Golf by its very nature as a sport played outdoors issues a particular significant challenge to players. They’re required to suck it up no matter the conditions. Nothing is more critical to this command, this obligation, than the matter of so-called “mud” balls.
The PGA Tour often uses a local rule of competition that enables players to get their hands on the ball when conditions get overly squishy. Tour pros, understandably if regrettably, are all about control, and that doesn’t mean only control of their swings and the golf ball. They prefer controlled conditions, as if golf were played indoors. But climate-controlled golf, that is, golf that puts the ball in their hands by allowing them to lift, clean, and place, is not authentic golf.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see the USGA remain steadfast this week in its opposition to allowing players to lift, clean, and place at the battered but still beautiful Merion Golf Club–and by “beautiful,” I mean it retains its fundamental challenges no matter how soft its surface. Players were marched through the interview area prior to the start of the U.S. Open and to a man said they would prefer to pick up the ball and clean the mud off it.
It’s difficult if almost impossible to predict how a ball will fly when it has mud on it. Uh-oh, uncertainty in the player’s mind. Here’s a useful piece that Golf Digest’s equipment maven Mike Stachura wrote this week in which he tries to explain mud balls. It’s quite the physics and aerodynamics problem.
I get it that tour players want to get the ball in their hands and wipe any mud off it. We’re talking about the best players in the world. They’ve honed their crafts to a knife’s edge. Then a player hits a perfect drive into one of Merion’s fairways and finds mud on the side of his ball. Meanwhile, one of the players in his group might hit a similar drive that finishes a few feet away and find his ball didn’t pick up mud.
Where’s the fairness in that? Exactly. It’s nowhere. It’s not fair. The U.S. Open, and, really, any tournament, should be an examination of a player’s ability to accept and cope with the conditions. If that means playing a mud ball, so be it.
USGA Vice-President and Championship director Tom O’Toole Jr. put it this way when he was asked about whether players would be allowed to lift, clean and place at soggy Merion. He acknowledged that a local rule allows for players to do this, should the tournament committee decide to implement it. But then he said, basically, no chance. Not at a U.S. Open.
“That said (the fact of the local rule), it’s been a long-standing philosophical point of view from the USGA to not adopt that local rule in our national championships,” O’Toole said. “And the current Championship Committee is consistent with that long-standing philosophical point of view.”
During Thursday’s stop and start and stop and start to the U.S. Open, the golfers indeed followed Rule 13-1 in the USGA code. The rule states, simply, “The ball must be played as it lies, except as otherwise provided by the rules.” Competition committees can allow exceptions, as happens regularly on the PGA and European Tours. But anytime this happens, a significant element in the game is eviscerated. Every player then plays a shot from the fairway under similar circumstances–a clean ball, that is. Why should that be?
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion who has elevated his game to where he contends regularly in majors, has his finger on the pulse of the matter. As a player, he can see both sides of the discussion. But, ultimately, and, again, understandably, he’s in the “mud balls aren’t fair” camp. (McDowell double-bogeyed the 18th hole Friday morning to finish with a 76 in his opening round).
“I’m kind of split on the issue of ball in hand, lift, clean and place,” McDowell said earlier in the week. “I think there’s a need for it at times.”
He went on to advance his position.
“But I think mud balls are a problem. I think they’re unfair. 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 attach the green surface. That’s the reward you get for hitting the fairway.”
The U.S. Open at Merion has yet to provide players the pleasures–yeah, right–of mud balls yet. But here comes the sun for the weekend, which will increase the chances for mud balls.
“When it’s wet and skidding, it’s not going to pick up mud, it cleans as it goes,” McDowell said. “But when it bakes and tops a little bit, there’s going to be a lot of mud balls.”
McDowell said he hopes the USGA makes “the right call,” by which he meant he’d like to see lift, clean and place in use should mud balls become an issue. But the USGA believes this constitutes lift, clean and cheat. The championship committee won’t invoke the local rule. That’s a PGA Tour thing, a European Tour thing. A “golf should be fair” thing.
I’m not saying the USGA and R&A, equally, don’t believe golf should be fair. But they acknowledge and support the bedrock principle that the ball should be played as it lies, and that players need to handle whatever anxiety and uncertainty that might create. Sure, a mud ball as the U.S. Open reaches its conclusion could cause a player to hit a shot where the ball flutters like an R.A. Dickey knuckleball. It could cause him to lose the championship.
Bad break? Absolutely. Part of the game? Absolutely, especially at, and as it should be, at the U.S. Open.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein