Merion success dependent on finesse, not distance

By Randall MellJune 9, 2013, 1:00 pm

Golf historians should be holding their breath.

Merion Golf Club’s East Course is such a treasure. It is such a revered landmark of the American game. It is home to so many epic memories. With the U.S. Open’s return to Merion next week after 32 years, all of that should make anyone who cherishes the game’s history as nervous as a curator of antiquities hosting a kindergarten class field trip.

What are today’s kids in golf, with their high-tech toys, going to do to Hugh Wilson’s wonderful old design?

Are they going to break records in bunches in a U.S. Open that will be remembered as the Massacre of Merion?

Are they going to embarrass the USGA with a birdie fest that goes down in history as Exhibit A in how the game’s runaway technology has made classic courses obsolete?

Or will Merion remind us that strategy and finesse can still trump power in modern architectural design?

Will Merion be a beacon that brings us back to the shot-making values of championship golf of old?

Next week Merion will deliver another chapter in the story of American golf, and the folks who really love the game’s history can’t wait to see it revealed.

Video: Preparing Merion for the U.S. Open

U.S. Open: Articles, videos and photos

“I call Merion the Shakespeare of golf,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said. “Shakespeare gave us our greatest stories, and I think Merion has given us our greatest golf stories.”

If Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson bomb their way around Merion with drivers in record scoring, Merion’s last chapter may look as if it were written by Stephen King.

“There has been an argument that great golf courses have been made obsolete because of technology and golf balls and drivers and the ball going so far,” said Paul Azinger, who will help call the U.S. Open for ESPN’s coverage. “We are going to find out here in a few days whether that’s the case.

“Will Merion be able to defend itself against the power of this generation? I think this is intriguing, maybe the storyline going in, almost more than who is the favorite.”

Bringing the U.S. Open back to Merion was a bold, exciting move, but there’s risk in the USGA’s decision.

Merion’s East Course was opened 101 years ago. It’s a compact course built on just 111 acres in Ardmore, Pa., on the northwest edge of Philadelphia. At 6,996 yards, this par-70 layout will be the first U.S. Open measuring under 7,000 yards in nearly a decade.

Bobby Jones closed out his Grand Slam triumph at Merion in the 1930 U.S. Amateur. There’s a plaque on the 11th hole commemorating where he closed out the victory. Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion in a playoff just 16 months after a head-on collision with a bus nearly killed him. There’s a plaque in the 18th fairway commemorating where he hit the famed 1-iron that got him into the playoff. Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff there in the 1971 U.S. Open.

“This place is just magical,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “In so many ways, it’s a historical and architectural treasure. I think from a golf standpoint, you can easily say it’s a landmark. There are so many wonderful moments in time.”

Merion will be home to a record 18th USGA event, its fifth U.S. Open.

Olin Dutra won the first U.S. Open there in 1934, David Graham the last in 1981. Back when Graham won, it was believed that would be the final time the national championship was played at Merion. The venerable course seemed to have become too small to host a major, not just as a golf course, but as a venue meeting the USGA’s hospitality requirements.

That’s why the return to Merion came so unexpectedly when it was announced.

The USGA is restricting attendance to 25,000 per day on the small property, some 10,000 or so fewer than typically attend a U.S. Open. There’s less room for hospitality and merchandise. Those limitations limit revenues.

“I think it’s appropriate to give a tip of the cap to the USGA for selecting Merion in this day and age with the distance guys are hitting it,” NBC’s Roger Maltbie said. “There were a lot of reasons not to go to Merion, that it was a very small venue, and there was one [reason to play there], which is to honor its legacy as a great golf course, and an important golf course in the history of golf in the United States.

“They made a great call in my estimation, and I hope it pans out that way.”

Nobody’s certain how it will pan out with so much dependent on weather. The course has five par 4s under 400 yards. There’s a 115-yard par 3. While renovations created some long par 4s, players will still be hitting more wedges into greens than maybe any U.S. Open ever.

Ideally, the USGA wants the course firm and fast. Those conditions, Davis believes, could make it one of the most interesting U.S. Opens to watch.

Luke Donald saw the possibilities when he played his practice round there this last week.

“What Merion will really show is that length isn’t a prerequisite for difficulty,” Donald told his Twitter followers after playing it. “A great example for modern architects to study.”

How the game’s long bombers handle the course will tell the tale of Merion’s success. If the course is playing fast, with its ultra-narrow fairways measuring just 24 yards wide in spots, with thick, penal rough, long hitters will take big risks with drivers in hand.

“I think there are going to be a lot of young guys that potentially could get schooled here,” Maltbie said. “They're not used to seeing these old-style golf courses that we saw more of. They’re used to bombing away. This is more about finesse. This is about using your power, and you better use it effectively, and the rest of the time you better use your head and be precise, certainly with your wedge game, if you're going to take advantage of the place. It's a very unique golf course.”

If the course is wet and soft, Merion’s defenses will be down. And it was raining this past week, with more rain in the forecast early next week.

Even Davis concedes there could be a record number of birdies.

“When you really study Merion, you realize that this blend of short and long is going to be such a neat and exciting feature of this Open,” Davis said. “There are going to be more birdies made, trust me, at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history. Why? Because there are just some holes out here that lend themselves to it, which is wonderful. Then there are some holes that are very tough. I would contend that you've got this balance of some of the easiest holes for U.S. Opens that you'll see in the modern era, yet at the same time some tough holes.”

If the course is wet and soft, and it looks as if it will be with remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea pounding the Philadelphia area with more than 3 inches of rain Friday, Merion’s defense will be down. More rain is forecast next week.

“Who knows, a 63 could even be broken,” said NBC analyst Johnny Miller, the only player to shoot a 63 in the final round of a U.S. Open.

Davis isn’t focused on what the winning score will be so much as providing a championship test of precision. Miller just wants to see a great championship won by a great champion.

“Time will tell whether Merion's going to hold up well,” Miller said. “Some courses have a tendency to knock the top players off their game, and it's sort of boring, the guys going down the stretch on Sunday. So, I measure a great course by the kind of champions it produces. I hope that going down the stretch this year, maybe it is Graeme McDowell against Tiger Woods and Adam Scott or whatever, and it is a great duel, and we don't have a runaway guy that you wouldn't have picked if you had 10 picks.

“So time will tell. It’s just a great old-fashioned, historical course that's held a ton of USGA championships. I think it deserves a shot in the rotation. If it doesn't work out, well, maybe it will be the last time we see it.”

Hold your breath, historians.

Getty Images

Korda happy to finally be free of jaw pain

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 2:43 am

PHOENIX – Jessica Korda isn’t as surprised as everyone else that she is playing so well, so quickly, upon her return from a complex and painful offseason surgery.

She is inspired finally getting to play without recurring headaches.

“I’d been in pain for three years,” she said after posting a 4-under-par 68 Friday to move two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Korda had her upper jaw broken in three places and her low jaw broken in two places in December in a procedure that fixed the alignment of her jaw.

Korda, 25, said the headaches caused by her overbite even affected her personality.

“Affects your moods,” Korda said. “I think I was pretty snappy back then as well.”

She was pretty pleased Friday to give herself a weekend chance at her sixth LPGA title, her second in her last three starts. She won the Honda LPGA Thailand three weeks ago in her first start after returning from surgery.

“I'm much happier now,” Korda said. “Much calmer.”

Even if she still can’t eat the things she would really like to eat. She’s still recuperating. She said the lower part of her face remains numb, and it’s painful to chew crunchy things.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“Chips are totally out of question,” Korda said.

She can eat most things she likes, but she has to cut them into tiny pieces. She can’t wait to be able to eat a steak.

“They broke my palate, so I can't feel anything, even heat,” Korda said. “So that's a bit difficult, because I can't feel any heat on my lip or palate. I don't know how hot things are going in until they hit my throat.”

Korda has 27 screws in her skull holding the realignment together. She needed her family to feed her, bathe her and dress her while she recovered. The procedure changed the way she looks.

While Korda’s ordeal and all that went into her recovery has helped fans relate to her, she said it’s the desire to move on that motivates her.

“Because I was so drugged up, I don't remember a lot of it,” Korda said. “I try to forget a lot of it. I don't think of it like I went through a lot. I just think of it as I'm pain-free. So, yeah, people are like, `Oh, you're so brave, you overcame this and that.’ For me, I'm just going forward.”

Getty Images

Finally adapted to short putter, Martin near lead

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:54 am

PHOENIX – Mo Martin loved her long putter.

In fact, she named her “Mona.”

For 10 years, Martin didn’t putt with anything else. She grew up with long putters, from the time she started playing when she was 5.

While Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2014, about nine months after giving up Mona for a short putter, she said it’s taken until today to feel totally comfortable with one.

And that has her excited about this year.

Well, that and having a healthy back again.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“I've had a feeling that this year was going to be a good one,” Martin said. “My game is in a special place.”

Martin was beaming after a 6-under-par 66 Friday moved her two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Just a beautiful day,” Martin said. “I was able to play my game, make my putts.”

Martin hit all 14 fairways in the second round, hit 15 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. After struggling with nagging back pain last year, she’s pain free again.

She’s happy to “just to get back to a place now where my ball striking is where it has been the last few years.”

Martin, by the way, says Mona remains preserved in a special place, “a shrine” in her home.

Getty Images

Clanton rides hole-out eagle to lead at Founders

By Associated PressMarch 17, 2018, 1:47 am

PHOENIX - Cydney Clanton holed out from the fairway for eagle on the par-4 13th and closed with a birdie Friday to take the second-round lead in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Clanton shot a 5-under 67, playing the back nine at Desert Ridge in 5-under 31 to reach 9-under 135.

Clanton's wedge on the 13th flew into the cup on the first bounce. She also birdied the par-5 11th and 15th and the par-4 18th. The 28-year-old former Auburn player is winless on the LPGA.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex, Karine Icher and Mariajo Uribe were a stroke back on a calmer day after wind made scoring more difficult Thursday.

Jessica Korda and Mo Martin were 7 under, and Michelle Wie topped the group at 6 under.

Getty Images

Ko's struggles continue with Founders MC

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:26 am

PHOENIX – Lydia Ko loves the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and its celebration of the game’s pioneers, and that made missing the cut Friday sting a little more.

With a 1-over-par 73 following Thursday’s 74, Ko missed the cut by four shots.

After tying for 10th at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in her last start, Ko looked to be turning a corner in her quest to find her best form again, but she heads to next week’s Kia Classic with more work to do.

“I just have to stay patient,” Ko said. “I just have to keep my head high.”

It was just the fifth missed cut in Ko’s 120 career LPGA starts, but her fourth in her last 26 starts.

Ko’s ball striking has been erratic this year, but her putting has been carrying her. She said her putting let her down Friday.

“It seemed like I couldn’t hole a single putt,” she said. “When I missed greens, I just wasn’t getting up and down. When I got a birdie opportunity, I wasn’t able to hole it.”

Ko came to Phoenix ranked 112th in driving distance, 121st in driving accuracy and 83rd in greens in regulation. She was sixth in putting average.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Cristie Kerr saw the struggle playing two rounds with Ko.

“Her game’s not in good shape,” Kerr said. “She seemed a little lost.”

Ko, 20, made those sweeping changes last year, starting 2017 with a new coach (Gary Gilchrist), a new caddie (Peter Godfrey) and new equipment (PXG). She made more changes at this year’s start, with another new coach (Ted Oh) and new caddie (Jonnie Scott).

Ko doesn’t have to look further than Michelle Wie to see how a player’s game can totally turn around.

“It always takes time to get used to things,” Ko said. “By the end of last year, I was playing solid. I’m hoping it won’t take as much time this year.”

Ko had Oh fly to Asia to work with her in her two starts before the Founders Cup, with their work showing up in her play at the HSBC in Singapore. She said she would be talking to Oh again before heading to the Kia Classic next week and then the ANA Inspiration. She has won both of those events and will be looking to pull some good vibes from that.

“This is my favorite stretch of events,” she said. “And I love the Founders Cup, how it celebrates all the generations that have walked through women’s golf. And I love the West Coast swing. Hopefully, I’ll make more putts next week.”

Ko, whose run of 85 consecutive weeks at Rolex world No. 1 ended last summer, slipped to No. 12 this week.