By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - British Open champion Ernie Els said players would be gearing up for a birdie fest at this week's U.S. Open after heavy rains drenched the classic but relatively short Merion Golf Club.
Three and a half inches of rain poured down on Merion in the Philadelphia suburbs on Friday and another inch fell on Monday, shutting the course for practice in the morning and making the 11th hole off limits for practice due to a flooded bunker.
"Yesterday it was beautiful. It was just starting to dry out," Els told reporters on Monday. "The greens were getting a little bit firmer. The surfaces are just unbelievable.
"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. I don't care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it's not going to dry up."
Merion, playing under 7,000 yards, relies on tilting fairways and fast-running, sloping greens as a primary defense, two elements neutralized by all the rain.
"We're going to have a soft golf course this week, all week. It means that if you're on your game you're going to have a lot of birdie putts," the big South African said of the championship, which begins on Thursday.
Heavy rough will still be a headache for golfers who stray from the fairways, but with greens receptive to approach shots, players can take shorter clubs off the tee to find the fairway and not worry if they need a longer club into the greens.
"There's quite a few par‑4s where you've just got to put it in the fairway," two-time U.S. Open winner Els said. "You can put it in the fairway with an iron."
Els said the organizers would probably resort to the most difficult pin placements as a defense, but players were still likely to enjoy target practice at Merion.
"You're going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues," Els said.
He stopped short of predicting that the major championships round record of 63 would be threatened.
"62? Anything can happen. But I'm not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a U.S. Open," Els said. "As I say, you've got more birdie opportunities than ever.
"You can make some threes. That's not a number that's really familiar with the U.S. Open (a three)."
Els said players had been hoping for a firm test on the classic layout where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930.
Now, Els said he believed the softened conditions would lead to a rare U.S. Open shootout.
"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."
(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry)