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Will a mudball determine the outcome of the U.S. Open?

By Alex Myers

ARDMORE, Pa. -- You're a player in the U.S. Open and you've found one of Merion's not-so-easy-to-find fairways. You're relieved because you've avoided the course's easy-to-lose-a-ball-in rough.

Then you get to your ball and it's got a big chunk of mud on it. Suddenly, the challenge of finding one of Merion's small greens is a lot more difficult. So is keeping a level head.

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"You have to realize that it's happening to everybody because when it does happen, you feel like you've gotten a tough break," Justin Rose, the world's fifth-ranked player said. "But at the end of the day, probably everyone in the field has had to deal with it. So the way you handle it, you can actually gain an advantage on the rest of the field."

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Mudballs are a prominent topic this week given that Merion has received six inches of rain since last Friday. Rose said they weren't as much of an issue in his Wednesday practice round as they were on Monday and Tuesday, but with heavy rains a possibility for Thursday, the saturated course isn't in the clear just yet.

More to the point, players know they'll have to deal with mudballs since the USGA's stance against lift, clean and place is a lot firmer than the ground at this year's U.S. Open site right now. So, what's the best technical approach to hitting one? That depends on whom you ask.

"If the mud is on the right side, the ball tends to go left and vice versa if it's on the left side," defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson said. "Usually, if it's on the top or the bottom, it takes the spin off and it just kind of knuckles."

Related: 11 ways to win the U.S. Open at Merion

Simple enough, right? Not so fast, says instructor Sean Foley.

"People who say, 'if the mud's here, the ball is going to react this way or if the mud's here, the ball's going to react this way," that's not true," Foley said. "I tested on Trackman, so that's 99.7 percent efficiency. We put [the mud] top right, top left, in front of the ball, behind the ball, and I saw no pattern at all with a mudball."

That's not to say mud on the golf ball doesn't play a big effect. Foley said the higher the velocity a shot is hit -- in other words, the longer the club -- the more the mud will play a role, but "I've never been able to say 'nine times out of 10, when the mud was here, the ball reacted like this."

Rose knows the best way to react to mudballs, but he also thinks the USGA could alter its philosophy for playing in soggy conditions.

"There are two schools of thought. I don't think the crowd has any fun when we're nearly taking people out off a good shot with a mudball," Rose said. "I kind of subscribe to the lift clean and replace, not the lift, clean and cheat, like improving your lie. But lift, clean, and replace - I think that would be a pretty good rule."

NBC's Roger Maltbie understands that reasoning, but he's OK with the "guessing game" mudballs create.

"It's really fair for everyone. It's unfortunate when it happens and nobody likes to see it and nobody wants to think that the national championship could hang in the balance because of circumstances like that," said Maltbie, who as an on-course commentator sees players' reactions to mudballs all the time. "But [the USGA] will take a hard stance, the tour doesn't take such a tough stance on it, and that's fine. It's just part of the game."

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So what if this year's U.S. Open does come down to a mudball? What if a player already under immense Sunday pressure arrives at his ball in the fairway and finds it in need of a bath? Foley's message is simple:

"Good luck."