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Weather Report Suite: Rain, Wind & Heat Can't Stop Major Championships

By: Jay Flemma


Journalist after journalist, player after player, USGA worker after USGA worker all expressed the same sentiment: They'd never seen anything like it in years. The entire first round of the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage was worse than a washout, it was an Irish hurricane: a steady downpour in a dead calm. Michael Phelps was seen doing laps on the side of the 16th fairway; Rees Jones was standing in between the first and 18th fairways next to wooden planks cut and laid into the skeletal structure of a boat; and the USGA's David Fay was instructing Rand Jerris and Suzanne Colson how to bring the animals on board by twos, one male and one female of each species.

On Thursday of the U.S. Open, only 78 players teed off - exactly half the field - but no one finished more than 11 holes and many completed barely three or four. Scores for those players soared, but their hopes fell as dismally as the sheets of water. Worse still, a similar drenching was expected for today, Saturday, another all-day rain, another sky with black and ominous clouds, and another phalanx of players playing in spandex and scuba gear. With rain forecast for Sunday and maybe even Monday, everyone's outlook is grim. You know it's bad when Dan Jenkins, the man who is attending his 200th major - 201 if you count the 1942 Hale America Open, when he said, "If the forecast is right, this Open could last longer than an NBA season."

New York City has seen 7.5 inches rain this spring, when 2.7 is the norm, and endured 35 days out of 45 of rain. Without question, this is the worst-weather U.S. Open in living memory, and will forever be defined as well as the courage and fortitude of the eventual winner. Other Opens have seen unplayable, sometimes even dangerous conditions, but still the players beat on ceaselessly against the current, as they have since organized championship golf began.

Augusta National, known for "one day of rain, one day of wind, one day of cold, and one nice day," never saw worse weather in spring since the ill-fated official opening of the golf course in 1933 that, according to the Augusta Chronicle article from the next day, featured "near freezing weather which came in with a cold rain" and where guests ate barbecued chicken and bootleg corn liquor in a tent.

As we know, the Masters survived, indeed thrived, and became renowned as golf's Garden of Eden . . . that is until 2007 and 2008 when the freezing temperatures and high winds returned, sending players and fans scrambling for layers of fleece and Gore-tex. Zach Johnson brought back sexy one "turtleneck under a golf shirt" at a time. While it wasn't as bad the previous year, a second consecutive year of sub-normal temperatures plagued the early rounds in '08.

Many other Masters had washouts for a day, but finished on time. Mike Weir won what might have been the wettest Masters ever in 2003. In 1982 and '89, Stadler and Faldo, respectively, won rain-delayed events, and rain on Sunday in 1983 pushed Seve Ballesteros's win that year to a Monday finish.

The PGA Championship had a particularly strange weather "delay" in a manner of speaking: The 1970 PGA was actually played in February of 1971. PGA National in Florida was the host, and because the greens were Bermuda, Deane Beman wanted the putting surfaces to be in their best condition, so two PGAs were played that year. After taking a tip from Beman on how to hit down on the ball when putting - "give it a little more pop," Beman instructed, Jack Nicklaus won that tournament. Younger fans will, of course, remember Phil Mickelson winning the 2005 PGA Championship on a Monday, while Tiger Woods waited in his plane on the Teeterboro airplane tarmac to see if he might squeak into the playoff.

If we had to highlight every British Open contested in adverse conditions, we'd be here till Turnberry. John Huggan, the famous UK writer recalled that in both 1960 and 1970 at St. Andrews wind and rain caused great havoc. In 1970, Doug Sanders may have left the Open Championship in a bush where his ball landed before a thunderstorm tore through.

As I wrote last year in preparation for Royal Birkdale, in 1961 a storm out of the pages of the Apocalypse swept through Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, reducing the tented village to wreckage and wreaking havoc on golf shots. Battling for the lead on the final day of that Open, Arnold Palmer hit a drive on the 15th hole that sliced wildly in the maelstrom, finally settling in the deep rough at the base of a vertical grassy bank about 150 yards from the green. With the gallery watching in stunned disbelief, he slashed a 6-iron from a lie that called for a sand wedge. Slicing through like a scythe felling wheat, his hosel wrapped in grass, Palmer somehow muscled the ball onto the green, saved par, and went on to win. Astounded, championship officials embedded a plaque at the site of Palmer's historic shot.

Palmer repeated as Open champion the next year at Royal Troon. Many years later upon returning to Troon for the 1989 Open Championship, Palmer was asked by a newspaper photographer during a practice round to pose beside the plaque. After flailing around in the rough on the side of the 15th hole for several minutes, Palmer asked his caddie, the venerable Alfie Fyles, "Hey Alfie, where's that plaque?" In dry humor typical of the British, Fyles responded, "About 600 miles away. You're on the wrong course."

Fittingly, the 2008 Birkdale Open saw equally venomous weather, with biting cold and 40 to 50 mile-an-hour gusts. "That wasn't a golf tournament," quipped a frustrated Ben Curtis. Still, we got an epic tournament, as Irishman Padraig Harrington held off newlywed Greg Norman to win his second consecutive Claret Jug.

Perhaps the most fatal weather (for golf history) happened in 2002 when high winds blew away Tiger Woods's chance for the Grand Slam into Muirfields golden fescue and purple heather. "The funny thing is, it depended where you were on the golf course when that storm hit that determined whether it helped or hurt you," explained Huggan. "If you were caught in downwind, you were fine. If you played into it, you were done." Sergio shot 71 same day Woods shot 81.

Still, the U.S. Open has had every kind of horrible weather imaginable, from rain to cold to heat. Tommy Bolt won the first of many "Blast Furnace Opens" in 1958. "That was weird because it was deathly hot and windy, an odd combination," recalled Golf Observer's David Barrett. Then again, every tournament at Southern Hills is played in a blast furnace. The U.S. Amateur is being played there this September, and I've been hydrating for it since April. Maybe all this rain at Bathpage . . . er . . . Bethpage will come in handy.

In 1959, bad weather forced the Open to be played over four days - for the first time in its 59-year history (in 1964, the USGA changed the format from 18-hole rounds on Thursday and Friday and a 36-hole finale on Saturday to 18 holes per day Thursday through Sunday). The third round was suspended three times due to thunderstorms. In 1963, Julius Boros at The Country Club endured what Jenkins called perhaps the windiest U.S. Open barring Tony Jacklin's runaway win at Hazeltine National in 1970. The only other time the Open went into an extra day of play was in 1983 when Larry Nelson held off defending champion Tom Watson with a 62-foot birdie putt on 16 at Oakmont.

The heat returned in 1964 as Ken Venturi collapsed, then rallied and staggered home to win at Congressional. Sports Illustrated's Kevin Cook got Venturi to recall that day in a recent article. "I took 18 salt tablets," said Venturi. "Doctors later told me that can kill you."

Pebble Beach is always famous for its wind: the '72, '82, '92, and 2000 Opens were all played at some point in high winds, and occasionally delayed by rain. Woods got the best of the weather in 2000 and cruised to a record 15-shot victory in the 100th Open.

Finally, never let it be forgotten that Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont in 1973 was assisted by a deluge the night before that softened the course, blunting its fangs so Miller's laser-like iron game, and a putting performance for the ages would go into the records books and Open lore.

And speaking of the rain, here it comes again, right on cue. If the water wasn't bad enough, there have been a couple of 64s here this week (Mike Weir and Lucas Glover), and Ricky Barnes is your new 36-hole U.S. Open record holder at 132, breaking Jim Furyk's old 133 mark from Olympia Yields.

That's enough to have anyone in a blue blazer reaching for the Rolaids. "Oh crap," moaned a USGA volunteer, hiding his face in his hands, then shaking his head. "Can you do a sun dance or something?" he asked me in a forlorn voice. I think that's only in Utah, pal. But I do know a great boat they are loading up not to far from the clubhouse. Ask Rand Jerris for a credential for it.

Short of that, you can borrow my snorkel and mask.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.