Wednesday 24 January 2018

Less is more for Merion kind

The venue promises to be one of the stars at this year's US Open, says Dermot Gilleece

The 18th at Merion
The 18th at Merion

Dermot Gilleece

A long absence from the Major fold has lent a mystique to Merion which is perhaps unrivalled in the history of the American game. It will guarantee a unique experience when competitors gather this week for the 113th US Open which begins on the famous East Course of the Philadelphia venue on Thursday.

Five Irishmen are in the field, headed by Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke. They're joined by amateur international, Kevin Phelan, a competitor at Pebble Beach in 2010, who came through regional qualifying in Florida once more, with a nine-under-par top score of 135 last Monday.

With traditional old Scottish wicker baskets adorning the flagsticks, a remarkable mixture of short and long par fours and a stirring history of individual endeavour, Merion also happens, at 6,996 yards, to be the shortest course for this event since the millennium staging at Pebble Beach (6,846). One impact of the layout, according to Harrington, is that each player in any given three-ball, is likely to approach a short par four with a different strategy.

Harrington, tied fourth behind Webb Simpson at The Olympic Club last year, knows Merion better than most. As part of a sponsorship deal signed in 2008 with FTI, he engaged in corporate outings there for three successive years. And loved the experience.

He also believes he has pinned down the cause of largely indifferent form since capturing the third of three Major championships almost five years ago. "Most people have got things wrong about me through that period, especially outside of Ireland," he said. "They think I've been trying to make my swing better whereas the truth is that I was trying to improve my mental game.

"I now realise I went wrong in attempting to re-create the same focus I would have had at Carnoustie, say. Where other people seek perfection in their golf game, I continued to seek it in my mental game, trying to re-create how I felt mentally when I won my Majors. In the process, I was setting myself too high a target, which has led to serious frustration. So I've changed. In the quest of mental perfection, I've decided to consign that to the past and let new feelings happen. That's my approach from now on."

McDowell made a visit to Merion late last year and returned there last week when McIlroy also did some preparatory work, having shot a 67 at Oak Hill on Monday as part of his duties as reigning PGA champion. Tiger Woods did his reconnaissance work in decidedly damp conditions the previous week.

Much attention in the build-up to the event will focus on Woods and McIlroy in view of dismal performances in the Memorial Tournament as the world's two top-ranked players. "It happens," was the philosophical reaction from 65th-placed Woods, who carded a career-highest back nine of 44 during a third-round 79 on the Saturday. McIlroy – "I found a couple of little things on the weekend" – could take some comfort from the fact that he covered 54 holes in level par after an opening 78.

Having won four times already this year, Woods is clearly in a far better situation than his young rival. Even when replaced as world number one, he continued to be America's dominant golfer commercially last year when, according to Forbes magazine, he generated $18.9m in media value for sponsors in the US, compared with $12.9m from McIlroy. And there wasn't much value for new benefactors, Nike, in McIlroy's 57th-place finish at Muirfield Village.

Drawn together with Masters champion Adam Scott in the first two rounds at Merion, their most obvious problems of late have been in keeping the ball in play. "You will see guys hitting seven iron followed by a sand wedge at holes like the 10th (303 yards)," said Harrington.

"I'm not saying that's the right play, but you simply cannot afford to miss the fairways at Merion. It's even tough to get it on the green if you're not in the right place on the fairway. Especially to get at certain pins." Jack Nicklaus said of Merion: "Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world." So, why has it been so under-used in recent decades, with no US Open there since 1981?

The East Course first gained international prominence in 1930, when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam by winning the US Amateur there. The 36-hole match ended on the 11th, which instantly gave the hole iconic status, though it has since caused the club repeated problems, being prone to flooding.

The course measured 6,694 yards when Olin Dutra won the first US Open there in 1934. This was reasonable yardage for the period, but Merion's problem was that there was no room to expand, though the club since acquired additional land. In the event, the US Open returned there in 1950 when Ben Hogan famously captured the title only 16 months after a near-fatal car accident. And golf fans everywhere became familiar with the photograph, taken from the rear, of him playing a one-iron second shot to the 458-yard 72nd which he two-putted from 40 feet to get into a play-off. He then secured the title by beating George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum over 18 holes the following day.

Our picture of the one-iron (inset, above) is a painting from the original black and white photograph and comes courtesy of recently-retired Elm Park professional, Seamus Green, who had the good fortune to play Merion in 1974. Incidentally, the one iron wasn't in Hogan's bag for the play-off, having been among a number of items stolen from his locker overnight. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until it resurfaced in 1982 and it now resides in the USGA museum in Far Hills, New Jersey.

For Hogan's win, the course measured 6,694 yards and was reduced to 6,544 for its next US Open in 1971. In between, Nicklaus proceeded to rip it apart as a 20-year-old amateur in the 1960 Eisenhower Trophy when he carded rounds of 66, 67, 68, 68 for an aggregate of 269, 13 strokes better than the second-placed individual, Deane Beman.

But the Bear lost a play-off to Lee Trevino for the US Open title 11 years later. That was when Trevino took a toy rubber snake out of his golf bag on the first tee of the play-off and famously threw it across to Nicklaus, sending the gallery into hysterics.

Apparently, he had bought it for his daughter, Lesley, on an earlier visit to Fort Worth Zoo and, unknown to Supermex, she had slipped it into his golf bag.

Nicklaus was again in the hunt at Merion in 1981, only to be tied sixth behind David Graham. This staging was especially notable for Graham's winning aggregate of 273, which culminated in a final round of 67. We're told he missed only one fairway; hit 15 greens and was on the fringe of the other three; took 33 putts and hit every club in the bag with the exception of the three iron. Merion again measured 6,544 yards, 150 yards shorter than it had done for Dutra's win 47 years previously.

In a memorable essay from almost 50 years ago, Pat Ward-Thomas wrote of a formidable start to the course. But after the long fourth (628 yards), he suggested that "one is done with thoughts of power and toil. Henceforth the emphasis is on subtlety and placing".

Harrington expressed the fear that because of Merion's lack of overall length, especially by modern standards, much of that subtlety could be lost if the USGA is tempted to trick it up. While this might have happened in the past, an admirably sane approach has been the hallmark of the association's current executive director, Mike Davis.

"It's the better part of seven years ago now since I remember sitting in a championship committee meeting of the USGA, when we took the final vote on Merion," said Davis, nailing his colours to the mast. "And I can tell you I will never forget that. Because for me that was one of the best days I've had in my 23 years at the USGA. Merion is just magical; an architectural treasure."

Those words suggest that he and his officials are not about to devalue a treasure, even though there have been serious logistical problems in fitting such a big event into 111 acres, like siting the practice ground a mile down the road on the West Course. In this context, it may be no harm to remind ourselves that the Old Course at St Andrews measures no more than 83 acres.

It is anticipated that tilting fairways will be fairly lush, so as to prevent any unfair run-offs; deep bunkers will be seriously punishing; rough will be graduated and small, sloping greens will be running at up to 13.5 on the Stimpmeter.

Describing Merion as "a true blend of short and long," Davis went on to make a prediction that would have been considered positively treasonous by his predecessors.

"There's going to be more birdies made, trust me, at this US Open than any we have seen in recent history, because some holes simply lend themselves to it," he said. "Which is wonderful. Then there's some holes that are very tough."

On being informed of this prediction, Harrington said: "I can imagine the response of the players: they'll love the whole thing."

Which makes the return to Merion sound almost too good to be true.

Irish Independent

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