The mystery of Merion ready to unfold

By Rex HoggardJune 12, 2013, 2:10 pm

ARDMORE, Pa. – Even major championship memories fade.

Merion’s quirky and confined East Course has hosted 17 USGA championships, two more than any other club, and this week’s U.S. Open will mark the fifth time the national championship is played along Philadelphia’s storied Main Line.

Yet for most players in this week’s field that legacy feels like ancient history. In the 32 years since David Graham won the last Open played on the East Course the game has moved on. Merion has not.

Some of the angles have been adjusted and a handful of new tee boxes added for this year’s Open, but the layout remains virtually unchanged by time or technology.

Players will tee off at the first within arm’s length of what is essentially the 19th hole, play a card that reads 6,996 yards (the shortest Open course since 2004), and try to avoid an eclectic mix of grasses that make up the rough that superintendent Matt Schaffer calls a “potpourri.”


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Half the field will begin their week from the 11th tee because of routing concerns, players warm up on the West Course, a 20-minute shuttle bus drive from ... well, anywhere; and Golf House Road will be in play, albeit temporarily as players carve their tee shots over the byway, which is out of bounds, and into the 14th fairway.

Yet the accumulation of decades of knowledge does little to help the 156 players prepare for what is essentially the Merion mystery.

“I don't think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we're going to have to do and what we're going to have to shoot. The conditions keep changing,” Tiger Woods said. “It will be interesting to see what the players end up doing the first few days and getting a feel for what the number is going to be.”

Welcome to the Enigma Open.

Merion’s iconic wicker basket flagsticks may be the official logo of the 113th Open, but for a field full of first-timers – a dozen players in this week’s field have played a USGA event at Merion, but never an Open – a more apropos symbol would be a question mark.

After more than three decades outside of the Open rotation – the victim, some say, of runaway technology and the land demands of a modern championship – much of the chatter in the run up to this week’s event has been focused on what Merion has had too much of in recent weeks (rain) and not what it is lacking (space).

A parade of storms that began last Monday have turned Merion muddy, swelled Cobb’s Creek to within inches of the 11th green and prompted officials to prepare for the worst. Two holes on the adjacent West Course have been groomed to Open standards in case of flooding and just hours into championship week USGA executive director Mike Davis was already fielding questions about playing preferred lies.

“In terms of a doomsday scenario, who knows, if it's 10,000 to 1 that we would have that happen,” said Davis in reference to using backup holes from the West Course, although the same odds likely apply to the use of preferred lies.

“We don't anticipate that happening to the point where we're not going to be able to get the U.S. Open in or we're going to have to go to some holes on the West Course. We think that the golf course, again, drains beautifully for a non-coastal, non-sandy site, it really does.”

Mother Nature will dictate which Merion shows up this week. Since Monday’s storms, the weather has been relatively clear and breezy but Thursday’s forecast looks bleak, with rain chances at 80 percent.

On paper the East Course is a position golf course, with five par 4s playing under 400 yards (including the 303-yard 10th hole) and just three par 4s coming in over 480 yards.

But before players leave their drivers in the trunk, consider that the 18th will measure well over 500 yards for the week and three of the four par 3s will play over 235 yards.

“Obviously, you got to hang on at 3. (No.) 3 is a drivable par 4,” smiled Woods with tongue firmly planted in cheek in reference to the 256-yard par 3.

Most players this week contend Merion is the longest 7,000-yard course they’ve ever played and suggestions that scoring records may fall like June rain appear to be greatly exaggerated if early reviews are any indication.

“(The winning total is) certainly going to be under par, but I don't see 62's or 63's being shot on this golf course,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion. “I'd certainly take 8 under par right now and take my chances.”

But if Merion and the meteorologist are center stage in the buildup to Thursday’s opening round, there is no shortage of secondary story lines many of which begin, as they normally do, with Woods.

The 2013 U.S. Open officially marks the five-year anniversary of Woods’ last major triumph, a drought that seemed unimaginable even as he limped off Torrey Pines in 2008.

In his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ Grand Slam haul of 18 majors, the world No. 1 is in the midst of a 0-for-15 slide, although he has managed eight top-10s in that stretch. In a rare moment of retrospect, Woods was asked if it has become harder to win majors as the near misses have piled up since ’08.

“It was never easy,” said Woods, who will be playing his 16th Open as a professional. “The practice rounds are imperative. Doing scouting trips are very important, just like it is for this week. I came up here early. I had to do all that stuff. But then I have to go out and execute and go out and win an event.”

At Merion, more so than any other modern Open venue, execution takes a back seat to strategy. Will wet conditions demand a more aggressive approach, or will architectural subtleties require a more measured game plan despite the weatherman’s dire forecast?

If the U.S. Open is the game’s most demanding test, as many players contend, Merion appears to ask the most detailed and nuanced questions. At the Enigma Open finding those answers, even more than finding fairways, may be the most important test.

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.