Merion allows no room for error in test of resolve
Taunted relentlessly by a devilishly difficult challenge, golf's elite suffered in the sunshine of Merion yesterday when pressure increased for the third round of the 113th US Open. Among the victims was Pádraig Harrington, whose challenge fell apart in a dispiriting 75, after his group were put on the clock heading for the 11th tee.
Patience became the key for Phil Mickelson who takes a one-shot lead into today's final round with Charl Schwartzel, Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker grouped just one shot back.
Earlier in the day, the fall-out from Thursday's weather disruptions was eventually sorted out when the survivors from an eight-over-par cut of 148 included amateur international, Kevin Phelan, on the limit. As a unique achievement by an Irish player, it reflected the invaluable experience the 22-year-old gained when competing in this event at Pebble Beach three years ago.
Confident in his right to be here, Phelan could claim to have covered 27 consecutive US Open holes in level par, from his final nine holes at Pebble up to the end of a first-round 71 last Thursday. And there was no shame in his later torment which was shared by some decidedly lofty company.
Meanwhile, the fluency of Friday's 70, deserted Ireland's leading qualifier, Rory McIlroy, despite the boost of an opening birdie. Blocked drives into heavy rough on the second and fourth were among the errors which led to four dropped strokes in five holes, before a nine-foot birdie putt on the seventh delivered what proved to be only a temporary respite.
Playing alongside him, Tiger Woods shared McIlroy's struggle. When the three-time champion went into battle in a share of 13th place, we were reminded that none of his 14 Major titles had been won from a position worse than fifth going into the weekend.
The patchy nature of Woods' play, however, characterised by a badly duffed chip from off the front of the sixth green, tended to deprive such statistics of any real relevance. The favourite was clearly going nowhere with a shortened swing devoid of its customary rhythm and a strained left elbow which clearly affected his play, especially from rough.
It was a long day for Harrington, whose last hole on Friday night happened to deliver the crushing disappointment of a double-bogey on the 15th. Still, he managed to complete the remaining holes in level par on his return at 7.15 yesterday morning, when a 71 gave promise of another sparkling challenge to match his fourth-place finish of 12 months ago.
In the event, he reached the turn in level par despite a bogey at the short ninth. After the next, he was advised by European Tour head referee, John Paramor, that his group had fallen out of position and were on the clock. Significantly, Harrington proceeded to bogey the 11th and later triple-bogeyed the 14th where he drove out of bounds on the way to an inward 39.
Television viewers who have been captivated by the magic of Merion, need to realise that they are not seeing quite the genuine article. For that pleasure, they would need to visit the venue in about a month's time, when it should be getting back to normal after the excitement of the last week.
The fact is that for all his virtues, USGA executive director, Mike Davis, has succumbed to his association's pride in setting golf's ultimate test. "Do we want it to be difficult?" he asked. "Absolutely."
Which explains the decidedly modest scoring on a course relatively short by modern standards. As Curtis Strange, the last back-to-back winner of this title, pointed out: "Mike (Davis) has really fiddled with this golf course. Fairways have been moved to make things more difficult. The left edge of the 11th fairway, for example, is blocked out by a tree."
The ESPN analyst went on: "Then there's the fourth hole. There used to be a 12-yard wide plateau on the right side of the fairway. If you could hit it up there you could see the entire hole. This week, that plateau is gone. It's covered in rough. So the whole fairway is sloping right-to-left, which makes it very difficult to hit."
The normal run of the fairway has also been altered significantly at the second and 10th. As a consequence, the patience and fortitude of competitors were being sorely tested through being repeatedly denied access to the intended lines of attack at these dog-legs. The only option was to grapple unavailingly with clinging rough.
Another interesting device was to have the fairway grass at the lush level of half-an-inch. Davis's innocent explanation? "We wanted to send a message to the recreational game that even the world's best players don't need to play off quarter-inch fairways in height." The fact that competitors could impart significantly less spin when hitting short irons into tight targets, had nothing to do with the decision, of course.
And there have been some tricky, even questionable pin locations on creeping bentgrass greens with wonderfully subtle breaks. The only concession here was on the fifth green which cants so severely that its speed was reduced to 12 on the Stimpmeter.
Meanwhile, the survival of Sergio Garcia into the weekend prompted mixed feelings, even from the player himself. His stoicism in the face of some verbal abuse from Thursday's galleries was to be admired, notably when he was asked by a walking referee on Thursday if he wished police to intervene and have specific hecklers removed.
In the event, another ill-conceived battle with the treacherous 15th, where he had run up an eight on Thursday, resulted this time in an horrendous 10 – the consequence of three drives out of bounds.