U.S. Open Monday: Mud reigns at Merion
By Stephanie Wei under Behind the Scenes

A picture really does say a thousand words! (Eileen Bliss/USA Today Sports)

A month ago, Merion desperately needed some hot, 80-something degree days to firm up the track for U.S. Open-esque conditions, but going with the theme of the season, Mother Nature keeps spoiling the fun in the sun. The U.S. Open didn’t exactly get off to the best start on Monday.

The horn blew before 6am and play was delayed until 11am, and then it was intermittently suspended throughout the day, meaning players haven’t had the most ideal of practice rounds (if you follow any on Twitter, then you’ve gotten a pretty accurate glimpse of the morbidity of things). 

The grounds crew had their hands full — literally — and deserve credit for doing their best to get the course playable. The biggest concern has been the 11th hole, which is the lowest point and prone to flooding. It was above water this evening, but it was closed on Monday.

With heavy downpours intermittently throughout the day, the USGA suspended play just before 6pm.

USGA executive director Mike Davis held a press conference at 5pm, along with Tom O’Toole, the Vice President of the USGA and Chairman of the Championship Committee, and Merion’s superintendent Matt Shaffer, to discuss the weather conditions.

Davis downplayed the impact of the rainfall and soggy conditions, repeatedly emphasizing that the course drains well — for not being a sand-based or ocean-side track.

So, how are nos. 11 and 12 — the two holes that are most prone to flooding and even have substitutes on Merion’s West Course in case they are unplayable — holding up?

“No. 12 isn’t a problem,” said Shaffer. “But No. 11 is the lowest point on the golf course.  And it’s where two creeks come together.  But we’ve had two major rain events and both of which the green has managed to stay above water, which is a good thing.”

For now.

Davis emphasized that the weather shouldn’t impact the setup for the championship.

“Well, in terms of the set up, I guess let me say one thing that this golf course is not built on sand, so it’s got the heavier soils,” said the USGA boss. “But it is maybe the best draining golf course I have ever seen.  If you walk this course you know there’s hardly any flat lies at Merion.  It surface drains beautifully.

“And I think that the last question got to really the 11th hole.  When it rains hard you get these streams moving quickly and that’s what fills up and ultimately in some cases causes you to go over the 11th green.  But we got three and a half inches over roughly 24 hours and the course handled it beautifully because it really does surface drain well.

“In terms of setup I really don’t think you’re going to see us do much different.  I know Tom has an update on the forecast regarding Thursday, which isn’t looking all that promising.  So there would be an example on Thursday where we would say let’s look at all 18 hole locations, make sure to the extent possible we’ve got those in higher locations so we don’t get puddling right around the hole.  But beyond that there’s not a whole lot we would do.  We would just let the course play the way it’s going to play.”

In other words, get ready for some brutal pins because it’s going to be soft and gettable. If it doesn’t dry up significantly, players/caddies/coaches have been predicting the winning score to be around eight- to ten-under, which is extremely low for a U.S. Open, a major where par is usually good enough.

Think Congressional in 2011 when Rory McIlroy blew away the field by eight. This might be similar depending on whether Mother Nature cooperates over the next few days. Well, except Merion is a much tougher test and a short golf course (though it plays longer than it appears).

Again, Davis stressed that the course “drains beautifully,” so don’t panic, guys!

“I think in terms of a doomsday scenario, who knows, if it’s 10 thousand to one that we would have that happen,” he said. “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.”

Some players have voiced their concerns. Leave it to Ernie Els, a two-time Open champ, to break it down.

“You’re not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I’m sorry,” said Els. “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.  There’s quite a few par4s where you’ve just got to put it in the fairway.  You can put it in the fairway with an iron, from a 5iron for a 3iron, just putting it into play, and then you’ve got quite a short second shot.

“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.  But the finish is still very strong.”

Is a 62 possible? (Errr, for what it’s worth, a Merion member said a bunch of plus-handicap members didn’t break 90 a couple of weeks ago.)

“Well, 62?” Els mused aloud. “Anything can happen. I don’t want to feel against anything.  But I’m not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a U.S. Open.  As I say, you’ve got more birdie opportunities than ever.  So guys who have never played a U.S. Open, they might be lulled into, hey, this is not all that bad.  I’m playing my 21st U.S. Open, so I’ve seen a lot of trouble out there.

“But through my careers, this is the one where you can get on a run.  You can make some 3’s.  That’s not a number that’s really familiar with the U.S. Open is a 3.  So if you can get some 3s on your card  but as I say, you start missing some shots, the rough is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.  If you hit it in the rough here you’re just advancing it 120 yards, 140 yards, most of the time.  That’s still very penal.

“The greens are quite tricky.  If you miss it on the wrong side it’s still tricky.  But if you’re on your game I think a guy could get a score going.  I’m not saying 62, though.”

I wouldn’t, either.

Oh, an important note for spectators: the Red parking lot is closed until further notice, so you have to park at the Blue lot (which is around 14 miles away and then there’s a shuttle bus), but the USGA is encouraging fans to take the SEPTA.

Bottom line: Expect delays.

Robert Garrigus tweeted:

Merion is an old-school and relatively small piece of land, so it’s going to be a logistical nightmare. I got adventurous and attempted to walk the course, but it took more than 30 minutes to travel the length of a par-4 today, so a colleague convinced me to turn around (it started pouring shortly after we got back to the media tent, so it was a good idea). I did venture around the 15th and 16th holes, though.

Thick rough, bunkers, wicker basets and mud. That sums it up. Here are some pictures and a Vine of the river running through the 16th fairway.


BBC commentator Stephen Watson shared this picture of a drenched Graeme McDowell closing down a very wet driving range.


Thorbjorn Oleson tweeted a picture of the flooded pitching area.


Adam Hadwin did, too, because, everybody was doing it. 


Action shot of Geoff Shackelford snapping a picture of a dripping Merion logo.


The story of the day: WEATHER WARNING.


Fans crossing the muddy walkway on the 16th.


The grounds crew hard at work this afternoon trying to make the course playable.


The 16th hole from behind the tee box.

So this was new: The area outside the ropes between 15 and 16. They really are trying to make every use of the compact space!


WICKER BASKET! (I love them, but you’re going to be sick of them by Thursday.) I wanted to get a picture of the very penal bunkers and rough around the greens. This one is to the right of no. 15.


Which Open are we at again? It looks just like Royal Lytham!


Hoping for drier conditions tomorrow. Merion is such a great venue … for 1950… no, but really, I love this course and the history, so it’d be a shame if the weather turns this championship into a farce.

See you tomorrow!