Merion holds its own on Day 1 of U.S. Open

By Ryan LavnerJune 13, 2013, 11:22 pm

ARDMORE, Pa. – So much for Merion being embarrassed. So much for it being emasculated.

The conditions were ripe for a birdie-fest Thursday – a sub-7,000-yard course, little wind, moisture on the greens, heavy air – but the first round of the 113th U.S. Open morphed into the ultimate grind that we’ve come to expect from the year’s second major. What a beautiful sight, tiny Merion punching back, holding its own.

Of the 78 players who completed their opening round, there were twice as many scores in the 80s (four) than in the 60s (two).

The scoring average on the par-70 track was creeping north of 73.6.

Sergio Garcia, a ball-striking machine, shot 73.

Matt Kuchar, one of the pre-tournament favorites, shot 74 – the same score posted by Brandt Snedeker, one of the game’s best putters.

Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner and Bubba Watson, Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley and Louis Oosthuizen – they were all over par.

“It’s an absolute shocker,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said. “The quote that you hear all the time is that everyone underestimates the difficulty of Merion. Thursday is really a super shocker.”

Funny, since it was Miller who belted the first notes among this chorus of naysayers. In a May 29 conference call, the two-time major winner warned that there “could be some records broken” this week – most notably, the 72-hole scoring record of 268 – and “who knows – a 63 could even get broken.” And remember, that was before Merion was deluged by more than seven inches of rain in a four-day span.

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Earlier this week Webb Simpson said that if he drove it properly, he would have a wedge in his hands on nine of the first 13 holes. So, it was reasonable to assume that if a PGA Tour player was dialed in with his wedges and putting lights-out, he could possibly shoot 8 under – or lower – on the East Course.

It didn’t happen Thursday. Not even close.

“I think that everybody in that commentary box has never given this golf course enough respect,” Ian Poulter (71) said. “They were joking around laughing at 63s and 62s and just look at the board. I mean, they need to respect this golf course. It’s brutal.”

“I thought maybe these guys are better than I am, because I’m not seeing it that way,” Justin Rose (71) said of the prospect of a 62. “If you miss a shot, it’s really penal.”

Added Jason Day (70): “I saw on TV they were saying that we’re going to rip up this course. I can’t see it. You still have to hit the ball in the fairway.”

That can prove a difficult task, however, even with long irons off the tee. The USGA has topped off the rough at 5 inches on the shorter holes and 4 inches on the meatier ones. That’s severe, of course, but this combination of gnarly stuff is particularly treacherous: ryegrass, bluegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, thick-bladed K-31 grass. A potpourri of punishment. It’s thicker and more unruly than a vacationer’s unattended lawn, but it has proven just tempting enough for the long hitters.

“You think you can hit out of it,” Bubba Watson (71) said, “but then you just get into another bad spot.”

Indeed, Thursday at the Open provided its own unique set of challenges, even before the 3 1/2-hour weather delay.

Consider these factors:

• Several of the hole locations were tucked in the back of the green – 10 of which were 20 or more paces deep – which had already been softened by heavy rainfall throughout the week. Short-iron approach shots would hit the center of the green and spin back, farther away from the hole.

“You saw where they put the pins, didn’t you?” Jerry Kelly (70) said. “You can’t get to them on soft greens.”

Also troublesome: Some greens were slower than others, forcing players to be defensive on makeable attempts.

“They are not the fastest,” said Nicolas Colsaerts (69), “but they are fast enough to get you in trouble at times.”

• Another issue, as Watson so eloquently stated: “The par 3s are the par 3s.” Three of the four are longer than 235 yards, producing the unusual sight of having some of the game’s longer players (say, Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson) opt for 5-wood off the tee. Among the early-wavers, that trio of holes combined to yield only 14 birdies.

• And, finally, Merion is a classic, championship test that has proven itself over time. The winning score here has never been lower than 7 under. Somehow, that was forgotten during all of the misguided prognosticating.

“This was as easy as this golf course is going to play,” said Phil Mickelson, who has the lead among the early starters at 67, “and we are all struggling because it’s such a penalizing golf course. As the week wears on and the conditions get a little bit dryer, a little bit firmer, I think the course is going to get even more difficult and the scores are going to hover very close to par.”

A four-day birdie-fest? A 72-hole record score? Maybe a 62?

Oh, no. Not this week. Not even close.

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With help from partner, Burns could secure Tour status

By Ryan LavnerApril 24, 2018, 8:33 pm

AVONDALE, La. – This week Sam Burns has yet another chance to secure special temporary membership for the rest of the PGA Tour season, but his partner may determine whether he’s ultimately successful.

In an interesting twist, Burns is burning one of his seven available sponsor exemptions this week at the Zurich Classic. He is 80 non-member points shy of securing special temporary membership, which would allow him to receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season.

Burns needs at least a two-way tie for fourth to earn the necessary points, but it won’t all depend on how he plays this week. The Zurich is a two-man game, with two rounds apiece of fourballs and alternate shot.

Burns' partner this week is William McGirt. Their games couldn’t be more different – Burns ranks eighth on Tour in driving distance, at 309 yards per pop, while McGirt is 143rd (290) – but they hope to compliment each other over four days at TPC Louisiana.

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“I got a good pair of spurs sharpened up last week while I was in San Antonio,” joked McGirt, who is looking for his first top-10 since the fall. “I told him I was going to ride him hard this week. It’ll be fun.”

Burns will have at least two (and maybe three) more opportunities to earn status, with starts lined up next week at the Wells Fargo Championship and also at the Memorial. He doesn’t face quite as much pressure because he won earlier this month on the Tour and currently sits fourth on the money list, essentially locking up his PGA Tour card for next season.

“It’s obviously nice to have that win,” he said, “but at the same time you have to be careful and make sure you play enough out there to where you’re secure for sure. You don’t want to get at the end of the year and then have two or three events left and you have to make a certain amount of money to get your card.

“So I’m just going step by step, tournament by tournament, and trying to figure out what’s the best route.”   

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Spieth-Palmer draw Rahm-Bryan early at Zurich

By Golf Channel DigitalApril 24, 2018, 7:49 pm

AVONDALE, La. – The PGA Tour’s only team event gets underway Thursday at the Zurich Classic. Here are some featured groups to watch at TPC Louisiana.

Justin Thomas-Bud Cauley/Daniel Berger-Gary Woodland: 8:39 a.m. ET Thursday off 10 tee, 2:08 p.m. Friday off 1: 

The Bama boys, Thomas and Cauley, team up for the second consecutive year, after tying for fifth a year ago on the strength of a final-round 61. Berger teamed with Thomas Pieters a year ago but missed the cut, so he’ll try his luck with Woodland, who also shares a management team at Excel Sports.

Jordan Spieth-Ryan Palmer/Jon Rahm-Wesley Bryan: 8:52 a.m. Thursday off 10, 2:19 p.m. Friday off 1: 

Spieth and Palmer finished fourth a year ago, five shots back of the leaders. Spieth is making his first start since his epic Sunday run at the Masters. Rahm and Bryan have opposite strengths – Rahm is one of the game’s preeminent drivers, while Bryan, statistically, is one of the worst – but the Spaniard is coming off a European Tour victory at home. Another wrinkle here: Even though no world-ranking points are on offer this week, Rahm is set to supplant Spieth as the third-ranked player in the world.

Jason Day-Ryan Ruffels/Brooks Koepka-Marc Turnesa: 1:31 p.m. Thursday off 1, 9:42 a.m. Friday off 10: 

Two stars with questionable sidekicks. Ruffels is an up-and-coming Australian who has been playing primarily in Latin America. (He also shares a manager with Day.) Turnesa, meanwhile, got the call late last week from Koepka, who is finally ready to return from a 15-week layoff because of a wrist injury. They both play out of Medalist in South Florida, but Turnesa, 40, has turned his attention to real estate instead of professional golf.

Patrick Reed-Patrick Cantlay/Jonas Blixt-Cameron Smith: 1:44 p.m. Thursday off 1, 9:53 a.m. Friday off 10: 

Reed makes his first start as Masters champion after taking off the past two weeks. This duo tied for 14th last year, undone by a Saturday 75 in foursomes play. Blixt and Smith are the defending champions, after shooting 27 under par last year and holding off Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown in a playoff. Blixt doesn’t have a top-10 on Tour since then, while Smith tied for fifth at the Match Play and the Masters.

Justin Rose-Henrik Stenson/Bubba Watson-Matt Kuchar: 1:57 p.m. Thursday off 1, 10:04 a.m. Friday off 10:

Rose and Stenson, who have proved to be a formidable pairing in the Ryder Cup, were a stunning missed cut last year, after shooting 6 under par for two rounds. Watson teamed up with J.B. Holmes to finish fifth last year, while Kuchar is making his first start in this event since 2009.

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Zurich Classic: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalApril 24, 2018, 7:09 pm

The PGA Tour tries team competition for the second year in a row at the Zurich Classic. Here are the key stats and information for play at TPC LouisianaClick here for full-field tee times.

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 2:30-6:30PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 2:30-6:30PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Purse: $7,200,000 ($1,036,800 to each winner)

Course: TPC Louisiana (par 72; 7,425 yards)

Defending champions: Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt (-27) in a playoff over Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner

News and notes

• All four reigning major champions - Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed - are in the field this week. This is the first time all four reigning major winners have played this event since 1984 (Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson, Tom Watson, Hall Sutton).

 Both members of winning team this week will earn an official PGA Tour victory, two-year Tour exemptions, and exemptions into the Players and PGA Championships.

• That said, no Official World Golf Ranking points are awarded from this event and winners will not earn exemptions into the 2019 Masters.

Notable teams in the field 

Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson

 Rose won this event in 2014, when it was individual stroke play. From 2012-16, he was a combined 60 under at TPC Louisiana in stroke play, seven shots better than any other player.

 Rose has dramatically improved his performance on the greens from last season, moving from 123rd in strokes gained-putting to 10th.

 Stenson's last three starts look like this: solo 4th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, T-6 at the Houston Open, and T-5 at the Masters.

Jon Rahm and Wesley Bryan

 Rahm is coming off a victory at the Spanish Open, his second worldwide win in 2018 and fifth since Jan. 2017.

 Rahm outdrives Bryan by an average of 30 yards off the tee, 305.1 to 276.3.

 Rahm is second on Tour in the strokes gained-off the tee, while Bryan is 210th, last among qualifying players.

Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay

 Reed is just the fifth reigning Masters champ to play the Zurich since 2000, joining Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson (twice), and Bubba Watson.

 Reed has gone T-2, T-7, T-9, WIN in his last four starts.

 Cantlay broke through for his maiden PGA Tour win earlier this season at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas.

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Alternate shot to be used Sunday at Zurich

By Ryan LavnerApril 24, 2018, 6:41 pm

AVONDALE, La. – Tournament officials made a slight tweak to the format for this year’s Zurich Classic.

Instead of having the two-man teams compete in fourballs (best ball) during the final round, players will now play alternate shot on Sunday.

That means fewer birdies and roars, but the Tour is hoping that the move will create more strategy and volatility – leaders likely won’t be able to run away from the pack, while the contenders have more of a chance with a good round.

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Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith teamed up to win last year’s event at 27 under. Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown fired a 60 on Sunday to force a playoff, but for much of the day it was a two-team race.

“There could be volatility,” Jim Furyk said. “It just might come in a different fashion.”

“There’ll be a lot more hold-on as opposed to catch-up,” David Duval said.

Fourballs will be played during the first and third rounds, while the alternate-shot format is used Friday and Sunday. That'll speed up play Sunday, but it also eases some of the concerns from last year, because now players can ease into the flow of the tournament by playing best ball first.

“It’s a little more comfortable, with two balls in play,” Furyk said.

One of the drawbacks? The Zurich has its best field in tournament history, with 10 of the top 14 players in the world, and those stars will only hit half the shots on Sunday. That’s not ideal for either the fans at TPC Louisiana or those watching at home.

“That’s sort of a bummer,” Billy Horschel said. “They had success last year, but they’re trying to make a little tweak and see if it’s any better. If not, they can go back to the old way.”