By Andrew Both
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - A forecast of strong winds has prompted officials to change several planned hole locations for the U.S. Open first round on Thursday, something that should minimize the chances of a repeat of the Shinnecock Hills fiasco of 2004.
With a westerly breeze gusting to 30 miles per hour (48 kph) forecast to whip across the almost treeless course, the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) is perhaps being extra cautious.
But that is hardly surprising, after the way the body was criticized by one and all for what happened the last time the championship was held here 14 years ago.
Officials were caught off guard back then, when strong winds on Saturday night and into Sunday dried out the greens and made some of them all but unplayable, turning a major championship into a sick version of putt putt.
So it was no surprise on Wednesday to hear USGA CEO Mike Davis welcome some light rain on tournament eve that settled the dust and provided the greens with moisture.
No rain is expected on the next four days.
"Knowing the winds we're to get tomorrow, we've changed some of the hole locations, just to make sure they're in areas that can handle this kind of wind," Davis said.
"We've tried to put hole locations where the wind might blow uphill.
"But I would also say that if we get some of the top winds that they're predicting, it doesn't matter how slow the greens are, and how flat the surfaces are.
"You will see ball blowing, and that's just the nature when you get up into the 30-mile-per-hour plus, which we might get gusts."
As if punishing rough and strong winds are not enough to raise the players' stress levels, competitors also have to worry about simply getting to the starting line on time.
The only road into the course on this narrow peninsula on eastern Long Island has been clogged with traffic in the morning rush hours, with some players saying they have taken 90 minutes or more to make the short trip from the tournament hotel.
But traffic will not be an excuse for missing a tee time and getting disqualified.
"We all understand what the rules say; you need to start at the time the committee appoints," chief USGA rules official Jeff Hall said.
He did, however, leave open the door just a smidgen to allowing for some wiggle room for a late tee time.
"There's certainly an exception to the rule if there's some exception circumstance that were to occur," Hall said.
(Reporting by Andrew Both, editing by Ed Osmond)