The only aspect of golf this side of the Atlantic Ocean the United States Golf Association can’t control is the weather, and golf’s governing body is getting a stern reminder of that fact this week at the 2013 U.S. Open.
Mother Nature is intent on yielding her influence at host Merion Golf Club this week, which will make the 156 men competing this weekend scramble and compensate during what is already the most difficult test in golf every year.
After already dousing the storied Merion course with nearly six inches of rain between last Friday and this past very soggy Monday, that fickle weather madam has already wreaked havoc on the opening round and will likely cause further delays to the proceedings.
In fact, the question is not whether it will rain during the first round but how much will come and how the USGA, the golf course and, of course, the field will react.
The U.S. Open is already golf’s most stressful week, and the complications brought on by rain won't make things any easier on the world’s best players, no matter how long this national championship takes to complete.
And speaking of completion, any golfer with true hopes to win this week might just want to clear his schedule through Tuesday. That’s right; it’s going to be a water park of fun times at Merion if the forecast is to be believed.
Given that, surviving this U.S. Open and potentially winning once it finally comes to a conclusion will rely on how well the world’s best players can alter their playbooks to the new challenges a feisty and relentless Mother Nature has wrought this week.
Manage and Survive the Unavoidable Delays
The golfers who handle the fluid and frustrating conditions by taking them as they come, staying prepared and adapting to the times and tests of their actual starts will ultimately be the ones seen late on Sunday or potentially early on Monday.
To be sure, the added burden of weather delays to an already difficult test of golf is going to challenge the Merion field and will eliminate players who lack the experience, patience and mental fortitude to deal with what awaits over the next four or even more days.
Yes, the PGA Tour has dealt with significant weather issues throughout the first half of the 2013 campaign and a number of events have been forced to juggle schedules and even finish on Monday rather than their standard Sunday close. But this is the U.S. Open, and only the most focused and grounded players can deal with what awaits this week.
The USGA will not allow a start-and-stop circus to happen over the next 48 hours, and that will help players deal with delays, but there’s no doubt that not knowing when or if a tee time will happen is just another source of stress most golfers would rather do without.
React and Adapt to “The New Merion”
We already know the Merion that was expected a week ago will not be the one that greets golfers when play truly gets going in earnest. How fast and easily favorites or the unexpected underdogs change their game plans will determine whether they survive the rain or get lost in the flood.
Once on the course, the challenge of the “build an ark” weather the Philadelphia area has seen only gets tougher and will likely further weed out players who can't realistically compete for the Open title this weekend.
Much has been made of a “short” Merion giving up low scores this week. But given the new rain reality, Merion is going to play much longer than its 6,900 yards would suggest. Granted, it will be soft, but its fairways aren't going to be any wider, and its rough has been growing like a jungle given the rich rain from last weekend and the teasing sun of the past couple of days.
Bottom line: Whatever expectations were out there for this golf course will have to be changed on the fly. Some holes will become more difficult as they play longer. Others will become more vulnerable as soft conditions will allow for aggressive approach shots on holes that are normally played much more conservatively.
Whatever the implications, each golfer has to re-evaluate his expectations for Merion and then apply a new game plan that makes sense to altered reality. That’s not easy to do, and it favors the more experienced golfers who've been down this slippery slope before.
Assess and Adjust
We know bad weather has come and is coming again. What we don't know is how Merion will handle it and thus the conditions that golfers will face when they are really unleashed on the storied course. Equally unknown is how the USGA will alter its own game plan for Merion, which has been in place for months.
Pin placements, tee box locations and even the playing conditions golfers will face are likely to be tweaked not only when play actually gets going for any extended period of time but also as we move forward throughout the weekend. It’s like a blind date with a girl you've been chatting with online—you think you know her, but you'll wait until you actually meet her to decide how to proceed.
Directly to our point, no matter how well Merion drains, all the rain it has taken and will likely continue to take will make for sloppy conditions that will get worse as the full field is unleashed on the course.
Players must adjust on the fly to a different Merion that will feature soggy fairways that will not roll, rough that will be nearly impossible to get a clubface through and greens that will run at the dull speed of social change.
Once golfers get used to that, dry conditions expected to come over the weekend may once again change that entire dynamic, meaning experience and flexibility are going to be in high demand on the weekend.
Accuracy, Accuracy and, Yes, Accuracy
Undoubtedly, Merion is going to play longer than expected due to the wet conditions, but given how nasty and long the rough is going to be, finding the fairway is going to be absolutely critical this week.
Any shot that misses the fairway and finds the rough is going to essentially cause a stroke penalty, putting immense pressure on golfers who have any sort of problem finding the fairway.
This fact favors the longer hitters who can still play conservatively off the tee with three- and five-woods and undoubtedly hurts shorter players who unwittingly believed the short(ish) Merion would be a friend to them before the betrayal of Mother Nature.
Bottom line: Long or short, driver or otherwise, if you’re not in the fairways this weekend at the deluged Merion, you simply have no chance.
Aggressive with the Irons and the Flat Stick
What the wet Merion takes away with its unexpectedly longer distance and angrier rough, it gives back with green complexes that are going to be softer and more attackable than anticipated.
Indeed, success at the water park masquerading as Merion Golf Club will ultimately be found by the golfers who survive the drive in order to master the greens.
There is absolutely no way the USGA can get these greens anywhere near the bowling alley speed it prefers in the next several days. In fact, its respected wizardry couldn't even get it done a week from now.
Given that, putting is ultimately going to determine the ultimate survival of this wet 2013 U.S. Open. Finding the right part of the greens is still important, but staying aggressive on the slow greens will be absolutely critical to being in contention when the tournament finally makes its turn to the close.
Ultimately, a Strong Mind and Body Will Prevail
Every above aspect for survival requires two things of any golfer who hopes to even contend at Merion this week—the ability to stay mentally focused and physically strong even when every challenge threatens to steal those attributes from them.
U.S. Open week is by far the longest and toughest for any professional golfer. This week at Merion is going to make an ordinary Open seem like a walk in the park.
The constant unknown, unexpected conditions and changes happening in the here and now will all test the ability to stay positive, confident, focused and energized during days that will seem like eternities.
It’s not a reasonable request, but since when has the U.S Open really been a completely reasonable test?
This week, it's Mother Nature that is setting her own standard for what the 2013 U.S. Open champion at Merion must adhere to, and, like any good woman, she expects her man to live up to it.
No matter how often the test changes and grows more difficult.