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Move to September Brings Daylight Challenges

September 16, 2020 Mamaroneck, N.Y. By Bradley S. Klein
Less daylight in September presents challenges for the field to complete Rounds 1 and 2 on schedule. (Robert Beck/USGA)

Most of the time, the focus is on golfer pace of play. At this year’s U.S. Open Championship, the USGA is joining the players “on the clock.”

That’s because the championship’s move from mid-June to mid-September in response to the COVID-19 pandemic means a shorter window for play: exactly 2 hours, 47 minutes less daylight for Round 1. With the typical pace for Round 1 of a U.S. Open at just over five hours over the past decade, the last threesomes off the first and 10th tees at 2:11 p.m. will be finishing in twilight – if they finish at all.

Knowing full well the impact of the limited daylight, USGA officials pared the field from the traditional 156 to 144 players, meaning one less group of three for each of the morning/afternoon split tee times. Additional measures are in place to increase the likelihood of completing play in the available light.

Morning maintenance will be conducted almost entirely with the aid of artificial lighting provided by towers towed around the course on utility vehicles. Steve Rabideau, Winged Foot’s director of grounds, knows that it’s the only way to allow his in-house staff of 55 and the volunteer crew of 80 to complete the necessary raking, grooming and mowing.

Morning setup will be expedited by the fact that one mowing of the greens followed by mechanical rolling should suffice to prepare the putting surfaces. The marginally cooler mid-September temperatures – on average, 5 degrees less than in mid-June – combined with a lower sun angle means the grass will not be growing as much as at a U.S. Open in June. One seasonal adjustment might well involve the removal of leaves and acorns – telltale signs of impending autumn.

Getting a field of 144 elite players around in the shoulder season of golf is nothing new. The PGA Tour normally plays full-field events of 156 contestants only in the summer, then drops down in winter and autumn to 144 or fewer. If worse comes to worse and there’s a delay because of rain or darkness, the players can always come back the next morning and finish off the holes left unplayed. In any case, it’s likely to be a problem only during the first two rounds. By the weekend, with the 36-hole cut trimming the field by roughly half, there will be ample time to get the round in, despite nine fewer minutes of daylight on Sunday compared to Thursday. Average pace of play for groups of two on the weekend typically improves by nearly an hour. Sunday’s fourth round, by the way, is slated to end at 5:45 p.m., leaving about an hour for a two-hole playoff (scheduled for No. 10 and No. 18).

June vs. Sept.: Comparative Sunrise/Sunset Chart

FIRST June 18 September 17  
  Sunrise: 5:23 a.m. Sunrise: 6:39 a.m.  
  Sunset: 8:30 p.m. Sunset: 6:59 p.m.  
  Daylight Hours: 15:07 Daylight: 12:20 2:47
SECOND June 19 September 18  
  Sunrise: 5:23 a.m. Sunrise: 6:40 a.m.  
  Sunset: 8:30 p.m. Sunset: 6:57 p.m.  
  Daylight Hours: 15:07 Daylight Hours: 12:17 2:50
THIRD June 20 September 19  
  Sunrise: 5:23 a.m. Sunrise: 6:41 a.m.  
  Sunset: 8:30 p.m. Sunset: 6:56 p.m.  
  Daylight Hours: 15:07 Daylight Hours: 12:13 2:54
FOURTH June 21 September 20  
  Sunrise: 5:23 a.m. Sunrise: 6:42 a.m.  
  Sunset: 8:31 p.m. Sunset: 6:54 p.m.  
  Daylight Hours: 15:08 Daylight Hours: 12:12 2:56

While everyone associated with the U.S. Open would prefer to have spectators out there, their absence might help pace of play. There will be no time spent awaiting fairway crossings. Golfers and caddies won’t have to clear inquisitive fans away from recovery shots. Of course, not having 25,000-35,000 spotters out there might mean a few more lost golf balls. The marshals – most of whom are Winged Foot members – will have to work extra hard to spot wayward shots in the thick rough.

A key role in expediting play will be the implementation of a larger-than-normal support crew from the PGA Tour acting as rovers and on-course officials. John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of Championships for the USGA, noted that the absence of grandstands and concession stands will lead to “fewer time-consuming rulings involving drops resulting from Temporary Immovable Obstructions.”

This U.S. Open will look different. The practice area will be lit up to accommodate those with early tee times. The morning contingent of hole cutters will move from green to green via cart, not on foot, to save five or six minutes in transit on each hole. There will be less time than normal between the morning and afternoon waves to review the course.

Rest assured, golf at the highest level will go on. A national champion will be crowned. And Winged Foot will shine in the available light. 

Bradley S. Klein is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who specializes in golf course architecture and history