U.S. Open

Golfers brace for the elements at Merion


A Merion course already deluged by water could see more rain, high winds and even hail by Friday in the Philadelphia suburb.

Special to The Miami Herald

They were hoping for fast-and-firm conditions this week at the U.S. Open being contested at Merion Golf Club starting here Thursday morning. Instead, on a relatively short course that has been pummeled by 6 1/2 inches of rain since last Friday, with more on the way during the opening round, it’s going to be wet and possibly wild here in the Philadelphia suburbs, with birdies by the bunches expected over the next four days.

“I played this golf course 12 months ago and it was phenomenal, ready to go,” 2010 Open champion Graeme McDowell said. “I played it last Wednesday. It was phenomenal and ready to go. And then I got here, and it’s disappointing.”

And it’s likely to get worse. Forecasters have told U.S. Golf Association officials to expect as much as three more inches of rain, likely accompanied by 20-mph winds and even the possibility of hail, when another front comes through early to midafternoon on Friday. That would make already soft greens even more receptive to approach shots, and when modern professional golfers have short irons in their hands, it’s a perfect-storm formula for low scoring from most of the 156 players in the field.

“Traditionally, what you see on the PGA Tour, when it gets softer, it gets easier,” said Webb Simpson, the defending Open champion who already has predicted that he will use a wedge on his approach shots to greens on nine of Merion’s first 13 holes. “I think short hitters have a lot better chance of winning this tournament this year than on some of the longer courses.”

Merion, hosting its record fifth Open, will play at 6,996 yards at a par of 70. A quirk of the course is the players will tee off on Nos. 1 and 11 for the first two rounds because of the layout.

The course does have some defenses. Most tee shots will not get big bounces and long roll outs on soggy fairways, a major factor at some of Merion’s longer holes, particularly at No.18, a monster par-4 that can play as long as 513 yards with a second shot to a small, elevated green. And the rough will be long and thick all around, with a wide variety of grasses in their strangling mix that will produce all manner of different lies, good and mostly bad.

And then there’s the dreaded mud-on-the-ball factor. Players know that their shots can go any which way with a glob of mud smudging those aerodynamic round rockets, making precision shots thoroughly unrealistic.

“Mud takes spin off, so it doesn’t take much mud to affect the ball,” Steve Stricker said. “It’s unfortunate, but we’re going to have to deal with it, I think. And, yeah, it could decide who the champion is here this week, unfortunately. It’s just golf, I guess. We’ve got to deal with it even though we’re not going to be happy about it.”

On the regular PGA Tour, tournament officials faced with similar sloppy conditions often allow players to lift, clean and place their golf balls back on the ground. It’s also known as lift, clean and cheat, but not so fast in a U.S. Open. On Wednesday, Tom O’Toole, a USGA vice president and chairman of the tournament’s Championship Committee, said emphatically that the “preferred lie” rule will not be in use this week.

“If it’s so bad out there,” he sniffed, “we won’t be playing.”

Still, the man many favor to prevail this week insisted the other day that no matter what the conditions are, he won’t be distracted from the task at hand.

“We play so many events and have to deal with the weather. It’s just part of our sport,” said Tiger Woods, a three-time Open champion who is trying to win his 15th major title and first since his victory at the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. “We deal with delays. We deal with coming in and going back out, playing 36 holes, finishing up rounds. It’s the nature of summertime golf on the East Coast.

“I’ve won the Open in both conditions. I won at Pebble Beach and Torrey when it was dry and fast, and I won at Bethpage when it was soft and slow. Either one, the execution doesn’t change. You’ve still got to hit good shots and get the ball in play, especially now with the rough being wet. It’s imperative to get the ball in play so that we can get after some of these flags and make as many birdies as we can.”

In similar soggy conditions at the 2011 Open at Congressional in Washington, Rory McIlroy set a tournament scoring record at 16-under-par, four shots better than the previous mark. Along the way, he set or tied 11 other records with a 72-hole total of 268, prevailing by eight shots over runner-up Jason Day.

“There might be a few similarities to the way Congressional played to the way this week’s going to play,” McIlroy said. “It was soft then and it’s obviously going to be soft again this week.”

Still, he said he did not expect scores to go quite as low as his eye-popping performance in the Washington suburbs two years ago.

“They call [the Open] the toughest test in golf, and it’s a pity that it has rained so much the last few days and might not play as tough as it usually does,” McIlroy said. “But it’s still going to be a good test out there, and you’re still going to have to play some good golf.”

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