So what to make of this week’s US Open at Merion. First we had the short course with the firm, fast set up that would turn back the clock requiring strategy over strength. Then we had the nightmare scenario (outlined in this space a week ago) where “maid Merion” would be abused by the ‘bomb and gouge’ generation. The field would play irons to fairways on the short holes, wedges into the green and birdies would rain down on the US Open like the 7 ½ inches that visited the course prior to the event.
As we head into Sunday’s final round, we are left without any of the expectations still in place, and a leader board populated by players with a bad transmission. Their only gear left was reverse.
First give credit where credit is due. The USGA’s Mike Davis is unrivaled in his ability to orchestrate a championship. Years ago in the music business we had great arrangers. The glory years of Frank Sinatra were the product of his collaboration with Nelson Riddle. Riddle didn’t write the music. He didn’t perform the music, but he put all the parts together in just the right combination. Mike Davis is the USGA’s Nelson Riddle.
He didn’t design Merion. He certainly wasn’t in the field at Merion, but he was confident enough in his knowledge of ‘arranging’ a championship at Merion that he carried the David Fay concept to fruition. Never doubt a genuine talent.
I asked Architect Rees Jones on Saturday why the field found this short course so difficult? Jones has been doctoring layouts for majors for a number of years. He said up front that people who knew Merion never doubted its integrity as a tough track. He then pointed to three factors that were added to that foundation by the USGA. “I think these are some of the narrowest fairways we have seen in a while,” he said.
Add to that the presence of a single cut of rough, and you have a challenge players in this Championship have not faced in several years. It has been since the US Open at Pinehurst in 2005 that the ‘graduated rough’ was incorporated in to the Open setup. Merion’s penal rough was not “graduated,” it was pass/fail.
And then we had the additional penalty of out of bounds present at various holes on the course. Everyday golfers see OB markers wherever they play. Tour professionals rarely face the stroke and distance situation week after week on Tour. Davis shifted fairways to make the prospect of out of bounds very real. On Saturday I stood with a friend on the 15th at Merion as Sergio Garcia pumped three balls OB before finding the fairway with his fourth tee ball. This on the same hole he hit two out on Thursday.
Next there are the current crop of talent in professional golf. I never hesitate to voice my opinion that players today are less complete than the “These guys are good” crowd would have us believe. Johnny Miller commented during the telecast on NBC that our Tour professionals today are not the most accurate players you might expect. A top golf journalist commented in a post round analysis that when players stand on the tee and lay up with a five iron it should not be too much to expect them to get the ball in the fairway.
An old saying in golf is if you are going to play it safe be sure you get in play. Too often over the first three days at Merion we saw the game’s elite dump a mid iron from the tee into the dense rough and pay the price. When you miss a fairway with a club designed to be accurate and land the ball on the green, and you do that from the teeing ground, you will always make the Mike Davis’ look even more the genius.
And finally there is perhaps the best and most obvious explanation from our own St. Louisan on the PGA Tour, Scott Langley. “We figured it out before the tournament starts. We know where to hit it. There is just the matter of doing it,” he said. “We all know what to do. We just have a tough time doing it sometimes.”
So what to make of the US Open this week at Merion? For St. Louisans it is always best to phrase it in baseball terms. Golf today is the captive of the radar gun and the 90 + fastball. Merion is the crafty lefthander who is able to change speeds and paint the corners. The field was loaded with players who could turn on the fastball but couldn’t hit the breaking pitch.