Farmingdale, N.Y. – Ian Poulter had a pretty good idea that the first day of the 109th U.S. Open Thursday wasn’t going to be a long one – at least not on the golf course.
He had arrived at the par-3 eighth hole at Bethpage Black with Justin Leonard and Robert Allenby, and watched as the volunteer grounds crew tried in vain to stay ahead of the heavy rains that were drenching an already saturated golf course.
“It was almost comical,” said the garrulous Englishman, peering out from under an umbrella outside the Bethpage clubhouse Thursday afternoon just minutes before the competition was halted for the day because an inch-plus of precipitation had turned the championship course into Bathpage Water Park.
“The guys were squeegeeing the green before we hit our approach shots, then they squeegeed them again as we walked to the green,” said Poulter, in at even par and facing a 4-foot par putt when he returns at 7:30 a.m. Friday. “I get to my ball, mark it, clean it, put it down, and as I’m lining up the putt they have to squeegee again. I stand over my putt and I ask them to squeegee it yet again, and then I hit my putt and end up 4 feet short. It was laughable.”
And so it went for the early starters in the year’s second major championship. Showers were persistent from the start of the championship at 7 a.m. EDT until play was suspended at 10:16 a.m. with half the field – competitors in the morning wave – having completed anywhere from two to 11 holes.
“This is a bit overwhelming,” said Jeff Brehaut, who was one of four players under par when play was halted. He was the farthest along, having played 11 holes. “My wife’s been telling me the last three days to embrace the conditions. That was the first thing out of her mouth this morning. Everybody has to play in it. It’s not what any of us wants to deal with. But they’re still going to give out a trophy.”
“I was prepared to be out there and stay out there,” said Steve Stricker, who finished the day one over after six holes. “We had some similar conditions in 2002 [in the second round], so you just had to suck it up and try to hit good shots and try to make pars. I think I got off to a good start considering the circumstances.”
Aside from negotiating the soggy putting surfaces, the biggest adjustment players had to make was in club selection. Lee Westwood said he began the championship with a driver and 3-iron at the par-4 opening hole that measures 430 yards. In the practice rounds he was hitting 3-wood and 9-iron.
“It was just so long. Hit a driver at 11 and a 3-wood and couldn’t get to the green – and that was one of the shorter holes,” said South African Tim Clark. “At 12 [504 yards, par 4], I thought they might move the tee up, and they didn’t, so I hit driver and 4-iron and still had 100 yards in there. Just long, long, long, but you have to find a way to make pars out there somehow.”
Said Bo Van Pelt, who is one over through 11 holes: “It was pretty tough. As wet as it was, you were just lucky to get the ball moving. You can’t control the weather. The more it started raining, the harder it got and the more you have to concentrate on what you’re doing, and that’s not very easy. Look, it’s going to be a long week regardless; U.S. Open week … it’s always a long week.”
And it’s only going to get longer. Some players noted that championship officials might have waited too long before suspending play, but no one seemed troubled by the fact that the championship got underway just before getting under water.
“This is a tough battle for them,” said Padraig Harrington of the U.S. Open officials’ predicament. “They did as well as they could have done and in fairness, the conditions were playable when we started and they kept playable for the seven holes I played anyway.” said Harrington, paired the first two rounds with Tiger Woods and Angel Cabrera, will resume play Friday morning on the seventh green. He stands at four over par.
“From the time we were on the second hole of the day, I knew we were one or two good minutes of rain from being delayed,” said 2003 champion Jim Furyk. “But they had to try to get in as much golf as they could, because who knows what we’re facing the rest of the week, and so you had to stay focused. You can’t let your guard down for one minute.”
Woods, the defending champion, agreed that three hours of golf was better than none. “It was a good decision to start today,” he said after a birdie on his last hole of the day, the sixth, to stand at one over par. “Playing was the right decision. I knew it was going to be a tough day, and it was.”
As difficult as the 7,348-yard, par-70 layout was from a physical standpoint, the mental challenge both between the ropes and in the locker room waiting around was no less daunting.
“It’s a grind. It’s hard work,” said Poulter, who said he kept busy tweeting on his Twitter account. “Your caddie has to be like an octopus. You have to help him out as much as he’s helping you out. And you have to be patient. It’s the U.S. Open so you have to be patient anyway.”
“We get this in Europe all the time,” said Westwood, who came up one shot shy of the playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate last year at Torrey Pines, with a wry grin. “You have to stiffen up mentally. It can be draining, but if you’re prepared and you’ve done your work, then you just have to relax and believe that when you do get to play you’ll be all right.”
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.usopen.com.