Will the weather gods be smiling on Merion?

John Jones, a security worker, tries to stay dry Friday as he keeps watch outside the Merchandising Pavilion at Merion Golf Club. Golfers would not mind a little rain this week.
John Jones, a security worker, tries to stay dry Friday as he keeps watch outside the Merchandising Pavilion at Merion Golf Club. Golfers would not mind a little rain this week. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 10, 2013

Rain had fallen every day of the tournament, and the heartiest soaking came on the decisive fourth day, from tee-off through the dramatic playoff.

On that miserably chilly afternoon in 1997 at the Oaks Country Club golf course in Greensboro, N.C., New Zealander Frank Nobilo won his first and only PGA tour championship. Starting from 5 strokes back, he sealed it on an 18th hole that by then was all but unplayable.

Yet Nobilo makes no claim to having prevailed over the elements. Quite the contrary: To this day he thanks the atmosphere for helping him walk off with $342,000 in prize money. The soggy, slow green gave him a critical element of control over his shots; better waterlogged grass than a pool-table hard surface.

At the U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club this week, more than 150 golfers will be participating. But one of the most important players will be the ever-volatile atmosphere.

"It's hard to remember a tournament where weather wasn't a factor," said Nobilo, now an analyst with the Golf Channel. That has been especially true this year, which has witnessed some of the worst weather in PGA tour history.

High winds plagued a Hawaii tournament in January, and snow struck last month in Tucson, said PGA tour meteorologist Stewart Williams.

Of course, weather is a major player for tournament organizers, the spectators - and concessionaires. "You need to know whether to load up on hot chocolate or beer," said Jake Swick, of Thor Guard Weather, who will be the on-site meteorologist at Merion. Swick will be supplying evapotranspiration forecasts - that's how quickly soil moisture is returning to the air - to the people who make the mowing decisions.

But the concerns of golfers are more specific, and often more esoteric.

On its flights from the tees and roughs, that simple, dimpled white sphere has an immensely complicated relationship with the atmosphere, which, in turn, has a mighty say in the conditions of the terrain. Obviously, winds affect play, but temperature, humidity, and even barometric pressure - the weight of the air - can work in not-so-obvious ways.

It's understandable, said Nobilo, that some professional golfers are so obsessed with weather that they become human barometers. Talk to a serious golfer about weather, he said, and "it sounds like someone is designing a spaceship."

The computer models are suggesting that the United States Golf Association, not to mention the gallery, should catch a break with mostly benign weather once competition begins Thursday.

However, winds could be a factor Friday, with Accu-Weather Inc. calling for stiff north gusts above 25 m.p.h. Golfers will want to know the speeds and precise directions, said Nobilo. For exactitude, it's common for caddies to nail down the directions with compasses.

Fortunately, right now the forecasts for the competition days do not include that great enemy of all outdoor activities: lightning. The USGA retains Thor Guard, a Florida company, for a reason. It specializes in lightning detection and prediction. If lightning does threaten to make an appearance, the sirens will sound.

Temperatures will be comfortable - about 80 - and humidity should be on the low side for mid-June. Those conditions could work in the golfers' favor in a relatively small course such as Merion's, said Nobilo.

"It's quite intimate," he said, comparing it with the storied St. Andrew's course in Scotland. Hot, humid air is more buoyant than cooler, dryer air, and the ball carries better. On hot days, he said, "the ball flies forever."

The forecast does call for an outside chance of showers Friday, but as Nobilo knows, rain isn't always a bad thing. "The golfers want it to rain because their approach shots will stick," said Tony Gigi, a golf enthusiast and meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

In the case of Merion, the greens wouldn't stay wet for long, said Mark Luckhardt, a vice president of TDI Golf, the Canadian firm that designed Merion's XGD drainage system. He says it can drain a green quickly.

"After a good, heavy rain, you're out there in two hours," he said.

Nobilo said he wasn't one for complaining about the elements. Since conditions are always changing, he said, no matter how many times one plays a given course, golf strokes are like snowflakes: No two are identical.

"That's one of the beauties of the game," he said. "You never hit the same shot twice."

Contact Anthony R. Wood

at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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