If it hadn’t been for woof of opening umbrellas and the sloshing of wellies you could almost hear the sound of Rory McIlroy’s US Open odds tumbling in the leafy loveliness at Merion.
Greenkeepers wielded squeegees and buckets for the second time in three days at the storied Pennsylvania track where no play was possible for several hours due to flooding. It was so bad, that the 11th hole was taken out of commission for the day.
The only glimmer of sunshine came from Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who swallowed his pride and offered a handshake to Tiger Woods by way of apology for his “fried chicken” remarks during at Q&A session before last month’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Woods accepted the gesture graciously but whether or not he can end his five-year major drought this week remains to be seen. Judging by the state of the course, which most pundits agree needs firm and fast conditions to make it a truly frightening test for the modern elite, the US Open got a little more open yesterday.
“After the rain this morning, it’s going to be very sloppy now,” said two-time US Open champion Ernie Els. “You’re not going to see a firm US Open this year, I’m sorry. I don’t care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it’s not going to dry up…
“I see a very close race with a lot of players in contention this year, unlike other US Opens. It’s going to be bunched. It’s going to be under par, you’ll be seeing quite a few numbers in the red. It’s going to be an exciting US Open.”
Exciting is good. But the rain, which is forecast to disappear later this week, could be bad news for Merion and the USGA, who where banking on firm and fast conditions to help defend a course that measures just 6,996 yards.
And yet the rain could be good news for struggling world number two McIlroy, whose best US Open performances have come on tree-lined courses in soft, wet conditions.
Tenth at waterlogged Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in 2009 and an eight-shot winner on a soft Congressional Country Club two years ago, McIlroy missed the cut when conditions were firm and reasonably fast at Pebble Beach in 2010 and at Olympic Club in San Francisco last year.
“We’re going to have a soft golf course this week all week,” Els said. “It means that if you’re on your game you’re going to have a lot of birdie putts.
“There’s quite a few par-fours where you’ve just got to put it in the fairway. You can put it in the fairway with an iron, from a five-iron for a three-iron, 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 US Open venues.”
Els was asked about the possibility of someone smashing the 63 barrier - the record for the lowest round ever shot at a major. But while he didn’t rule it in, he didn’t quite rule it out either.
“Well, 62? Anything can happen. I don’t want to rule against anything. But I’m not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a US Open. As I say, you’ve got more birdie opportunities than ever. So guys who have never played a US Open, they might be lulled into, hey, this is not all that bad.
“I’m playing my 21st US 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 threes. That’s not a number that’s really familiar with the US Open is a three.”
Few players in the field no as much about winning US Opens as Els and while Merion offers many birdie opportunities through the middle part of the course, the opening and finishing holes are tough.
“You start missing some shots, the rough is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Els said. “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.”
Merion is still a tough, par-70 with two par-fours measuring over 500 yards as well as three par-threes that tip out at between 236 and 256 yards.
Given the soft conditions, more players will make birdies and stay out of the rough, but as Els points out, it’s still the US Open.
“I don’t care if you play the easiest course in the world,” Els said. “Put US Open in front of it everybody gets nervous, especially over the weekend.”