ARDMORE, Pa. — There are plenty of question marks surrounding the opening round of the U.S. Open at Merion. One thing’s for sure: There will be weather not conducive for golf. Everything else about today is still up in the air.
Merion Golf Club has taken in about 6 1/2 inches of rain in the past week, and there are estimates of one to three inches of rain for today, along with possible hail. Many different protocols are being called into play to help ensure a fair and competitive tournament for all.
The very disputed “lift, clean and place,” or commonly known as “lift, clean and cheat” rule could come up in adverse weather conditions. Many of the players in the field, such as Graeme McDowell and Tiger Woods, have expressed their worry for having “mud balls” during their early rounds.
There is a local rule to adopt preferred lies on the course, but the USGA does not adhere to local rules in large tournaments such as the U.S. Open.
“I will tell you, though, that that local rule is really adopted when the conditions are very adverse, meaning there’s poor agronomic conditions to a golf course,” USGA vice president Tom O’Toole said Wednesday. “Anybody that’s been here that’s been on Mr. (Matt) Shaffer’s golf course (he is the director of golf course operations) knows that it’s in anything but poor condition — it’s in fabulous condition. So we wouldn’t be adopting that rule this week.”
“And if it was so bad, then the obvious response to that, or consequence, would be we probably wouldn’t be playing,” O’Toole added. “But don’t look for the championship committee to adopt the preferred lies local rule that is under the pending rules of golf.”
Other issues can arise because of the weather conditions that go beyond mud on the golf balls. The logistics of the course may be changed, depending on the conditions and how much rain falls over Merion today.
The height of the rough has been a talking point all week. According to USGA executive director Mike Davis, groundskeepers mowed the rough Wednesday in an effort to counteract the rain. It will make the rough thicker and more difficult for the player.
“On what we would consider the short holes, in other words where you’ve got wedges, 9s, 8s (for second shots), we’ve taken that down to five inches,” Davis said. “It’s five inches that is mown tee to green.
“On the longer holes, the fifth hole, sixth hole, 14th hole, 18th hole, we’ve cut that down to four inches. The reason we chose that is the blend of grasses. If we go lower than those heights, particularly if it’s mown to the greens, you get too many balls sitting right up on top of it, so it’s almost on a tee. At those heights, we think the ball sinks.”
The USGA is trying to ensure that the rough is tough, but still fair to the competitors. Players are penalized by the course for hitting their tee shots into the rough, just as at any U.S. Open.
“If you hit the ball wayward and you get outside of say a 18- to 20-foot width, so you go from this fairway to the first cut, if you will, if you get outside of that, you’re in the old traditional, U.S. Open, swing as hard as you can (to get out of the rough), and wedge it back to the fairway,” Davis said.
Additional changes, such as moving up the 10th tee, will be decided based on today’s weather. The USGA does not exactly know what it will do to the golf course for the opening two rounds. The answers are up in the air, literally.