BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Play the ball up? Or play it down?
It was a red-hot topic in the aftermath of the tropical depression that passed over Shoal Creek on Tuesday with the U.S. Women’s Open less than 48 hours from its start.
The USGA has never played lift, clean and place in the 123 years it has been staging championships, and it doesn’t want to break that tradition this week.
“I would say it is our intention to play 72 holes to identify our champion, and play the ball as it lies,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships and governance.
Bodenhamer said his staff will continue to evaluate conditions on Wednesday, but it appears it will take extraordinary circumstances for the governing body to implement preferred lies on what is likely to be a soggy course.
That had players buzzing on the range over the prospect of dealing with mud balls on a course that has been hit with almost 6 inches of rain in the last week, 2.41 inches in a 24-hour period with Subtropical Storm Alberto’s disintegration into a tropical depression over the Birmingham region early Tuesday morning.
The course was closed Tuesday, with no practice rounds allowed. The driving range and practice range opened at 2:30 p.m. local time, with sporadic showers continuing in the afternoon.
Cristie Kerr, the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open champion, said the course was already “soaked” and “super muddy” in Monday’s practice rounds, before the tropical depression arrived.
“If they play it down, it’s a joke,” Cristie Kerr said. “The course is saturated beyond comprehension. I know they run a lot of championships, but how many have they run after a tropical storm came through?”
Kerr was doubtful course conditions would dramatically improve with more showers possible Wednesday. She would like the USGA to reconsider.
“The course is unplayable,” Kerr said. “There’s going to be mud on every ball. It’s not fair. Tropical storms aren’t part of the game.”
Wednesday’s local forecast is improved but calls for “a moist air mass to remain in place, with a mix of sun and clouds and scattered showers.”
Bodenhamer and his staff will be watching with the course expected to reopen Wednesday, with practice rounds scheduled to resume at 6:40 a.m.
“We're evaluating everything,” Bodenhamer said. “We're looking at the weather. We're looking at all the conditions. You know, we have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.”
Still, there’s more than a strong institutional commitment to the principle of playing the ball down in championships. There is a perfect record.
“Our intention is to rely on our considerable experience,” Bodehhamer said. “We played 72 of these U.S. Women's Opens, in fact, 117 U.S. Open Championships playing the ball as it lies, finishing the competition and so it's our intention to do that this week as well.”
After a difficult, lingering winter and unusually cool spring, Shoal Creek was left with some turf issues. There are patches of thinning, brown turf in play in some fairways and spotty, bare patches around certain greens. The USGA will evaluate practice rounds Wednesday before deciding whether marking ground under repair is necessary.
“I think we really need to see what moved through on top of us today, and see how it impacted the golf course,” Bodenhamer said. “So, we have some thoughts. We've obviously been looking at the golf course. We’re evaluating what the impact is now with all of that.”
There’s a troubling large swath of thin turf in the landing area for layup shots at the 17th, a 533-yard par 5.
Stacy Lewis said she is more concerned about how that damaged turf will be evaluated than she is over whether to play preferred lies.
“You either need ground under repair, or you need to play the ball up,” Lewis said.
Asked if she thought “preferred lies” or “playing the ball as it lies” was the best option to crown a champion in the extremely soggy conditions that existed Tuesday, Lewis said she would prefer “preferred lies.”
“With ball in hand, it’s going to be good golf that wins,” Lewis said. “I would rather the tournament be decided based on good golf rather than the luck in whether mud stays on your ball or not.”
Two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Inbee Park expects to play the ball down even though “this is probably the wettest conditions I have ever seen in a U.S. Women's Open.”
Park said she approached Monday’s practice with the attitude that she’s just got to deal with whatever lie she faces.
“I really didn't expect to play lift, clean and place this week,” she said. “With all this rain, we don't know how bad it is going to be, but I'll be surprised if they play lift, clean and place.”
Karine Icher said playing the ball down in extremely wet conditions doesn’t make the championship a fairer test than playing with ball in hand with preferred lies.
“On Sunday, coming down the 17th at the end, you could have two players hit good second shots, almost the exact same layup shots in the fairway, but one ball is almost unplayable with mud on it, and the other is in a good lie,” Icher said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Icher believes that players in that troubled layup landing area need fair relief.
Anna Nordqvist said nobody looks forward to dealing with the kind of challenges Shoal Creek presented in Monday’s soggy conditions.
“There was mud on the ball after every tee shot,” Nordqvist said. “I don’t think mud balls are a fair part of the game. You have no idea what the ball is going to do. I remember hitting a 5-iron after a rain delay at the U.S. Open at Lancaster. I had mud on my ball and it went 25 yards right. That’s no fun.”