Shaffer and crew stay the course
Despite wet weather, Merion's Matt Shaffer responsible for keeping Merion's East Course in playing shape.
YOU THINK Matt Shaffer has had easier weeks?
From the moment Merion East found out it was going to host its fifth U.S. Open this year, he understood that the whole golf universe would be watching his every move. And making judgments on everything from the speed of the greens to the height of the rough and anything in between.
Maybe even the turtle soup they serve on the veranda.
As the director of golf course operations, that's his job. And his responsibility. As he put it a few months ago, his Super Bowl. Because the condition of the course is paramount. The rest is pretty much details. You don't get a mulligan. And you never know when, or if, you're going to get another showcase like this.
It wasn't his fault that Merion got hit with a deluge last Friday. Or that another storm blew through on Monday. Now, there's supposedly more water and perhaps even worse on the way for today's opening round. Shades of Bethpage Black, 2009. And really, who needs another one of those?
But that's what Shaffer and his staff have been dealt. It's a staff that includes his 50 people plus another 130 from near and far who came to pitch in. So he's got that going for him. And he might need every single one of them before it's over, whenever that might be.
"I get bored easy, and I can assure you I haven't been bored once," Shaffer said yesterday, following the USGA new conference. "It's exciting. I have so many good people down there [in the maintenance building]. One took 25 hours to get here from Australia. That's the kind of commitment we've got. So the storm isn't going to break that spirit, you know."
Considering how messy things were on Monday, Shaffer and his crew had the course looking good within a very reasonable time frame. It's what they do. But they might have to do it all over again, if the forecasts are right. It's nothing they haven't had to do before. It's just that they never had to perform minor miracles to get the place ready for 156 of the best golfers on the planet. The membership might be a little more forgiving. Well, maybe. It is Merion for a reason.
"Every minute it doesn't rain gives us a little more opportunity to take a little bit more moisture [out]," Shaffer said. "I mean, we do drain really well. Our problem is that the tremendous amount of pipes in our creek might drain, but when the water [gets too high] it has to recede before the drain's start [working]. Once it goes down, it really starts draining fast.
"You take the three inches of rain we had the other day. When the glass is full, the glass is full. It can't get any fuller. I'll tell you, we got a lot of rain but the next day the green's were very receptive. Today, we're about 36 hours after a pretty strong storm and we're back up to our speeds."
Now, though, might come the hardest part. On Monday, you're only losing practice rounds. If they lose today, it pushes the whole championship back. Then you're talking about maybe not finishing on Sunday, which nobody wants. The good news is, the rest of the week looks dry. But no matter how much skill Shaffer and his guys display, there's only so much that can get done. Especially by tomorrow, no matter how optimistic anyone is. It will change the course. How much remains to be played out. And Shaffer will be the one at the center of it all, trying to make the best of his 15 minutes in the spotlight.
"Hey, by Sunday we'll be fair and square," he smiled. "After Thursday, the forecast is monumental. High sky, low humidity, wind. That's in our wheelhouse.
"You can't really prepare for something like [today's worst-case possibilities]. So you just wait, assess and react. There's a tendency to overthink decisions, when you have a championship the magnitude of the Open."
Just in case he has his former boss/mentor, Paul Latshaw of Augusta National (now retired), and best friend John Zimmers, the superintendent at Oakmont, by his side to keep him at least semisane.
"[John] keeps me leveled out," Shaffer acknowledged. "I have a tendency to ramp up. It's all good. I've got a lot of former assistants here. I'm an old guy. They came back to help an old man out. We've got people here from Mexico, New Zealand, even an intern from Scotland. And they'd do anything.
"[Paul] will yell at you to put on the brakes. You don't want to peak early. You get the conditions you want too early and have to hold them tight. That's hard to do."
This week, that hasn't been the dilemma. Forget the rain. There's also the possibility of objects getting knocked over. So safety becomes the overriding issue.
"That's the real concern," Shaffer said. "We just grow grass. We can do about anything with that. But you don't want to see anyone get hurt. That responsibility falls on the USGA. But we have 180 people that'll do whatever they need to assist."
They already have. Has anyone seen an overtime slip?