Mud balls likely to plague players at Merion

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ARDMORE, Pa. – There is little doubt that Merion will play softer than the USGA would prefer. It means the landing areas will play wider, and the greens will be more receptive, and the scores likely will be lower.

But it also could mean one of the players’ most exasperating problems: mud balls.

The East Course was deluged by more than five inches of rain over the weekend and into Monday, making several of the walkways a muddy mess. More rain is expected Thursday, but the forecast for the last three rounds calls for temperatures in the low-80s and winds around 15 mph.

It’s impossible to predict the frequency of mud balls, of course, because no player has the identical ball flight, spin rate or shot shape, and there is a bit of luck involved (i.e., how a ball pitches in the fairway). Wet fairways don’t generally create mud balls because the ball skids after hitting the grass, effectively cleaning it. That’s not the case, however, when the fairways dry out.

“I think they’re unfair,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion. “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.”

Later, he said, “You never want to see a scenario where a course setup punishes the player unfairly and sort of outside the way the game is supposed to be played normally. … I’m hoping a mud ball doesn’t decide the tournament come the weekend.”

For the record, the USGA is “fairly certain” that they have never allowed players to use preferred lies – lift, clean and place – in the fairways, regardless of how much rain fell during tournament week.

“We’re going to have to deal with it,” Tiger Woods said. “It’s part of the game, getting up and down, and dealing with some of the situations like that.”