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Mud Balls at Merion

McDowell worried conditions at US Open will make it down to luck

Posted Jun 12, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


There isn’t much space here at Merion this week.  Indeed the compactness of the site for the 113rd US Open, suggested that the game’s American authorities had found themselves the very model of a sporting little British links.  Then the weather intervened.

Instead of firm, bouncy conditions, a demanding and seriously tight layout by modern standards, will be soft and receptive.  Which probably explained why Rory McIlroy was expecting to hit his driver seven times in each round and Graeme McDowell was proposing a break with tradition by backing the adoption of lift-clean-and-place to offset the unfairness of “mud-balls”.

Jack Nicklaus once said of Merion: “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.”  This was based on the experience of losing a play-off to Lee Trevino there in 1971, after he had ripped it apart as a 20-year-old amateur in the 1960 Eisenhower Trophy.

No precise yardages are available from that event, but we can assume that Merion measured around 6,500 yards.  More significantly, the Eisenhower was held in September when much of summer’s fire had gone from the fairways and greens.  In fact it is reported to have been decidedly receptive when the embryonic Bear carded rounds of 66,67,68,68 for an aggregate of 269, to be no fewer than 13 strokes clear of the second-placed individual, Deane Beman.

Interestingly, there was never a chance of Nicklaus repeating those scores in his battle with Trevino, despite the fact that he would have improved considerably as a tournament player in the intervening years.  Merion clearly needs firmness as protection.  And barring the onset of a sudden heatwave, it’s not going to have that defence this weekend.

Which brings us to McDowell and the thorny question of lift-clean-and-place, the so-called winter rules which many consider to be alien to a summer game.  “What will the weather have done to the dynamics of the golf course,” he asked. “I don't think it is going to be a score fest.  I think it's tough.  Like I said about the greens, they're soft and fast, which is a bad combination for Tour players.  We'll be trying to take spin off wedges.  You'll see guys going over the back of the greens and finding themselves in massive trouble from trying to get to back pins.”

Then, as if trying to further convince himself that everything would work out fine, the 2010 champion went on: “It's going to be a good test of golf. I think the golf course has enough defence. But I’m wondering about the number of mud-balls we’re going to get if the sun comes out. The guy who gets the least amount of mud on his ball may be the guy that wins. That would be a problem. That would be unfair. I think golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway.  If you hit it in that fairway you deserve a great line and a great opportunity to attack the green.  That's the reward you get for hitting the fairway.  And mud balls have a different effect on guys who hit it low, guys who hit it high, guys who have a different spin rate.  It introduces an element of chance.”

Merion is a tight venue.  Players are having to factor in an additional 30 minutes for practice before each round, simply to allow for the amount of ferrying around which has been necessary to get them from one location to another.  Even the shuttle from my hotel is more like a trip down English country lanes than one we would normally associate with a Major American venue.

With attendances reduced to 25,000 per day, the USGA are making certain financial sacrifices this week, simply to bring their blue riband event back to Merion for the first time since 1981.  It may prove to have been a gamble well worth taking.  On the other hand, it may prove to be something of a lottery for the players if McDowell’s fears about mud-balls come to pass.

Either way, it promises to be a fascinating weekend.

- Dermot Gilleece

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