ARDMORE, Pa. – The insult was not intended, yet just as muddy Merion was beginning to dry late Tuesday it took a metaphorical shower.
“The East Coast has been battered these last U.S. Opens I've played, the ones I've played, Bethpage, Congressional, here this week,” Graeme McDowell said on Tuesday. “It is what it is this time of the year in the Northeast. It's tough. I feel for everyone involved this week, volunteers and maintenance staff, the USGA, really.”
Weather sympathy ... from a Northern Irishman. Tough times indeed.
While G-Mac’s take on the torrents that have swamped East Coast Opens in recent years – from the bath that was Bethpage in 2009 to soggy Congressional in 2011 – may be a harsh reality, it is historically accurate and a fact worth digesting as we inch closer to the start of the 113th U.S. Open.
Note to the USGA: if hosting Opens at historical gems like Merion is going to be a competitive imperative may we suggest digging up the East Course and moving it to Southern California.
Soggy conditions will be an occupational hazard this week at Merion, so much so officials may want to consider replacing the iconic wicker baskets used to mark holes to something more apropos, say a squeegee.
Twice on Monday, Merion was closed by storms and more is forecast for Thursday, which will likely narrow the list of potential champions dramatically.
In 2009 at Bethpage no one was driving the ball better than Lucas Glover – he ranked 13th for the week in fairways hit. Ditto for Rory McIlroy two summers ago at Congressional, where the Ulsterman was 26th in finding fairways.
While Merion is a dramatically different monster, the math remains the same.
For Glover and McIlroy it was a unique combination of power and precision that lifted them to Open glory. It is a game that the world No. 2 is uniquely suited for despite a season that has been defined by a series of peaks and valleys.
“I didn’t really enjoy the Olympic Club last year. I much prefer this sort of golf,” McIlroy said on Tuesday at Merion. “When you hit a shot and it doesn’t bounce one way or the other, when you hit it and it stays where you think it’s going to stay.”
Despite a fitful year, McIlroy still ranks 14th in total driving, a combination of distance and accuracy, and even in his last start, an eventful tie for 57th at the Memorial, he led the field with a 292-yard average.
“I like the way (Congressional) was set up initially,” McDowell said. “Then by the time the rains came down and Rory split the fairway 14 times out of 14, 330 (yards) down the middle and decimated the place, you know, it was never going to really be my kind of U.S. Open.”
And if McIlroy’s recent record doesn’t exactly scream champion-in-waiting, he preceded his tie for 57th at Muirfield Village with a missed cut at the European Tour’s marquee event in England, consider that the two-time major champion has made a career out of lowered expectations.
In the run-up to last year’s walk-off at the PGA Championship, McIlroy had missed a cut (U.S. Open), tied for 60th (British Open) and tied for fifth (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational). And before his Open breakthrough at Congressional he’d missed a cut (Wells Fargo Championship) and finished fifth (Memorial).
“I’m still waiting to see what happened like it did last year at (the Bridgestone),” said Dave Stockton Sr., McIlroy’s putting coach. “When it doesn’t happen I’m surprised.”
There have been distractions this season. The wholesale equipment change to Nike Golf was heavily scrutinized and not as seamless as he would have liked, and swirling rumors that he is primed to make his second management team change in three years has created concern in some corners.
Throughout it all, however, McIlroy has remained consistently upbeat and somewhat immune to the slings and arrows of Monday morning quarterbacking.
“There’s always going to be a little bit of a transition period switching over (to Nike equipment),” he said. “I would rather do it right away than sort of let it linger for any period of time. I would rather do it in the first two or three months of the year and get it over and done with.”
If that doesn’t exactly sound like the ramblings of your average 24-year-old, McIlroy’s golf IQ has always defied the typical learning curve.
Where others see lost opportunities, McIlroy has embraced the inevitable ebb and flow of a prolonged competitive career. Where the status quo sees a golf course that on the scorecard (6,996 yards) would appear to be a square peg for the Northern Irishman’s round-peg game, McIlroy sees soggy similarities with Congressional, where he won the Open by eight strokes.
Where some have seen failure, McIlroy’s judge of progress has been much more nuanced.
“You never lean a whole lot when you win, it’s the hard weeks that really teach you something,” Stockton said.
And as the golf world learned in 2009 and ’11, wet U.S. Opens are won by great drivers, which may make muddy Merion and McIlroy a perfect fit.