More than any other sport, golf rewards control and control freaks. In preparation for a tournament such as the U.S. Open, players spend countless hours on the range honing their swings, searching for that perfect rhythm and tempo that will produce repeatable, accurate shots under pressure. They play practice rounds to learn the nuances of the course, marking up yardage books with numbers and arrows that show the prevailing wind. They hoard new gloves and boxes of golf balls. Caddies pack energy bars and water bottles. In short, everything that can be controlled is controlled – which is why golfers hate mud.
“It’s a vagary, and if there’s one thing that professional golfers do not like, it’s vagaries,” said Stewart Cink, winner of six PGA Tour events, including the 2009 Open Championship. “We like no surprises and predictability. Mud throws all that out, and you have to start rolling the dice a little bit.”
Tuesday, as the sun shined upon Merion Golf Club, watery mud squished underfoot. The course’s spongy turf was saturated from more than 2 inches of rain that fell Monday. Last week, the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea dropped more than 3 inches of rain in the Philadelphia area.
Under conditions like these, players ordinarily wouldn’t be concerned about mud because the PGA Tour commonly institutes a local rule allowing for lift-clean-and-place. However, no one expects the ruling U.S. Golf Association to intervene, so mud balls might become a factor at this national championship.
“It won’t necessarily affect the short game; it’s the long game that will be affected,” said Roger Cleveland, the chief golf club designer at Callaway Golf. “When you are hitting a steeper-faced iron or a fairway wood, if you’ve got mud on the ball, you don’t know the reaction you’re going to get.”
Not knowing what to expect after hitting an apparent good shot is the maddening part for pros, said Carl Pettersson.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” the Swede said on the range Tuesday morning. “I mean, you hit the ball in the middle of the fairway and then get a mud ball that can go 20, 30 or 40 yards off line.”
The rule of thumb for playing shots when there is mud on the ball is to assume it is predisposed to fly in the opposite direction of the mud. If the mud is on the left side of the ball it will go right; if the mud is on the low part of the ball, it probably will go higher.
Mike Bender, the PGA of America’s 2009 teacher of the year and the coach of 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson, said, “The problem is that if you’ve got trouble left or right of the green, now you may have to aim at the trouble and hope that the ball is actually going to do what you think it’s going to do.”
Cink raises another worry. “The question comes when you have a little mud on the ball or there is a lot of water stuck on the ball,” he said. “Is a little bit of mud going to fly off right away? On this course, it may be that it’s so wet that there isn’t really a lot of mud because the moisture dislodges the mud. The time when you get mud is usually two days after the rain, when the course starts to firm up.”
If that’s the case, it would mean mud balls could play a major role in the opening round of this year’s U.S. Open. More rain is expected Thursday, so it’s possible that unpredictable, quirky shots due to mud balls could play a part during the weekend.
“There really is no tried-and-true method for playing in the mud,” Cink said. “You just hope that you don’t get a lot of mud.”