The setup for the U.S. Open represents the toughest test on the PGA Tour.
While the USGA uses the word challenging to describe course conditions, for others, the word diabolical comes to mind. Either way, it explains why only three of the past eight winners have finished under par.
Opens traditionally feature fast greens that are like putting on a glass tabletop. Narrow fairways. Thick, punitive roughs.
But all that goes out the window when the weather gets wet, like it has the past week at Merion Golf Club. The course received three-and-a-half inches of rain on Friday and another one-and-a-half inches on Monday, when the course was closed twice, just as players were arriving to get a lay of the land.
Soft greens and wet fairways could make the course defenseless. But there is something else to consider here: Weather conditions could make things so disruptive for golfers that finishing the tournament becomes a survival test.
Two-time champion Ernie Els said Monday's wet weather guarantees this won't be a normal Open.
"After the rain this morning, it's going to be very sloppy now," Els said (via ASAP Sports). "You're not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I'm sorry. I don't care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it's not going to dry up. We're going to have a soft golf course this week all week. It means that if you're on your game you're going to have a lot of birdie putts. ... I can see pin placements are going to be quite tough to protect the course. You're going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues."
This is the fifth time Merion Golf Club has hosted the Open, and scores have trended down through the years. Olin Dutra shot 293 (+9) to win in 1934; Ben Hogan shot 287 (+7) in 1950; Lee Trevino shot 280 (E) in 1971; David Graham shot 273 (-7) in 1981.
Merion will play 6,996 yards this year, some 450 yards longer than when Graham won, but the shortest track since 2004 at Shinnecock Hills. With all the rain the course has received—and more in the forecast—there has been speculation that the Open record of 268 (-16), shot by Rory McIlroy two years ago at Congressional, could be in jeopardy.
"I don't think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we're going to have to do and what we're going to have to shoot. The conditions keep changing. We haven't dealt with teeing it up in a tournament yet with it raining and drying out for a couple of days and the mud balls appearing. ... It will be interesting to see what the players end up doing the first few days and getting a feel for what the number is going to be."
The weather forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of rain on Thursday with "scattered strong storms"; 50 percent on Friday; none on Saturday; 10 percent on Sunday; 40 percent on Monday and Tuesday.
This has all the makings of a mess. A BIG mess.
Defending champion Webb Simpson spoke Tuesday about how golfers are creatures of habit, although they definitely won't be in their comfort zone this week.
"We want to try to make every week seem normal and every week being the same and stay in your same routine," said Simpson, who won last year at Olympic Club with a one-over par 281. "But with a major you've got to prepare more. It is that balance of resting versus preparation. I've already changed my schedule for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, three different times."
But, as Simpson conceded, "you've got to adapt to the weather."
Adapt and overcome? Imagine this scenario: Rain wipes out Thursday's play and also impacts Friday. Since more rain is expected for the start of next week, they could be looking at trying to play nearly four rounds of golf over the weekend. And if there's a playoff?
Maybe they could get a tee time in July.
There also is the matter of how playable the course is once there has been a rain event. The biggest concern is at Merion's storied 11th hole, the lowest elevation on the course. If it were to become unplayable, the USGA has a contingency plan that could involve using one of the holes on Merion's West Course.
"In terms of a doomsday scenario, who knows, if it's 10 thousand to one that we would have that happen," said USGA executive director Mike Davis. "But we don't anticipate that happening to the point where we're not going to be able to get the U.S. Open in or we're going to have to go to some holes on the West Course. We think that the golf course, again, drains beautifully for a non‑coastal, non‑sandy site, it really does."
How tired will players be, however, if they have to stop and start, sit around, hurry up and wait. ...
Woods was asked whether he would like to play an Open in conditions like these, with very soft conditions, as opposed to firm, dry and fast.
"That's a great question," said Woods. "I've played Opens under both conditions where it's dry and soft. I've won on both conditions, which is nice. At Torrey it was dry. Pebble was dry. And Bethpage 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."
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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