It’s a rite of passage for the world’s best golfers to complain at the National Open.
Their weepy refrains haven’t changed in decades: the fairways are too narrow, the rough’s too gnarly, the greens are slicker than James Bond and harder to read than James Joyce.
They’re not wrong about any of it, but that’s the motif of the US Open.
To quote Tiger Woods, it is what it is, and what it’s always been: a war of attrition.
You don’t win US Opens as much as you survive them.
But while they have been historically tough, they’ve also been fair.
This one, however, will be different.
It’ll be tough and unfair.
The 113th United States Open will be won by luck; pure dumb luck.
The champion won’t necessarily have exhibited the most amount of skill over 72 holes but gotten the least amount of mud on his golf balls.
“I’m hoping a mud ball doesn’t decide the tournament,” said 2010 champion Graeme McDowell on Tuesday.
He didn’t sound hopeful.
Neither am I.
Venerable Merion Golf Club — hosting its fifth Open but first since it was declared obsolete in 1981 — will play nothing like it should thanks to lashing rains that have turned the course into a bog.
The forecast calls for another deluge on Thursday.
But when it’s raining, balls tend to skid on the fairways, making it hard for mud to stick.
By the weekend, though, the skies will dry and golf balls will hit the fairways and immediately pick up clumps of mud.
And that’s when the Open becomes a game of chance; a lottery.
Where balls with mud on them will go is anyone’s guess.
“This theory about if the mud’s on the right, it will go left and if the mud’s on the left it will go (right), believe me, that’s a bunch of baloney,” Merion’s 1971 champion Lee Trevino said on Tuesday.
“You don’t know where the hell it’s going to go when that mud is on there.”
If this were a PGA tour event, the players would be allowed to clean the ball and replace it within one club length.
The purists of the United States Golf Association, however, sneer at what they privately refer to “Lift, Clean and Cheat.”
In their minds, the golf ball is to be played as it lies.
And while there’s great merit in that concept, it’s not failsafe.
“I’m kind of split on the issue of ball in hand,” said McDowell.
“I get that the USGA and the Masters Committee and the R&A, they don’t like giving the golf ball in hand (because) you can use that rule to your advantage, you can change your angle, you can get putter in your hand, you can get yourself out of interesting scenarios at times.
“But I think mud balls are a problem, McDowell said.
“I think they’re unfair.”
McDowell echoed what many believe: if a ball is struck in the middle of a fairway, the player shouldn’t be punished.
“You deserve a great lie and a great opportunity to attack the green surface,” he said.
“That’s the reward for hitting the fairway,” McDowell said.
McDowell, who admits that he’s not good at controlling mud balls, hopes the USGA will do whatever they have to do to ensure “a level playing field.”
Perhaps he can hope for Middle East peace while he’s at it because they won’t be allowing players to clean off the mud at Merion.
They never have at a U.S. Open and they won’t set that precedent here.
“We don’t see the need for it at this point,” said a USGA spokesman on Tuesday.
David Graham, who won the last Open played here, 32 years ago, represents many within the game who agree with the USGA that mud balls are “just the luck of the draw.”
“It’s rub of the green and that’s one of the facets of golf that makes it so intriguing, to be able to play and adapt to those kinds of things,” he said.
Tiger Woods always rolls his eyes when he sees mud on his ball at a major but he too accepts that “it’s part of the game.”
“We’re going to have situations where, if it does dry out through the weekend and hit a few good drives down there and get a few mud balls, we’re going to have to deal with it,” he said.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the odds are that this US Open will become a crapshoot, especially given that the 18th hole at Merion, at 520 yards long, will require a long iron approach.
And the longer the club, the more mud will deviate a shot.
“It doesn’t take much mud to really affect that ball,” said Steve Stricker.
“It could decide who the champion is here this week, unfortunately,” he added.
Unless, of course, the USGA intervenes and lets players clean their balls, if only in the fairways.
“I hope,” said McDowell, “They make the right call.”