Instruction: How to play mud balls
By Richie Coughlan, Head Instructor, TOURAcademy TPC San Antonio
With more than 6 inches of rain having fallen on Merion Golf Club over the past week, including Thursday’s most recent deluge, players might have yet another challenge awaiting them this weekend as the fairways dry out and intensify — mud balls. As the ground hardens and becomes sticky, the ball is less likely to plug and more inclined to pick up some mud. This makes controlling the golf ball next to impossible.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, was already lamenting the possibility of mud balls prior to the start of the tournament, saying, “I think mud balls are a problem. I think they’re unfair. Golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway. If you hit in the fairway you deserve a great line and a great opportunity to attack the green surface.”
The trouble with mud on the ball is that it completely changes the aerodynamics of the ball, particularly the spin axis of the ball. The dimples responsible for making the ball fly and keeping it on its intended flight pattern get covered in mud, which affects the air flow over the ball. This essentially throws the ball off balance, so that you have no control over how it spins and where it goes. It’s as if you were flying an airplane and you suddenly lost half a wing—you’re not going to have any control over the plane at that point. As soon as you make contact with the ball, you’re just hoping for the best. It doesn’t matter how good a swing you put on it, the ball will do what it wants.
The USGA is not one to implement the lift, clean and place provision during the U.S. Open, so unless the ball is embedded in its own pitch mark, golfers will not have the opportunity to clean the golf ball and will have to play it as it lies. Mud balls were a big issue in the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, which was also plagued by heavy rains.
“I’m hoping a mud ball doesn’t decide the tournament come the weekend,” McDowell said.
Mud affects the starting direction of the ball and how much sidespin it has moreso than it does backspin. This is why it’s so disconcerting for a TOUR player, who’s almost always trying to shape the ball into the greens from left to right or right to left. Generally, when there’s mud on the left side of the ball, it’s going to pitch the ball to the right and make it spin more in that direction. Conversely, if the mud is on the right side of the ball, it’s going to start left and stay left. Therefore, if you like to draw the ball and there’s mud on the left side of your ball, you need to rethink your strategy (i.e., aim well left of your intended target and swing left, to account for the sidespin), or go ahead and hit your stock shot and pray that the mud doesn’t make a mess of it. As soon as the ball leaves the face, you’re playing roulette — it could draw back to the target, as you planned, or it could travel so far to the right that you’re playing your next shot from the adjacent county.
Your short irons won’t be impacted as much by the mud because you’re not producing as much clubhead speed and ball speed as you are with your longer clubs; hence, the ball is less likely to spin offline. (The higher the ball speed, the greater the amount of sidespin.) Also, depending on how soft the mud is, you’ll create more backspin with a pitching wedge — i.e., more revolutions of the ball — which will knock the mud off.
If you’re just off the green in the fringe and you see mud on your ball, consider bumping the ball along the ground using your 7- or 8-iron instead of putting. If mud gets between the ball and the putterface, it can really affect the speed of the ball and cause you to come up much shorter than expected. You’ll make much better contact using a more-lofted club and hitting slightly down on the ball. Should you decide to putt it, use your chipping technique — ball slightly back of center, shaft leaning forward, hands forward—and hit the ball a little harder than normal.
Richie Coughlan is Head Instructor at TOURAcademy TPC San Antonio. A native of Ireland, Coughlan played for several years on the PGA TOUR and Nationwide TOUR (now the Web.com TOUR). To book a lesson or learn more about the TOURAcademy Golf Schools, go to www.touracademy.com