What to Watch For: Wetness Lessens Severe Test, Barely

As play began at the 116th U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont, steamy skies were a reminder of the overnight rain. (USGA/John Mummert)
As play began at the 116th U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont, steamy skies were a reminder of the overnight rain. (USGA/John Mummert)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – As storm clouds descended prior to the start of the 116th U.S. Open, it was a reminder that, the 156 contestants might have to adjust their strategy – but not their thinking.

Pounding rains that began Wednesday evening and continued overnight, dropping 1.14 inches of precipitation, numbed the jaws of this most fearsome of U.S. Open tests. But even if the venerable venue is transformed slightly, a softened respect for its hardline features is certain to blaze a trail of tears.

That’s why, regardless of the conditions, the most important tool in a player’s arsenal isn’t one he holds in his hands. It’s how he uses his head.

“Patience, I think, is always one of the biggest ones at a U.S. Open just because of how tough it is physically, mentally,” said Rickie Fowler, who finished runner-up two years ago at Pinehurst No. 2. “You can't lose focus at all at any point out here. There's no easy golf shot. I think, watching on TV, it's going to seem a lot easier than if you're actually out on the grounds and see what this golf course really is.”

Softer conditions mean shots will hold in the fairways and on the sloping greens. “When it gets a little softer, then it's going to play a lot longer,” said two-time champion Ernie Els, who won at Oakmont in 1994. “I think most of the players would prefer it when there's a bit of rain or softness comes. It's more playable.”

Defending champion Jordan Spieth predicted that an aggregate score over par would win. “If it rains,” he countered, “you can shoot under par.”

But of course, poor shots will still be punished. And players have to accept that.

“I think it comes down to that mindset that you take out there,” said 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott. “A lot of the time at a U.S. Open on a lot of the holes, walking off with a par should feel like a birdie for you. You have to almost kid yourself that par was really good. That's a birdie. That's gaining half a shot or a quarter of a shot on the field, and that's a good thing. So you really have to believe that.”

“You can’t grumble your way to a U.S. Open win,” said Fox Sports analyst Paul Azinger. “You can’t ever sacrifice a stroke because you’ve lost your composure.”

Rory McIlroy, who won on a rain-softened Congressional Country Club in 2011, might have an advantage. His four major wins all have been abetted by favorable weather. “The majors that I have won have been soft and under par and more suits my style of game,” he acknowledged. “With experience, you learn what a good score is on that particular day or, if you're not playing so well, how to just grind it out and make pars and try to get it in the clubhouse at a respectable score.”

Regardless of the weather, according to McIlroy, the forecast is for trepidation.

“You know you're going to be put under a lot of pressure on basically every single golf shot you hit out there,” he said. “So you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared for how mentally demanding it's going to be, how much concentration you're going to need out there.”

There’s no substitute for good execution. Quality shots are still the coin of the realm. But bringing something extra to the first tee today will pay off nicely.

Think sunny thoughts.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.