Sunday 18 March 2018

History weighs heavily, even in battle of portaloo

Merion's fairways are sodden but it's still a pleasure to be there, says Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

Bales of straw lay on the ground beside the 15th tee. It was Wednesday and Merion was preparing for the latest summer storm to hit the eastern states of the US. As is often the way, it materialised with a vengeance earlier than scheduled.

Disappointment was palpable around this grand old venue when the heavens opened on Thursday morning. Bringing the US Open back here after 32 years had involved some extraordinarily complex arrangements, even to having law enforcement agencies set up camp in the grounds of a local Episcopalian Church, with 30 wired internet stations and 21 telephone lines.

Lessons learned from the past meant no important detail was overlooked. And that included the installation of five portable toilets strictly for competitors beside the fifth, ninth, 11th, 12th and 16th tees. There would be no repeat of the embarrassment of the 1971 US Open at Merion. That was when Jack Nicklaus felt moved to request a couple of portable toilets inside the fairway ropes for the exclusive use of the players. And with no spares available, the USGA decided to commandeer two units that were already in place for spectators.

Helpfully, the course superintendent supplied a forklift truck for the relocation process. As one of the units began its ascent, however, the muffled sound of a woman's panicked voice could be heard from on high. "What's going on out there," she demanded, just as the door flung open to reveal her seated, and in some disarray.

When the forklift operator had set her back on terra firma with all reasonable speed, profuse apologies were offered, including the fact that the task had been undertaken at the request of a national icon. To which the admirably sporting woman replied: "Well, if it was for Jack Nicklaus, then it's all right with me."

A company with the appropriate name of 'Mr John' were entrusted with last week's portable toilet arrangements and their project manager, Rob Arent, promised there would be no repetition of events of 1971. "The units came here all zip-tied, but fortunately I left one of them open last Sunday," he said. "That was the one on number 11, where its first customer was Tiger Woods. So it worked out well."

The USGA like to claim they run the most genuinely open of all the Majors. And it's hard to disagree on the evidence of a record-breaking 9,806 entrants for this year's event of whom no one made a more remarkable journey through local and sectional qualifying than 22-year-old Canadian rookie Mackenzie Hughes.

Birdies on his last three holes in local qualifying brought an alternate's place for further advancement, before the withdrawal of Jay Haas delivered a spot in sectional qualifying. This meant borrowing money to get to the South Carolina venue where, carrying his own bag, he birdied the last hole to earn a play-off and ultimately the last spot in his first US Open.

Though he had the benefit of a pre-championship practice round with compatriot Mike Weir, the main event became a struggle for Hughes. Still, he had climbed his mountain simply by being here. As a two-time Canadian Amateur champion and twice a challenger in the US Amateur, he had made it to fabled Merion to tread in the footsteps of golfing giants.

"The course set-up is the most severe I've ever seen," said Hughes. "I missed seven fairways on Thursday (75) and couldn't reach any of those greens. So you could say that I feel a bit chastened. But it's been a wonderful experience."

One of the joys of covering sport in the US is the way they revere their former champions. On this occasion, collective adulation took the form of a special dinner for former US Open winners on Tuesday night – only the second such event in the history of the championship. Which meant we had access to the last two Merion champions, Lee Trevino from 1971 and David Graham (1981).

It was an opportunity to reminisce with Graham on his Irish Open appearances at Portmarnock in 1977, when he missed the cut, and his return in 1981, only two months after his Merion triumph, when he carded 284 to be tied 11th behind Sam Torrance.

"I felt I owed it to the sponsors," he said then. Last week, however, he attributed his Irish Open return to a long-standing friendship with Seamus McGrath of the Irish Hospital Sweeps. "Seamus was trying to sell me a racehorse which, thank God, I never bought," said the Australian. "And I came back to Portmarnock because he was my friend."

Trevino was wonderfully entertaining and very insightful about the changing state of a game which brought him six Major titles. "I once had a '49 Ford which could do 62mph, foot to the floor," he said. "The one I have now, can do that in low gear. It's the same with golf. A lot of technology has gone into the game and the players are taking advantage of it. Still, even with all this rain, Merion will have a few teeth to show. But not its fangs."

An inevitable consequence of all the rain last week was balls picking up mud as the course began to dry out. And Trevino had a typically practical solution to the concerns expressed by Graeme McDowell and Steve Stricker, in the knowledge that the USGA are trenchantly opposed to preferred lies at this level. "Very seldom my ball ever picked up mud because it cleaned itself before it stopped rolling," he said. "You think that's funny, but it's true. The lower you hit it, it's absolutely not going to pick up mud. That's one of the reasons I played so well when it was wet, because I didn't like the idea of mud on the ball. Bring the ball (flight) down and it won't happen."

Indeed this became such a mantra for Trevino throughout his career that his comfortably contoured caddie, Herman Mitchell, was also known to take refuge in it, under pressure. As on the occasion when his master asked for his opinion on an especially important putt. "Keep it low," said Mitchell with a straight face.

Out on the golf course, the breathtaking vistas and enduring design characteristics made it a thrill simply to be an observer. It's hard to resist the lure of the 18th and the spot to the left of the fairway from where Ben Hogan hit his famous one-iron en route to victory in 1950. In five lines, one over the other, the bronze plaque reads "June 10, 1950/ US Open/ Fourth Round/ Ben Hogan/ 1-iron" at a distance of 200 yards from the front of the green.

Even with the fairway tilting right to left, it's not by modern standards the most intimidating of approach shots to a final green, given the absence of water and the fact that most players would get home with a five- or six-iron. But the weight of history could become a forbidding burden for the aspiring champion, especially if the monochrome image of a man in a white cap happens to cross his consciousness.

Irish Independent

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