Ernie Els won’t go so far as to predict a 62 at the U.S. Open, but with downpours pelting Merion Golf Club intermittently for days and forcing closure of the 11th hole to the golfers practicing on Monday, the reigning British Open champion believes guys will go low this week.
“After the rain this morning, it's going to be very sloppy now. You're not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I'm sorry,” Els told reporters Monday ahead of the men’s second major of the season. “I don't care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it's not going to dry up.”
What that means, Els explained, was that players who were “on” their games and able to find fairways with irons off the tees would have a slew of scoring opportunities.
“You're going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues,” said the two-time U.S. Open winner who expected several par-4s, par-3s and the rough -- “as bad as I’ve ever seen it” -- to present formidable challenges no matter the conditions.
Els, a grizzled veteran of the Open wars, warned newbies to the tournament not to become wide-eyed over the chance to post numbers.
“Guys who have never played a U.S. Open, they might be lulled into, ‘hey, this is not all that bad,’” said Els. “I'm playing my 21st U.S. Open, so I've seen a lot of trouble out there.”
Like the “penal” rough, which may constrict players from advancing their balls no more than 140 yards, at most, or the “quite tricky” greens, which will punish anyone hitting to the wrong sides.
“I think 18 is a classic great par‑4,” Els said of the 521-yard finishing hole. “The green is very tough to hit. Most of us will be coming in with a 3, 4‑iron. And the way the green is designed it's on a hill but the green is going away from you on the left side and even on the right side.”
Els also predicted a photo finish to this year’s Open -- with the conditions allowing a bunch of golfers into the hunt -- but no, the Big Easy did not expect anyone to post a 62 out there.
“I see a very close race with a lot of players in contention this year, unlike other U.S. Opens,” he said. “It's going to be bunched. It's going to be under par, you'll be seeing quite a few numbers in the red. It's going to be an exciting U.S. Open.”
As for what may happen should rains make the 11th and 12th holes unplayable, the USGA has contingency plans that could bring three holes on the West Course -- about a mile from the primary action on the East Course -- into play if needed, according to Golf Digest.
Cobbs Creek has gushed over the rock wall below the 11th green, which is situated on the lowest potion of the course.
"It's been flooded probably 40 times in the 12 years I've been here," Matt Shaffer, Merion's director of golf-course operations, told the publication. "I've pulled logs and tree trunks off that green. It's had so much silt and grit left on it, the subsurface has turned to concrete. I mean, the players in the U.S. Open better pray it floods a little -- otherwise, they won't be able to leave a ball mark."
Shaffer -- at the direction of USGA executive director Mike Davis -- has readied the alternate West Coast holes for use in the event of an emergency.
“You have to ask, 'What if all hell breaks loose? What if it stays flooded for two days?'” Davis said in the Golf Digest article. “That's why we're going to take some precautionary measures on the West Course."
Should the worst-case scheme be necessary, golfers would play the East’s two holes and then hop into carts for transport back to the West.
"I'm giving you the doomsday of all doomsday scenarios," Davis said. "We wouldn't use a hole from the West Course unless we absolutely otherwise couldn't get this championship in -- if we had a stream that wouldn't recede for several days. In that case, the show's got to go on. What we don't want is that situation, and we're sitting there scratching our heads."
Golf Digest pointed out that such a situation would not be without precedent. Flooding washed out several holes of the Butler National course during the 1987 Western Open, forcing the tourney to use nine on the contiguous Oak Brook public course.