BIRMINGHAM, Ala - The good thing about golf for a sportswriter, in addition to the players being the most accessible athletes on the planet, is that there are no night games. None of those 9 p.m. starts and writing at midnight. The bad thing is that it’s played outdoors, not in an arena or under dome. Weather is as much a part of the game as the golf course itself – and way more unreliable.
As the Scots like to say: “If it’s nae wind and nae rain it’s nae golf.” Well, this week’s U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek in Alabama is long on the nae and short on the aye, at least early in the week. With Subtropical Storm Alberto washing out Tuesday’s practice rounds and the forecast for Wednesday not promising, it raises a ton of questions as to how the USGA will proceed.
If the past is prologue, we know this much: The tournament will not be shortened. Since stroke play began in 1947, the U.S. Women’s Open champion has never played fewer than 72 holes, even though that has meant a few Monday finishes. The other thing we know is that the USGA never plays lift, clean and place. That will be a more difficult tradition to maintain this week.
Certainly, a course with the word “Creek” in its name implies that there will be real challenges in making the course playable after this much rain. But history also tells us that the USGA does a remarkable job of preparing a golf course. And recent history tells us the new USGA is willing to abandon tradition if it feels it is for the good of the game.
In 1996, in the men’s U.S. Open at Oakland Hills near Detroit, the course flooded on Wednesday and overnight maintenance crews from all over Michigan poured in to ready the course for Thursday’s start of play. And at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs in 2011, no round ended on the day it started and So Yeon Ryu finished her final round on Monday and then defeated Hee Kyung Seo in the first three-hole playoff in U.S. Women’s Open history.
So, it seems all-but-certain we will play 72 holes no matter what the weather at Shoal Creek. Now, what about lift, clean and place? I have two thoughts on that. First, that issue can be greatly mollified by marking large portions of the golf course as Ground Under Repair. A GUR designation allows you to move your ball to a dry place and drop there. That is the most likely scenario.
The other possibility – and I’m not ruling this out yet – is that this becomes the first time the USGA opts to play lift, clean and place, which is the local rule most pro tours employ that allows the player to clean mud off the ball and place it near the spot where it was found.
This would be a major break from tradition, but I never thought I’d see the U.S. Open abandon the 18-hole playoff. Yet the USGA went to a three-hole playoff for the U.S. Women’s Open after 2006, when Annika Sorenstam defeated Pat Hurst on Monday at Newport Country Club. And this year the USGA decided that all championships – including the men’s U.S. Open – will be decided by a two-hole playoff if there is a tie after 72 holes.
Quite simply, the USGA wisely decided that a Monday 18-hole finish is a major inconvenience for all the stakeholders in the game – the players, fans, volunteers, media and corporate partners. Going to an abbreviated playoff was the smart thing to do.
This is the first year the U.S. Women’s Open moves to its new, permanent date two weeks before the men’s U.S. Open. That’s a move as smart as ending the 18-hole playoff. Will we see another major break in tradition this week with lift, clean and place? That’s just one more reason why with will be a fun tournament to watch.