ARDMORE, Pa. -- To Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world rankings, it matters little if the Merion Golf Club plays softer and longer or faster and shorter for the 113th U.S. Open that begins today.
He has won the U.S. Open on three separate occasions -- at Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines -- and under both sets of conditions. If Woods is to end his five-year drought in major championships, he said he has to adapt to whatever conditions confront him, not focus on how more bad weather could change the personality of a course that hasn't played host to the U.S. Open in 32 years.
"I've won on both conditions," Woods said. "At Torrey, it was dry. Pebble was dry. And Bethpage was soft and slow. Either one, the execution doesn't change. You still got to hit good shots and get the ball in play, especially now with the rough being wet."
And it could be getting wetter. And tougher. And nastier.
More rain is expected today at Merion, which already has been inundated with 5 inches of rain in the past five days, and that will make a course that plays as one of the shortest in recent U.S. Open history -- 6,996 yards -- play much longer.
Conversely, all the moisture has softened the sloping fairways and slowed the slippery greens, making it easier for players to control their ball off the tee and allow them to fire aggressively at the pin.
"It's imperative to get the ball in play so that we can go after some of these flags and make as many birdies as we can," Woods said
Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director and the man responsible for course setup, already has predicted Merion would yield more birdies than people are accustomed to seeing at a U.S. Open. That's because there are five par 4s shorter than 368 yards and a par 3 (No. 13) that is the second-shortest in Open history (115 yards).
Merion is the shortest course to be used for a U.S. Open in nine years, since Shinnecock in 2004. Its character and difficulty, though, are the narrow, sloping fairways, deep sand bunkers and greens that can be smoother and quicker than a porcelain tub.
How it stands up to the power players of today is one of the underlying themes of the championship, and one of the reasons the USGA was hesitant to even bring the tournament back to Merion after a 32-year absence. And that was before the moisture took away some of the course's nastiness.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, who won at a dry and fast Oakmont in 1994, said Merion was "not going to bare its teeth the way it should."
"I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and drier," said world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who set a tournament scoring record of 16-under par when he won the 2011 U.S. Open at a rain-softened Congressional. "But I don't think you'll see scores like the scores that were shot at Congressional a couple years ago."
Luke Donald, a former No. 1 player in the world who has never won a major in 39 attempts, said he would prefer to see Merion play firm and fast, the way it was designed. He thinks the course plays easier when it's soft.
"I think if it was firm and fast, this course, even despite the length, would hold up just as well as any other U.S. Open course," said Donald, who, along with fellow Englishman Lee Westwood, are the only players to be ranked No. 1 in the world without a major championship. "I think in a way the weather brings in a lot more players to have an opportunity. I think it makes the course a little bit easier. It doesn't play quite as tough."
There is a problem, though, with soft conditions, especially at a U.S. Open -- mud balls.
It wouldn't matter much in a PGA Tour event, where players are usually granted the lift-clean-and-place rule when conditions are soggy and balls are apt to pick up mud. But the USGA does not do that for its championships, and it doesn't appear they are about to change now.
"I think mud balls are a problem. I think they're unfair," said Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. "I think golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway. If you hit it in that fairway you deserve a great line and a great opportunity to attack the green surface. That's the reward you get for hitting the fairway."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.