BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA | If they ever were going to do it, this would be the time. But they’re never going to do it. Ever. In 123 years the USGA has not played one of its championships under lift-clean-and-place local rules. Not the amateur championships, not the four-ball championships, not the opens or the Publinks or any of the girls’ or boys’ juniors. Not at Scioto at the 2016 U.S. Senior Open when Ohio summer rain came down in sheets and there were suggestions the championship could go as long as six or seven days (it finished on Monday).
However, few if any of those championship venues looked like Shoal Creek after Tropical Depression Alberto blew through Birmingham, Ala., on Monday night and Tuesday morning. In 48 hours from 3 p.m. Sunday until the same time on Tuesday, the course withstood 2.41 inches of rain and wind gusts that reached 38 mph. Two large pine trees came down and were being hauled away when the driving range finally opened at 2:30 on Tuesday. Even then, players in for the U.S. Women’s Open hustled back and forth from the clubhouse as the odd, intermittent downpour disrupted practice.
“Honestly, I would think that they would have to play the ball up,” Lexi Thompson said Tuesday morning. “I played (the course) yesterday and it was pretty wet in some spots and some of the fairways are a little bare in some spots. So, I think it will be a little unfair if they don’t. But you never know. I mean if they don’t, everybody has to play it down and it is what it is but it’s their choice.
“I heard it coming into the event that they struggled with weather and some of the fairways were tarped to keep them healthy and ready for us coming in. This rain does not help at all. Parts of the fairways are a little muddy and a little patchy in some spots. Like I said, there’s not much you can do about it. It is the weather.”
It is also Alabama in May where rain can come in buckets. Hurricane season might not begin officially until Friday, but that didn’t stop the storm that hit the Florida panhandle and went due north up I-65.
“It’s not lost on us what is happening here in the great state of Alabama, in this region, as a result of Alberto,” said John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of championships and governance for the USGA. “We understand there is some flooding. There are some other challenging situations around the state.
“The state government has had to deploy resources. We’ve been talking about that. We’re mindful of that and want to be respectful of that.”
It doesn’t help that Shoal Creek sits in a low-lying area between two mountains. Not only does it have the same drainage problems any parkland course would in these conditions, it also has water draining from the mountains into the valley where it lies.
“This is probably the wettest conditions I have ever seen in U.S. Women’s Open,” world No. 1 Inbee Park said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen. Coming into the U.S. Women’s Open, I always try to play the ball with mud (on it) or try to play off of wet ground condition because we’ve never played lift-clean-and-place. We just play from wherever it is and however the conditions are.
“I really don’t expect to play the lift-clean-and-place this week,” Park said. “But with all this rain, we don’t know how bad it is going to be. I’ll be surprised if they play lift-clean-and-place.”
Park is right. According to Bodenhamer, “It is our intention to play 72 holes to identify our champion and play the ball as it lies. We’re evaluating everything. 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. This isn’t the first U.S. Open or even one of our amateur championships where we had challenging weather. Our intention is to rely on our considerable experience. We played 72 of these U.S. Women’s Opens and 117 U.S. Open Championships playing the ball as the lies, finishing the competition and so it’s our intention to do that this week as well.
“Now, not every U.S. Open has been played on pristine, perfect fairways or perfectly dry conditions or in bright sunshine. We play an outdoor game. Unless we’re ready to put a dome over our golf courses, we always will. That’s part of the charm and the greatness of our game is that there is randomness. I think that’s what makes the greatest game, in my opinion, at times a little bit more challenging because of what Mother Nature brings.”
More rain from Alberto is expected on Wednesday with at least a 40 percent chance of rain extending throughout the week.