do not take their golf game as seriously as an airport screener takes nail clippers are liable to enjoy the frustration of flailing away and watching the ball go five feet forward before the thick grass slams on the brakes again. It's not like you're going to play a course with rough this severe every week. Heck, the pros don't even play a course with rough this penalizing every week.

This is a rare treat (agony?), the equivalent of a middling climber being allowed to try out Mt. Everest. Without the danger of dying of course. The only thing liable to suffer mortal injury playing La Costa at Accenture ready is your ego.

"It shows you how good the pros really are," golfer Phillip Lowery said. "Or how bad you really are. I haven't quite figured out which yet."

Lowery's playing partner Joe Evans had no doubt which. When asked about the rough, Evans unleashed a string of colorful phrases last heard on Chris Rock's old HBO late-night show.

Not everyone gets into the spirit.

One of the interesting things about playing La Costa North or South with the PGA-monitored rough is the contrast between the tournament holes and the non-tournament holes. For example, on the South Course you get a leisurely, relaxing start where the rough is about as intimidating as a Care Bear. A decent golfer can not only hit mostly clean shots out of this rough, he/she can go for the pin from it on many occasions.

Then you hit the tournament stretch and it's like the Care Bears met Hannibal Lector. A ball that strays even to the outside fairway border of the rough is virtually unadvancable. A few inches makes all the difference between a good shot and a horrible one. The contrast between the fairway and the rough is visually striking and round changing. If you ever need a reminder how important it is to stay in the fairways, this course delivers it with the force of a sledgehammer.

It isn't the six to 10-inch height of this grass as much as it's the thickness. This is the Bermuda Triangle of roughs. Balls go in and are never heard from again.

When the starter tells you to keep a close eye on your ball even on the edge of the fairways, you think he's joking. Then you're sheepishly wandering around No. 14, having somehow lost your ball in the grass on a par 3.

Like with many things in life, the key to surviving this round with smile intact is letting go of your ego.

"The best advice is to treat the rough like it's a one-stroke penalty," Minton said. "Swallow the pride and just hit a 9-iron or a pitching wedge out to get the ball back on the fairway. It's when you start to go for the he-man shots that the big numbers come into play.

"You can't try for those superman shots. Not in this stuff. Play it safe."

Either that, or bring your own riding lawn mower.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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