ROCHESTER — The most important thing about playing in the rain, Thomas Pieters said, is that you have to keep reminding yourself of a mantra.
Don’t get angry.
Your shirt is soaked, your grips are wet, you can feel water dripping down your back. The ball is going to find bunkers, mud, trees and misery, even if you make a good swing.
You have to keep calm and carry on.
But in truth? It doesn’t always work. He still got angry.
“You have to laugh about it, because what can you do?” Pieters said Saturday after his third round 70 in the PGA Championship. “This is the steadiest rain I’ve played in, and you just get soaking wet.”
What do you do when Oak Hill turns into Soak Hill? There is no singular strategy that works for everyone, as evidenced by an assortment of approaches. Some players, like Phil Mickelson, donned full body rain gear and two rain gloves. Others, like Pieters, represented the opposite end of the spectrum. He didn’t even wear a rain jacket.
“I can’t swing with it. I would shoot 90 if I did wear one,” he said.
As a result, he looked a bit like a sad puppy who’d just waited on the front porch for four hours until someone let him inside.
“My feet are surprisingly dry,” Pieters said. “That’s about it.”
Pieters, like most players, tried to strategically use an umbrella. But his playing partner, Taylor Montgomery, went without one and embraced the soak.
“In my mind I was like ‘Dude, how do you keep anything dry?” Pieters said.
No one seemed to have a superior strategy because, by all accounts, an effective one didn’t exist. The bottom of every player's bag (at least in the morning wave) was pooling with water. Caddies were going through dry towels like they were napkins in a pizza parlor. Perfectly struck balls would trampoline off the clubface as if they were possessed by demonic spirits.
“It’s a caddie’s nightmare, put it that way,” said Dean Burmester. “It’s brutal on them. They only have two hands and they’re trying to juggle four different things at one time.”
Alex Smalley’s agent actually talked to someone working in the PGA Merchandise tent early in the week about getting a rain jacket, but he only decided to hand it over to Smalley after he dumped a bottle of water on it first to see if it would actually repel water. (It did. For a while.)
“You have to go in knowing you’re going to be miserable,” Smalley said. “My caddie was nice enough to let me have the umbrella most of the day. There were a couple drives where I felt like there was water on the face of the driver. Whenever that happens, the ball tends to go right. That happened to me a couple times. It really started turning right. I think that’s the toughest thing.”
A lot of it comes down to your mental state, Jon Rahm said. Getting over the initial denial is important. Acceptance, taking almost a Buddhist approach, is essential.
“For me, the first hour and a half where you’re hoping it stops, that’s the most difficult,” Rahm said “Even though you know it might be more difficult after that, you can adjust. You know how the body is moving and how the golf ball is reacting.”
Rahm and Pieters seemed like two of the best players to talk to about handling the elements, considering they’ve both been known to simmer with rage, even on the sunniest of days. Rahm was calm by the time his round ended (three birdies in the last five holes helped) but it did not start that way. When he flubbed a chip on the 5th hole — the ball squirting well away from the hole out of thick, wet rough — he was not shy in expressing his displeasure. He waited until the ball came to rest, then hammered his wedge down on one of CBS’ greenside microphones. On the 6th hole, he smashed another mic after he yanked a drive left off the tee. He also barked at a cameraman who got too close to him at one point as he was assessing a shot that went over one fence but not a second fence that marked out of bounds.
“I waved [him off] because he got five feet from my face when my ball ricocheted off a tree and almost went out of bounds,” Rahm said. “It was more about giving me some space. I don’t even remember the microphone. They detach so it’s not that big of a deal.”
Rahm said it was pointless to try and play for strategic misses.
“There was a couple today that were dead center of the face and some went left and some went right,” Rahm said. “We played for water on No. 5 and ended up in a dead spot. It is what it is. It’s a bit of luck.”
But even the game’s most laconic players had their patience tested.
“Probably the most annoying thing is the rain dripping down off your cap when you’re putting,” said Cam Smith. “It was dripping all day today.”
“I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter if you have fun or not,” said Chris Kirk. “This is my job. Not every day has to be 75 and sunny. But there is also no place I’d rather be. If I had missed the cut by one instead of making it, I’d be hating it that I wasn’t out playing in the rain.”
Mickelson — who could be overheard telling someone in scoring how much he loved playing in rain like this — offered a nuanced take about the conditions.
“There were some things that were easier,” Mickelson said. “It was easier to putt, easier to chip, it was easier for greens to receive shots in. But it’s playing longer and the ball is kind of squirrely in the water. The rough is tougher. But it was very playable.”
Plenty of players — Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott — tried to solve that problem by flipping their hats around and wearing them backward. (Thoughts and prayers, if you will, for the Oak Hill members who may have seen this and seethed; such behavior is not allowed in the club’s bylaws.) Lucas Herbert chose to ditch his hat entirely and just let his hair get soaked.
“I had a haircut this week so it’s not like I had a big shag getting in the way,” Herbert said. “I just kind of embraced being wet. I think it’s worse when you flip the hat around. Then the rain just runs down the back of your neck and inside your shirt.”
Herbert, who didn’t wear a rain jacket or rain gloves, also decided at one point to just let his caddie Nick Pugh have the umbrella. He wasn’t going to bother trying to duck under it, then pop back out every time he needed to hit a shot.
“You see a lot guys, their caddie will hold the umbrella for them until the last minute, and I think you almost end up being skittish of the rain,” Herbert said. “I told Nick ‘I just want to be in the rain so it doesn't feel at the last second like you’re bracing for the water. And just try and laugh as much as you can out there.”
In trying to embrace the comedy of the situation, Herbert couldn’t resist giving the middle finger at his ball after he lipped out a birdie putt on the 8th green. It made for a tremendous photo, a man soaked to the bone and fed up with both the elements and his golf.
“I actually hit it alright on the front nine and just made nothing,” Herbert said. “That was another lip out, the second 90-degree lip out in a row.
And I was finally just like ‘You know what? Fuck you!’”