ARDMORE, Pa. After a downpour suspended practice rounds Monday morning at Merion Golf Club, more saturating rain arrived in the early afternoon.
"It's like we're at the British Open, not the U.S. Open," said Nick Norris, a spectator.
In mid-afternoon, another drenching storm halted practice, continuing to soak a course already left sodden Friday by 3 1/2 inches of rain.
Weather has become a bigger story than even Tiger Woods' chances of winning his 15th major championship. Thunderstorms are forecast for today and more rain for the opening round Thursday, bringing concern that storms may change the fundamental nature of this year's U.S. Open, which strives to be the most difficult of the four majors.
Although Merion is the shortest course to be used for the U.S. Open in nine years, it is designed with narrow fairways and precarious greens. But the challenge could be lessened if balls land like darts on a rain-softened course, with little fear they will bounce indeterminately as they might on a surface resembling a Teflon skillet.
Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, said Merion was "not going to bare its teeth the way it should," adding, "I know guys were hoping for a firm test. It's going to be very sloppy now."
Variables in the weather might account for an 18-to 20-shot difference in the winning score, said Mike Davis, the executive director of the United States Golf Association. But if a soft course makes it more predictable, the winner may become less predictable, Arron Oberholser, a touring pro recovering from an injury, said on the Golf Channel.
"The guys striking the ball marginally, or not striking the ball all that well, are going to be brought more into the fold because their misses are not going to be punished as they would at Olympic (in San Francisco) last year or at Oakmont," the site of the 2007 Open, Oberholser said. "You would be punished here, too, very much, if it were dry and fast. But it is not going to play that way this year."
Of particular concern is the 367-yard par-4 11th hole, the lowest point on the course. The green is bordered on its front, back and right sides by a creek. Matt Shaffer, Merion's director of golf course operations, said the green had flooded about 20 times over the last decade. But the hole has been shored up, and the fairway is now designed to take on water so the green does not become inundated.
The 11th green did not flood Friday or from Monday's downpours. But the surrounding creek overran its banks Monday morning and flooded the bunker that guards the left side of the green.
Water was pumped out, a layer of silt was removed from the bunker, and three tons of new sand were added, Shaffer said. The hole reopened to play before noon, and a huge fan was used to try to dry the area around the green, but rain pummeled the course again in the afternoon, and the creek swelled anew.
If, in the worst case, the 11th is unplayable on Merion's East Course, organizers will use a comparable hole on the nearby West Course. But that has only a 10,000-in-1 chance of happening, Davis said Monday.
"It is maybe the best-draining golf course I have ever seen," he said.
If it is wet Thursday, Davis said, pin locations will be placed at higher points on the greens to avoid puddling around the holes. Otherwise, he said, "We would just let the course play the way it's going to play."