Rory McIlroy plays a practice round Wednesday at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. (Getty Images). Mired in muck, the mud-splattered masses now have only one question about Merion: How low will the pros go? Months ago, Lee Trevino predicted, “If you can’t control the rain, Merion will get slaughtered.” On Monday, the waters flowed aggressively and chaotically through the fabled East course. Nature dumped more than five inches of precipitation since Friday. Contingency plans were dusted off to use hole 4 and 5 on the West course in case 11 and 12 on the East were flooded and unplayable. No question, Merion is sodden -- and vulnerable. So will it hold up for the week? I say yes.
Chatter from Twitter to Merion’s locker room was full of low-score doomsday prophecies on Tuesday. Johnny Miller’s record 63 is in jeopardy. So are Rory’s 268 and 16-under-par totals from 2011. A couple of sleep-deprived wags from Golf Channel brought up the unthinkable: breaking the 260 barrier. It’s tempting to tag a short, softened Merion with all of these possibilities. The fact is, some of these speculations were offered up for a dry Merion as well. Nevertheless, even with thunderstorms in the forecast for Thursday, I still say the course will stand up. I’ll let a few past U.S. Open champions back me up.
Everybody understands what Trevino stated in Golf Magazine’s June issue: “If there’s a lot of moisture, it will keep the ball from running into the rough. The greens will be softer, making it not only easier for putting, but for chipping the ball, too and for holding shots out of the rough with a wedge. And rain will make it much harder for the USGA to find difficult pin placements.” Sounds like a defenseless golf course.
That said, Mike Davis, USGA Executive Director, said of the course on Monday, “It may be the best draining golf course I have ever seen.” The 15-18 mph breezes expected Thursday and Friday might help dry a saturated course more quickly than many think.
Given defending champion Webb Simpson’s assessment that you should be hitting nine wedges into the first 13 greens, sounds like a bunch of birdies, right? Not so fast, counters 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell. “Like I said about the greens, they’re soft and fast, which is a bad combination for Tour players,” said McDowell at his Tuesday presser. “We’ll spend the week trying to take spin off wedges. You’ll see guys over the back of the greens to the back pins in massive trouble…It’s going to be quite difficult getting to the back pins.” So -- with hole locations expected to be higher up (near the back) of the classically back-to-front-sloping greens, birdies might not be quite as plentiful as some have predicted.
McDowell also cautioned that mud balls will be a problem, especially if there’s no “lift, clean and place” in play. And generally, the USGA would rather see its threesomes leave the first tee in golf carts before they would invoke the dreaded rule that purists term “lift, clean and cheat.” Three-time U.S. Open winner Tiger Woods echoes McDowell’s sentiments. “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,” said Woods on Tuesday. “That’s going to be interesting. Especially the longer holes. The shorter holes, if you catch a ball that’s got a little bit of mud on it, you can’t be as precise.” Bottom line -- you can hit as many wedges as you want, but if there’s water, mud and back pin placements, the anticipated red number-fest could easily vanish.
Then there’s the argument that the softer conditions will entice players to be more aggressive off the tee and perhaps hit more drivers, with less fear that it will run into the rough. OK, but one thing the extra rain has done -- and will continue to do—is make the already jungle-like rough even rougher. On the PGA Tour, softer fairways and greens invariably mean lower scores. But the Tour doesn’t see rough like they have at Merion, a brutal concoction of bent, zoysia, fescues, Kentucky bluegrass, rye and fistfuls of hair from boxing promoter Don King. This rough might just be sufficient deterrence to keep drivers in the bags and approaches on the conservative side.
Simpson said that he played nine practice holes on Sunday, hit two balls three or four feet in the rough -- and lost the balls. “I’m asking the marshals out there to help us.” Added Luke Donald, “It was pretty thick and gnarly last week. I don’t think I got one lie in the rough where I could get more of a 7-iron or 8-iron out of it. With the rain we’ve had, I believe the greens staff haven’t been able to cut it. Those 7- or 8-irons are going to become wedges.”
Finally, it bears repeating that even a damp Merion isn’t guaranteed to play easy. The short holes won’t play as short as advertised -- Simpson said he’d likely be hitting 4-irons off the tee at two small par 4s, the 7th and 8th—and the long holes will be brutes, no matter what the weather. Woods called the 256-yard, par-3 3rd, “a drivable par-4,” and spoke of the 521-yard, par-4 18th as “driver and 3-iron” from the back tee. Merion closes with a quintet of frightening tests, made even more terrifying by U.S. Open pressure, and splashes in potential card-wreckers at 2, 4, 5 and 6 before the home stretch. For architecture buffs like Woods, Geoff Ogilvy and Phil Mickelson, it’s like being a kid in a candy store in terms of design variety, then finding out that each hole is a stale Bit-O-Honey that could easily break your teeth with one bite.
Graeme McDowell, a man who knows something about contending in U.S. Opens, said Tuesday, “I don’t see 62s or 63s being shot on this golf course. I think I’d certainly take 8-under par right now and take my chances.” I predicted 8-under-par myself on Sunday night -- and I’m sticking to it. Battered and bruised by Mother Nature, Merion will still win the fight.