Gorse on Golf Courses

Yani Tseng peers into gorse bushes looking for her golf ball
Warren Little/Getty Images

"Gorse" is nasty stuff when you encounter it on a golf course: A prickly shrub that can gobble up golf balls and the hopes of golfers. It is well-known to golfers because many British Open courses have stands of gorse in their rough.

A golfer who hits into a gorse bush or a stand of gorse plants will either be calling an unplayable (assuming he even finds the ball) and taking a penalty to move his golf balls, or attempting to hack the ball out in an effort that usually produces the pain of thorn pricks. Either way, the outcome is rarely good when a golf ball finds the gorse.

Golfers Beware, There's Gorse Ahead

Back in my youth, for weeks after the Open Championship aired on television, my buddies and I would yell out, "I'm in the gorse!" any time we hit a ball into the rough. Even though on the usually wide-open golf courses of South Texas I grew up on there was very little rough of any kind. "Gorse" is just a fun word to say.

What, specifically, is it? "Gorse" is the common name used for about two-dozen shrubs most common in Europe that are evergreen and covered in thorns. They are also flowering, and the species fall under the genus of Ulex, within the family of Fabaceae. Among other colloquial names for gorse shrubs in the Ulex genus are whin, furze, hoth, espinillo and corena.

Most Associated With British Open Courses

Gorse is a term golfers hear every year during the British Open, because British links courses often feature lots of it in their areas of rough.

And "gorse" is a great name for the stuff, because it even sounds like something you want to avoid. Gorse. Nope, don't want my golf ball anywhere near that stuff.

"Common gorse" (scientific name: ulex europaeus) is native to Europe and is the variety most likely to be found on British Open links. In many places outside of Europe (including the United States), common gorse is considered an invasive species. Horticulturist Vanessa Richins Myers, who writes about trees and shrubs for TheSpruce.com, calls common gorse "a noxious weed" (a sentiment shared by every golfer ever to hit into a gorse bush). "It looks a lot like Scotch broom, another invasive shrub," Myers says. "Watch out for the thorns all over the plant."

There's another place gorse is said to grow. In his famous book Golf In the Kingdom, author Michael Murphy writes of gorse, "It is said by some to grow as well in the fields of hell." That's appropriate because another characteristic of gorse bushes is that they are especially flammable due to a high oil content.