U.S. Open Braces for Severe Storms in First Round at Merion

The U.S. Golf Association is bracing for severe storms that could stop play during the opening round of the U.S. Open, where Tiger Woods is seeking his first major victory in five years.

Storms capable of producing high wind, hail and possibly a severe windstorm known as a derecho may sweep into the Northeast U.S. this morning. The tournament’s marquee group of Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, golf’s three top-ranked players, is scheduled to begin play at 1:14 p.m. New York time.

“There could be some really high winds with us, potentially damaging winds, even some hail,” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said in a press conference at Merion Golf Club yesterday. “It depends on what hits us or how lucky or unlucky we are.”

Play got under way this morning with opening group of Roger Tambellini and Cliff Kresge of the U.S. and Ryan Yip of Canada hitting the first tee shots. A threesome of Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Keegan Bradley are also among the early starters.

Davis and his staff have already been unlucky. In the week leading up to the start of golf’s second of four annual major tournaments, the Ardmore, Pennsylvania, course has been soaked with as much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain, leaving greens soft, fairways soggy and some pedestrian pathways treacherous.

A flood watch has been posted across eastern Pennsylvania and most of New Jersey, including Philadelphia and Trenton, starting today because 1 to 3 inches of rain is expected to fall on ground that has been soaked by earlier storms, the U.S. Storm Prediction Center said.

A derecho -- a rare event characterized by winds of at least 58 miles (93 kilometers) per hour creating a line of damage at least 240 miles long -- is also possible, the weather center said.

A derecho swept through the Midwest into the mid-Atlantic states a year ago, knocking out power to 1.9 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia. As a result, the third round of the U.S. PGA Tour’s AT&T National was played without spectators allowed on the grounds of Congressional Country Club for safety reasons.

Flood Threat

“The greatest threat for flooding on Thursday and Thursday night is along small streams and creeks, as well as in areas of poor drainage,” the weather service said.

Merion, a 117-year-old golf club which is hosting its fifth U.S. Open, has a creek surrounding the 11th green at the lowest point of the course. The creek intersects with another alongside the 12th hole.

“We happen to play a sport that’s played outdoors,” USGA Vice President Tom O’Toole said. “It’s not a perfect world. It’s not a perfect game. But we take what we are dealt with.”

The soft conditions of the 6,996-yard (6,400 meter) course could lead to record low scores, players said, as approach shots to the putting surfaces will be easier to stop closer to the holes, producing more birdie attempts.

Woods Favored

Woods, a three-time U.S. Open winner, is favored to capture his first major victory since the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. He has 14 major victories, four shy of tying Jack Nicklaus’s record.

“I just enter events to win,” Woods, 37, said in a press conference two days ago. “That’s why I played as a junior, all the way through to now, is just to try to kick everyone’s butt. That, to me, is the rush.”

Northern Ireland’s McIlroy, 24, won the 2011 event at Congressional near Washington, while Australia’s Scott, 32, claimed his first Grand Slam victory at the Masters Tournament in April.

Under soft conditions, the course’s main line of defense is thick 5-inch rough lining its fairways. Several of the landing areas for tee shots are less than 25 yards wide.

“If you’re playing from the rough, you have no chance of scoring here,” said Matt Kuchar, the No. 4 player in the Official World Golf Ranking and a two-time winner on the U.S. PGA Tour this year. “It’s still a very demanding, difficult golf course even in softer conditions.”

Postponed Round

If heavy rain hits the course in the afternoon, players with later tee times, including Woods, face the possibility of having to return to finish their rounds tomorrow. In that scenario, Kuchar said those players might be able to record even lower scores.

“They may be at an advantage if the course really softens up and plays a lot easier after a big rain,” Kuchar said.

Regardless of the playing conditions and potentially low scores, USGA officials said they are eager to return to Merion, which last hosted a U.S. Open in 1981. The course, built on 110 acres, was widely considered by many golf followers to be unable to host big events because of its size and lack of length.

“Personally I’d already like to see us return,” Davis said. “I’m not sure Merion wants us to return. For anybody to think that these rain events would curtail our enthusiasm for this, you’re misguided. We have nothing to say but positive things about Merion now.”

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