Jun
13
2013
Thursday at the U.S. Open: Mud, sweat and wellies
By Stephanie Wei under General
photo

Spectator areas (Photo cred: Twitter)

Mother Nature cut Merion a bit of a break. Considering predictions for doomsday storms on Thursday, the two weather delays — which wiped out most of the morning — were mild. No doubt it was wet, muddy and slushy, but the entire first round of the U.S. Open wasn’t a washout as the forecast called for the night before.

The morning wave finished easily, with father-of-the-year Phil Mickelson shooting a solid three-under 67 to take the early clubhouse lead.

No sleep and a cross-country overnight flight? No problem for Phil, who flew home on his jet to San Diego on Monday to attend his daughter’s eight-grade graduation on Wednesday. It’d be fitting if Mickelson ends up winning (packaged, cliched warm-and-fuzzy story a la 2010 Masters) on Father’s Day Sunday, which also happens to be his birthday.

Meanwhile, it’s no secret the logistics of Merion, a compact and cramped space for a major championship, are anything but ideal, which I quickly discovered on Monday and expected on Tuesday.

After already sustaining record-high rainfall in the past week, Tuesday and Wednesday’s sunny weather that dried the course up quite a bit were undone with today’s storms. No surprise the course was soft, wet and muddy, and the spectator areas were even muddier, sloppy and slushy. At times it smelled like you were walking through a septic tank. Bottom line is Merion was playable and that’s all that really matters, but I feel for the fans who paid good money to attend.

Throughout the morning, a golf-industry-type friend, who has been to “crap loads of events,” texted me about several times about his experience — or lack thereof. He’s not a fan, but he was spectating all 18 holes for work. While we all knew it was going to be awful, these messages were rather amusing and deterred me from dealing with it myself. (i.e. “This s*** is miserable,” “worst spectator course ever,” etc.)

And yes, I know mud and crappy conditions are part of the deal when you’re outside — I was at Bethpage in ’09 as a spectator so I didn’t have the comforts of the shelter in the media center and I had to throwaway a few pairs of golf shoes and sneakers after that week, but I made the best of it. But at least I had a fantastic spectating experience because of the sprawling grounds and stadium-like feel.

Now I’ve become spoiled and a bit jaded, but I do keep everything in perspective and I did want to experience it myself. After all, it is kind of my job. I ventured out for a field trip with a colleague (which definitely made things much more enjoyable).

We started thinking we’d check out Phil’s group and the threesome of young rising stars — Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Matteo Manassero — but then we realized they had teed off no. 11, so they were in the middle of the front nine, which is the furtherest point possible from the cushy, over-air-conditioned media center (besides the driving range, locker room and flash area, but pretty sure those are in another zipcode).

At first we decided that might be *too* adventurous, but once we started walking, we just kept going and it wasn’t as bad as we thought. Mind you, expectations were extremely low. That was mostly because 90% of the crowd was following Phil’s group or Sergio’s or the three young’uns.

Our longest wait at the time came at the walkway to cross the fairway on no. 1. It was 8 minutes, which was manageable, though, and the clouds were starting to clear and you could see the sun trying to break through. But that also meant it was getting more humid and sweaty.

We caught Phil’s group on no. 7 and stopped on the leftside of the fairway, which was one of the muddiest areas. A golf cart tried to go around the crowd and decided to try and drive through the deep sludge. Bad idea. He got stuck and the wheels were spinning, causing goo to splatter all over a handful of-fans. Lovely.

As the cart driver struggled to get unstuck, another cart was rolling up and tried to drive through the same muck. I was already wincing when the second cart was 10 yards away. Same story. With the help of several fans, they managed to push them out.

Meanwhile, Phil was walking up the fairway. The gallery was about three deep, which is very modest for Phil-crowd standards, but I still couldn’t see a thing. No big deal for me, personally, since I watch them all the time.

Next, we kept walking and caught Sergio teeing off no. 7. The gallery was surprisingly tame and mild-mannered, but it was like that everywhere and it’s only Thursday, not to mention many probably made the smart decision and stayed home or left. (While Phil drew cheers — the loudest I heard — for his birdie on that hole, it was quiet for the circumstances.)

Finally, we approached the 6th tee as Fowler was in his pre-shot routine. We stopped around the landing area to watch them hit. Fowler’s ball plugged and almost looked like it was trying to spin out but it was embedded. No big deal. He gets a free drop. The process was longer than usual, but that was fine — better to be safe than sorry is my motto!

Jason Day hit next and his ball actually rolled a yard. Lastly, Manassero’s shot also got a few inches of extra distance.

We watched them trudge through. I gotta take media shuttle, will update later. But the takeaway is this: Merion is one of my favorite courses and I love it …when there aren’t thousands of people, large tents and grandstands. While I understand and appreciate the romantic appeal and the idea of bringing it back to where Ben Hogan and other golfing legends won, translating that to reality is another thing. You know what they say, sometimes “history” and “tradition” are best left alone.

Point being, it’s not exactly an enjoyable spectating (or even playing experience from a logistical perspective), and by that, I mean quite possibly the worst. Not only in my fledgling experience — this is the fourth US Open I’ve covered (not counting Bethpage and previous Opens I attended as a paying ticket holder ) — but the unanimous opinion from players and their entourages, industry insiders and seasoned golf fans. After all, golf is in the entertainment business.

That said, if you are attending, wear a pair of shoes you don’t mind tossing after they are ruined, and the grandstands on nos. 17 and 18 are lovely. But the tournament looks absolutely wonderful on TV.

By the way, you’re probably wondering about whether Tiger’s wrist or arm or elbow is okay after a shot from the rough early in the round appeared to agitate him. He says he’s fine.

“It’s going to be a fast night,” said Woods, who was two-over through 10 when play was suspended due to darkness. “It’s kind of the way the Tour has been this year. We’ve had a lot of bad weather this year and this is the way it’s been.

“​I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow. And hopefully I can play a little better than I did today.”