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The mystery of Merion starts to unfold at US Open PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:46 PM

Associated Press

 

ARDMORE, Pa. — The affection was genuine. Even better was beating Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. So when Lee Trevino got his hands on that U.S. Open trophy in 1971, the guy who never lacked for one-liners gushed, “I love Merion and I don’t even know her last name.”

For this generation of stars, Merion is more like a blind date.

No other course with four U.S. Opens had to wait such a long time — 32 years — for another chance to test the world’s best players. Even with Tiger Woods back to No. 1 and winning at a ridiculous rate, so much of the talk at this major championship has been about Merion.

For years, it was considered too small to handle such a big tournament and the big hitters with their modern equipment. And with soft greens from more than six inches of rain in the last week, the question is whether the course will yield the kind of scores rarely seen at the toughest test in golf.

Today, the mystery of Merion will start to unfold.

“It’s been how long, 32 years? And with all the technology since then?” Steve Stricker asked as he headed to the first tee Wednesday for one last practice round. “Someone asked me the other day about someone shooting a 62. And what I wanted to say was, ‘You’re crazy.’ But you just don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And in a way, that’s kind of cool.”

Not so cool was the weather expected for the opening round.

Merion already took a beating last Friday when more than three inches of rain sent water over the edges of some bunkers and left small streams on fairways and greens. More rain on Monday caused the course to be closed three times.

The forecast called for increasing clouds, gusts and showers this morning, with stronger storms likely to arrive around noon.

“Sure, we want it firm and fast,” USGA vice president Thomas O’Toole said Wednesday. “We happen to play a sport that’s played outdoors. We received significant rain over the last week and some tell us that we’ll have even more significant rain tomorrow. So it’s not a perfect world. It’s not a perfect game but we take what we’re dealt with.”

Whether a golf course is big or small, soft greens typically are a recipe for low scores. Then again, Merion is not a typical golf course.

It measures 6,996 yards on the scorecard — the shortest of any major championship in nine years — and has a stretch of seven holes in the middle that are short even by yesterday’s standards. Compare those holes with the scorecard from when Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion and four of those holes were actually longer by a few yards in Hogan’s day.

Players typically reach for the wedge to chip out of the rough around the greens at the U.S. Open. At Merion, they could be hitting wedge into the green for their second shot on at least six holes. That’s what has caused all the clamor about low scores.

And with the rain, it’s reminiscent of how Congressional was vulnerable two years ago, when Rory McIlroy shattered U.S. Open scoring records at 16-under 268.

“I’ve been reading about how many scoring records are going to be broken,” Nick Watney said. “I’ve been around here once and I think that’s insane. It’s funny to me. People look at the yardage and think it’s going to be easy. Even if it’s soft, the greens are sloped. The rough is thick. OK, we’ll have wedges into some of the greens but that doesn’t mean you make birdie on all those holes. There’s enough tough holes to counteract that.”

Even so, the winning score has gone down in each of the four previous U.S. Opens at Merion, from Olin Dutra at 13-over par in 1934 to David Graham winning at 7-under in 1981, the last time this major championship was here.

“Where did David Graham shoot 7-under? From there?” Watney asked as he pointed the end of his driver to a spot some 30 yards from where he was standing. “Because he didn’t do it from here.”

Watney was standing in the middle of the putting green. He took three steps to his right and was standing on the 14th tee. As an example of longer holes being made more difficult, a new tee on the 464-yard hole is where members practice putting.

The biggest fear with rain on the horizon is what will happen the rest of the week. The forecast is reasonable after today but in soft conditions, balls start to pick up clumps of mud as the sun starts to dry the course. And while players often are allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway in muddy conditions on the PGA Tour, they don’t do that at the U.S. Open.

Remember, the USGA famously referred to the local rule as “lift, clean and cheat.”

It all begins with Cliff Kresge hitting the opening shot of the 113th U.S. Open at 6:45 a.m. today — weather permitting, of course.

Woods, McIlroy and Masters champion Adam Scott play this afternoon in the power grouping of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world. Sergio Garcia plays on the opposite side of the draw, teeing off this morning. So does Phil Mickelson, who left Philadelphia on Monday when the weather was bad to practice in San Diego. He planned on being home, anyway, so he could watch his oldest daughter graduate from the eighth grade. Mickelson was scheduled to arrive about 4:15 a.m. today, just three hours before his tee time.

Stricker called Merion the “longest short course I’ve ever played.” Graeme McDowell is another guy who isn’t buying into the fear over low scoring.

“Everyone is saying that it’s going to be 62s and 63s on this golf course, which I kind of disagree with at the minute,” McDowell added. “I think 10 or 11 of these golf holes are as tough as any U.S. Open I’ve seen.”

The lowest score in major championship history is 63 and it has happened only four times in the U.S. Open — Johnny Miller at Oakmont in 1973 on a soggy course, Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf on the same day at Baltusrol in 1980 during a wet week and Vijay Singh on a rain-softened course at Olympia Fields in 2003.

Hogan’s 1-iron all but extinct in major play: The only 1-iron anyone talks about at Merion Golf Club is kept under wraps.

And it won’t be found in a bag at the U.S Open.

Unlock the waterproof case, remove the soft covering and it comes into view. Slip on the mandatory white gloves and savor the moment.

It’s the one Ben Hogan used in 1950 to hit one of the more enduring shots in Open history.

Sixteen months after the car accident that nearly killed him, Hogan came to the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open needing a par to force a playoff. In one of golf’s most memorable photos, Hogan is pictured, from behind, hitting a 1-iron from the 18th fairway to a green ringed by spectators.

He hit such a good drive in the morning third round that he needed only a 6-iron. But with his legs battered and swollen on his 36th hole of the day, his tee shot couldn’t catch the slope of the hill, leaving him about 213 yards to the hole.

He was between a 4-wood and a 1-iron and he went with the 1-iron for a shot that finished some 30-40 feet from the hole. Hogan would 2-putt for par, then go on to win a 3-way playoff the next day.

There’s a commemorative plaque at the spot in the fairway that reads: “June 10, 1950/U.S Open/Fourth Round/Ben Hogan/1-iron.” All week long, players have gone there to try shots of their own, though with today’s technology, it’s more of a 5-iron shot.

What happened to the club after the shot is almost as much a part of golf lore as the shot itself.

Hogan never used the club again after that 213-yard shot. It was stolen from his bag; his shoes were, too.

The club vanished for 33 years before it turned up at a collector’s shop in Virginia. Eventually, it made its way from there to Hogan in 1983. He verified it was his and promptly donated the club to the USGA Museum.

On the front of the iron’s clubhead, there’s a mark about the size of a quarter on the sweet spot, close to the heel of the club. The backside of the clubhead notes, “Ben Hogan. Personal model. Reg 1022.”

The 1-iron is up there with Buzz Aldrin’s moon club as the most attractive artifacts at the museum, curator Michael Trostel said.

Hogan’s club shared a case this week at Merion with one of Bobby Jones’ famed Calamity Jane putters and clubs that belonged to Raymond Floyd and Billy Casper.

But even at a throwback Open — where small wicker baskets replace flags on greens — the 1-iron is out of style.

Once a standard club in the bag, the 1-iron was phased out as players opted for fairway metals to more easily get the ball in the air. Then came the hybrids, a cross between fairway metals and long irons, which replaced even the 2-iron and 3-iron in some bags.

The 1-iron often required the perfect blend of speed and power, which most players don’t have or don’t want to risk trying.

“It’s just math. The club has almost no loft and you’ve got to create lots of velocity to get it up into the air,” Sean Foley, Woods’ swing coach, said. “Your chances of controlling the sidespin, at least enough to keep it on line, are slim. You almost have to hit it perfect.”

While wicker baskets remain, the 1-iron has become extinct since the last Open at Merion in 1981 as graphite drivers and other long-distance clubs have become the norm.

On Wednesday, there were dozens of divots near the plaque and fans begged volunteer marshals to take a picture of the marker for them.

Former PGA Tour player Miller Barber dies: Miller Barber, the unique-swinging golfer who made the most combined starts on the PGA and Champions tours, has died. He was 82.

The PGA Tour said Wednesday that Barber died Tuesday. The tour didn’t provide details of the death.

Barber, nicknamed “Mr. X,” played in 1,297 tournaments on the PGA Tour and 50-and-over circuit. He won 11 times in 694 PGA Tour starts and added 24 victories in 603 events on the Champions Tour.

“We are saddened by the passing of Miller Barber,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem wrote in a statement. “He was a wonderful player who made his mark on the PGA Tour with 11 victories and then really excelled on Champions Tour, becoming one of its best players in the tour’s formative years. Miller and the Champions Tour’s other early stars helped establish the tour and make it the tremendous success it has become. Golf has lost a great man and competitor.”

Barber was born in March 31, 1931, in Shreveport, La., and grew up in Texarkana, Texas. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1954, served in the U.S. Air Force and joined the tour in 1959. He won the 1964 Cajun Classic Open Invitational for his first tour title.

Known for his unusual swing that featured a flying right elbow, the 2-time Ryder Cup player had his best chance to win a major championship in the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions Club outside Houston. But after taking a 3-stroke lead into the final round, he closed with a 78 to finish three strokes behind winner Orville Moody.

Barber won five majors on the Champions Tour, including a record three U.S. Senior Open titles. He made his last competitive appearance last year in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, teaming with Jim Ferree to tie for 11th in the Demaret Division for players 70 and older.

“Miller Barber was a true gentleman that was special in many ways,” CBS analyst and instructor Peter Kostis wrote on Twitter. “I will miss him greatly.”

PGA Tour player Geoff Ogilvy spent time with Barber at Whisper Rock in Arizona.

“Rest in peace, Miller Barber,” Ogilvy tweeted. “Thanks for all the tips and stories. The back of the range at Whisper Rock will never be the same.”

Barber said there were two stories about how he was tagged “Mr. X.”

In one, he took over the nickname from the original “Mr. X,” George Bayer, after outdriving Bayer in a long-drive contest. In the other, Barber said Ferree called him “The Mysterious Mr. X” because, “I never told anywhere where I was going at night. I was a bachelor and a mystery man.”

Barber is survived by wife Karen and sons Casey, Doug, Brad, Larry and Richard.

 

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