TIGER WOODS & RORY MCILROY: A MAJOR SHOWDOWN
The U.S. Open
Defending Champion: Webb Simpson
Finally… The U.S. Open has come back to Merion Golf Club.
Yes, it’s been over three decades since a lack of length forced one of America’s oldest championship courses out of hosting the nation’s primordial major. But, there are passels of pills for that these days: Many of which you’ll see during every commercial break this weekend. Shortly after David Graham hoisted the imaginatively named U.S. Open Trophy in 1981, the USGA decided that, at just under 6500 yards, Merion was simply too short to remain in the U.S. Open rotation. So, like in the English Premiership, it was relegated to the division II of golf events. Over the last 32 years, Haverford Township’s played host to two US Amateurs, a US Girls’ Junior and a Walker Cup; proving its continued ability to host large events. Combine that with a complete course lengthen – everyone’s doing it – in 2005 and, BOOM, this National Historic Landmark got its major swag back.
It will be a nice break from the regular circuit of locations too. While Congressional, Olympic Club, Bethpage, Oakmont, Pebble, Pinehurst and Torrey Pines are all courses steeped in tradition, but not like no other, there’s a certain familiarity to them. And, even though they’re super old, they’ve all assimilated in the face of modernity. Or in golf terms, they’ve been Tiger Proofed. We’re not going to see that this week, though.
If you’re a fan of bicycles with the huge front wheel, monocles, Persia, moustache wax; basically anything predating McKinleynomics: You’re going to love Merion. Jason Day may even break out that 1-iron he’s been testing out this week. Wouldn’t be the first time a knife came in handy here. Standing 200-yards from the pin on 18 in 1950, Ben Hogan, just 16-months removed from a head-on collision with bus, cracked his 1-Iron onto the green, making par, forcing a playoff, eventually disposing of Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio for his second US Open triumph, completing one of the most epic comebacks in sports history. And “epic” is no hyperbole. Statues don’t get made to commemorate hyperbole.
That’s not even the tip of the old-timey iceberg however.
Merion uses wicker baskets instead of flags on the pins, how much more ancient can you get than that? And although the course has been stretched, at 6966 yards, it’s still the shortest Major since Shinnecock Hills nine years ago; harkening back to a time when course strategy proved far more valuable than distance off the tee. Hell, even Sergio and his recent decades out of date quips may fit right in. Actually scratch that, there are definitely still club members that remain sour over the Spanish-American War. But none of that compares to the tournament’s official press release:
HARK PATRONS –(STOP)- THE DECADES LONG WAIT HAS BEEN LONG AND ARDUOUS – (STOP)- BUT NOW THE WORLD’S FINEST LINKSERS WILL GATHER AT MERION TO COMPETE FOR MORE SAWBUCKS THAN EVEN THE BEST BUTTER AND EGG MAN CAN FATHOM –(STOP)- IF YOU DON’T RAIL YOUR WAY TO PENNSYLVANIA YOU SURELY MUST BE SPORTING YOUR PREMIER CHICAGO OVERCOAT. –(STOP)- OKIES, PACHUCOS, WHEATS, AND FACES ALIKE, ROUND UP THAT CABBAGE AND MAKE TRACKS, POST HASTE –(STOP)- ABYSSINIA
MERION GOLF CLUB
And, of course, like every U.S. Open, we get the time-honored tradition of watching the world’s elite look like average weekend hackers, trying to cut through rough that’s thicker than a Mumbai phone book. That uncertainty, of turning should-be bogeys into triples, mixed with Merion’s abbreviated dimensions, vaults basically every player into contention. So your best bets are excellent midrange putters and top-notch scramblers.
Tiger Woods – With everything that’s happened to Tiger, it’s crazy to think it’s actually only been five years since he hobbled around Torrey Pines, beating Rocco Mediate on one knee. Five years really isn’t that long, doesn’t seem that way though - probably because we pay attention to his every waking move. Something that’s not going to change this week. While the feature pairing of Tiger, Rory and Adam Scott – the world’s Top 3 – is like golf porn to viewers, it’s not doing any favors for either three in terms of intensity, and dealing with Sunday afternoon pressure throughout all four rounds can cause even the best to crumble.
Fortunately, Tiger didn’t become who he is wilting under the heaviness of a situation - generally it’s fueled him to victory. And one thing Merion will allow Tiger to do to alleviate some of the magnitude – leave the driver in the bag. While he gets credit for basically every aspect of his game, Tiger rarely gets the respect he deserves for his course management. He’s a true student of the game, and no player in the field will have the grounds scouted better. He’ll know which pins are accessible and which holes where par is the best case scenario. He can use his 3-Iron off the tee or his punch 5-Wood, setting him up for the easy approaches. As long as he can manage the Par-3s, dominate the Par-5s and take advantage of a few of the five sub 400-yard Par-4s each day - Tiger’s looking at a 15th Major.
Luke Donald, Ian Poulter & Justin Rose – Merion feels like the right course where one of the long-suffering, elite non-Major winners finally notches a win. Since the course actually plays to their short, but accurate drives, strong mid-range iron play and terrific putting, this British trio needs to be on everyone’s roster.
Ryan Palmer – Palmer’s certainly a roll of the dice, but his recent hot play has peaked my interest. Actually, it was a stat from last week’s St. Jude Classic that hooked me. At a course where bogeys were the in-thing, Palmer went 60 straight holes without any squares on his scorecard. He did it by managing expectations off the tee and giving himself easy two-putt pars, draining a handful of long range birdies to finish in fourth. If he institutes that same game plan again this week, he’ll be lingering on the leaderboard on Sunday.
Jim Furyk – I came this close to going with Steve Stricker instead, but Furyk’s game is simply better suited for Merion. He’s always in the fairway - 71% - which has allowed him to be the Tour’s premier player in sticking it close to the pin – number one in proximity. He’s a former champ and potentially only has a few more Majors where he can truly complete, he’ll take advantage.
Rory McIlroy – Finding a compliment to Tiger in the “A” Pool is probably tougher this week than any other. There’s a strong case to be made for 2010 champ Graeme McDowell – grinder, clutch putter, great with a short iron. Brandt Snedeker – scrambling ability, excellent around the green. Phil, cause well, he's Phil. Hell, even the fullness of Sergio’s game - minus his crippling case of collapsibility – should have him in contention. But the recent weather in the northeast has me leaning towards Rory.
We're all aware he’s the number two player in the world. That seems like it’s just a carry over from his dominating 2011 though, which, isn't a completely inaccurate statement, but it discounts how well he’s fared since missing the cut at PGA National in March. In seven tournaments since, Rory’s found himself inside the Top 10 four times – he’s just not winning. Most of that can be attributed to his 123rd rank in putting this year. But, one stat where he continues to dominate is Greens in Regulation - fourth on Tour. So, if the soggy conditions persist, and the greens play soft, Rory could unleash another out-of-nowhere, 2011 Congressional-type performance on us: Don’t sleep on him.
Freddie Jacobson – I realized they’ve been played at different courses, but consecutive Top 15s for Freddie Yaks at the U.S. Open does reveal that his game is well suited for the grind-it-out nature of the conditions. Basically, no lie is unplayable to him, he can always make par, and his performance stats reflect it. Freddie ranks among the elite in scrambling, scoring average, putting and, most importantly this week, Par 4 performance.
Also, HAPPY FATHERS DAY, to you good dads, not you deadbeat ones.
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