All Hail Coore and Crenshaw.

These Geniuses Could Probably Fix Pickering.

These Geniuses Could Probably Fix Pickering.

I can’t wait for the U.S. Open to start this week, partly because it is possibly my favorite major, but also because I want to see what Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore have done to the place.  I’ve seen pictures.  I’ve heard stories, but I don’t think it’s going to sink in until we see the course under tournament conditions.  I have a pretty strong memory of Pinehurst.  The 1999 U.S. Open, for obvious reasons, was probably the pinnacle of my golf fandom.  Pinehurst produced an unmatched leaderboard that year, but it did so with ribbons of fairway and heavy rough.  Crenshaw and Coore have blown the place up, restoring all that original grandeur.  The fairways now meld into waste areas, the rough is non-existent, and it should be as spectacular and difficult as ever.

Coore and Crenshaw restore as well as they create.  There are several highly regarded designers out there right now (Doak, Hanse, etc), but I don’t know if anyone gets as consistently praised as these two and they deserve it.  This U.S. Open might help put golf course architect at the top of Ben Crenshaw’s resume rather than Masters Champion, and I honestly think in 50 or 100 years if we’re still playing golf and all the great courses haven’t been taken over for windmill farms, that Crenshaw could be better known for his courses than his on-course exploits.

The older the golf course and the older its designer, the more esteem we seem to give, the thought being that a new course can not instantly be great.  We’ve started to get away from that a little bit with the help of places like Bandon Dunes, or the Coore & Crenshaw masterpiece, Sand Hills.  But, I think time will only make us fonder of the work these two guys are doing.

So, what are we expecting for this U.S. Open at the digitally remastered Pinehurst?

For me there are three stories this week.  The first, is the course, which I just touched on.  Not only is this the wide release debut of the redesign, but Pinehurst is tasked with hosting back-t0-back events.  The women will have their U.S. Open on the same course next week.  So in addition to how it’s playing, there will be a level of concern about how the course is holding up.  I think it’ll do just fine.

The players will be taking center stage, though, and leading the way are Phil and Rory.  With Tiger still sidelined with his back injury, we look to Phil and Rory to fill that void and both are doing an admirable job, with on and off-course exploits.  Rory has been alternately brilliant and awful since his 17th hole split with The Woz.  The course seems to set up perfectly for what Rory does well, when he’s doing it well.  Then, there’s Phil…

Phil has had an inconsistent year at best, but he’s mostly gotten a free pass because everyone knows he’s been pointing to this week.  Phil has become all about the majors in recent years and more specifically all about the majors he hasn’t won.  The career grand slam seems to be the last realistic goal that Mickelson wants to check off his list.  He’s never going to catch Tiger, so winning the U.S. Open would give him all four titles and no longer make him “that guy who finished second 6 times.”

In true Phil fashion, Mickelson added a bit of spice to the proceedings with his involvement in an insider trading investigation.  Phil had a little impromptu meeting with some FBI agents at the Memorial, who apparently wanted to know about one of Phil’s gambling buddies and some stock activity.  Mickelson claims he has no involvement, but I guess we’ll find that out soon enough.  If you asked me to construct a list of PGA players who I thought might get caught up in an insider trading scandal, Mickelson would shoot to the top of that list, but that doesn’t mean I won’t still be surprised if he’s guilty of something.  Philly Mick couldn’t handle prison, not even fancy Martha Stewart prison.

Getting back to Phil on the course, this does seem like it’s his last chance.  Right after Payne Stewart won in 1999 he was talking about how gratifying it was to take advantage of the opportunity, because he knew deep down that his chances were going to be limited.  Stewart was 42 at the time of his tragic death just months later, but he knew that his window for serious major contention was closing.  Mickelson is 43, and while equipment has made golfers effective later into their careers, with his physical ailments, family, and the crazy depth of the modern fields, you can’t feel too confident saying Phil could win his U.S. Open at 48, or 50.  It might need to happen now at a course where he should be able to work his magic and where he has some positive memories from past results.

After this year the Open goes to two new courses in three years (Erin Hills and Chambers Bay sandwiched around Oakmont), before visiting what would be a good Phil window in 2018-2020 (Shinnecock, Pebble, Winged Foot), but by then it may be too late.

I think it’s going to be a great week at Pinehurst.  This time last year we were worrying about the torrential rains ruining Merion, and that turned out to be mostly be wasted energy, but it’s nice to head into the week with no real worries about the golf course.

The Definitive, Yet Arbitrary, Top-10:

  1. Jim Furyk
  2. Rory McIlroy
  3. Dustin Johnson
  4. Sergio Garcia
  5. Henrik Stenson
  6. Miguel Angel Jimenez
  7. Bill Haas
  8. Jason Dufner
  9. Hideki Matsuyama
  10. Jordan Spieth

 

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Shankin’ in The Rain: The US Open at Merion.

If Only it Were the Fall. Though, At Merion, They Probably say "Autumn."

If Only it Were the Fall. Though, At Merion, They Probably say “Autumn.”

We’re here.  This is the week where every golfer within 100 miles of Philadelphia forgets the fact that Merion (occasionally pronounced Murry-In) is one of the more exclusive clubs around and adopts the venue as their home track.  This is the week people will lie about playing the course, they’ll give you sunnier than usual descriptions of Merion’s members and might not even complain about turning in their cell phones.  The Philadelphia area loves big sporting moments, for so long we were starved, and so for one week Merion might as well be the course in the Inquirer advertising the 2 for $55 weekend cart special.  The masses are going to overrun the place.  I hope they’re ready.  

Normally for a major championship I’d do at least two posts, but it’s all about time constraints.  So, we’re going to have to do a mega-post.  That will include me picking my winner on Monday.  That’s what we call in the business–prognostication suicide.  But saddle up, here we go…

***

The Golf Course:

Merion is the type of course that makes you appreciate golf architecture even if you know nothing about the subject.  A common complaint people have about public courses is that the holes are right on top of each other, too many holes run parallel to each other, etc.  All of this happens at Merion.  For example, my only time at the course I played to the 12th green from the 11 fairway.  I almost branded a grounds crew member working on 4 with my tee shot on 5.  The 18 holes are squeezed onto a tiny piece of property and yet it works–some would say perfectly.  It may not be the best course in the world, but you could make the argument it’s the best match of property and route.  

Not Pictured: The Main Line Mansions.

Not Pictured: The Main Line Mansions.

The U.S. Open has been absent from Merion since 1981 and many people thought it would never return.  The logistics of the property and the lack of yardage were a nightmare for the modern ball and merchandise tent.  It’s taken a lot of creativity (to stretch Merion to almost 7,000 yards) and a lot of compromise from the USGA and surrounding properties to make this event happen.  What we don’t know is if this will be a second last hurrah.  Could Merion possibly get back into the USGA’s rotation?  On a semi-permanent basis?  Or will they have to again downshift to events like the Walker Cup, or possibly a US Senior or Women’s Open?  

Speaking of downgraded events, Merion re-opened its relationship with the USGA with the 1998 Girls Junior.  This was the first time I ever saw the course.  I had two takeaways from that day.  First, the condition of the golf course was like nothing I’d seen.  Merion had put on its best face for this smaller event and I wonder if that showed the USGA something that had been lacking.  If you watch highlights from the 1981 Open, you’ll see a course that is hardly in the condition you’d expect.  Course conditioning has taken giant leaps forward from that time regardless, but I’ve also heard that Merion let itself go a little in the 1980s.  They needed to recapture the bunkering, the teeth of the golf course.  Everything was in full and stunning display for the 1998 Girls Junior.  Of course, I was an easily wooed spectator.  

The other thing I remember from that day is what makes this week so surprising.  These high school age girls were tearing the course up.  Obviously, the course wasn’t being played under US Open conditions, but the birdies were plentiful.  On that day I would have told you there was no way Merion could reasonably host the best players in the World.  To paraphrase a one-time roommate of mine, “They’d shoot 0.”  

How will all this work then?  A few years after the Girls Junior I had my one and only chance to play the course.  And even from the members tees, in benign conditions, playing the course gives you a better idea of what makes the course so challenging.  For a full rundown of my day there, you can read this post.  (Fair Warning: It has a very sad, non-golf related ending).  But, the point is, playing Merion allows you to see the importance of position, and shows you how quickly a hole can get away from you.  You also realize that the yardage on the card isn’t indicative of the test.  The long holes at Merion are very long.  The short holes are very short and will often require a layup.  So, while Merion certainly needed to be stretched to 7,000 yards, it definitely didn’t need to be stretched to  7,400.  

***

Oh My God–The Rain:

It’s a shame the USGA can’t move the U.S. Open around the calendar to accommodate the location.  Anyone who has played golf in the Mid-Atlantic knows that the fall is the best time of year.  The greens are the fastest.  The courses have firmed up as the humidity leaves the air, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a late-September U.S. Open at Merion would receive universally glowing reviews.  But, it’s June.  We’ve had an incredibly wet spring and it’s still raining.  Over the weekend we were pounded.  Merion took a body blow.  

The 11th looked more like 17 at Sawgrass over the weekend.  Via the 700 Level.

The 11th looked more like 17 at Sawgrass over the weekend. Via the 700 Level.

It’s raining again today.  It doesn’t look like things will fully dry out until the weekend.  Perhaps, on Sunday, we might get a glimpse of what the course could have been, but I’m afraid the damage has been done.  The greens and fairways are probably going to be a bit too soft.  It puts the course in a vulnerable position like Congressional faced a few years ago.  Do you allow someone to shoot 15-16 under par?  What Merion will have is incredibly difficult, tall and lush rough.  It’s been great grass growing weather and Merion has the tall stuff right off the fairway.  I’m afraid that the players will balk at this as well.  My great fear is that the weather turns the week into a bitch fest.  And, no one bitches like professional golfers.  So, everyone say a quick ode to Jones that this is the last rain we see all week.  

***

Hey, I’m Going Friday!

I’ll be at the course, trying to get a view of someone, doing something.  If you are going to be there, let me know and we totally will not meet up.  Unless of course, you are also showing up at 7:11 am to follow Angel, Geoff Ogilvy and Paul Lawrie.  I don’t really have anything more for this section, I just wanted everyone to know that I will be there and it should add volumes to my recap post.  And, if things get really weird, I might do a timeline.  

***

Speaking of the Pairings:

Things are going to be a little congested on the East Course.  Even with the spectators limited to 25,000, the consensus seems to be that you need to find a spot and park yourself if you want to see any quality action.  I probably won’t be doing this, but that’s the suggestion.  I’m not sure if the USGA has helped, or hindered the traffic problem by pairing Tiger/Rory and Adam Scott.  Will anyone be following the rest of the field?  Some other pairings, sampled from the full list of tee times…

Hunter Mahan/Nick Watney/Peter Hanson–Early reports have Mahan being one of the players who is attacking Merion with aggressive lines and plays.  It’ll be a story this week, aggression vs. control.  In this instance, I see Mahan losing out.

 David Toms/Darren Clarke/Jose Maria Olazabal–If it was 10 years ago, Toms might be the RUNAWAY favorite.  The other two guys have no shot.  

Luke Donald/Martin Kaymer/Lee Westwood–Donald is the rich man’s Toms at this point, but needs a major.  Westwood’s short game won’t hold up this week.  Keep searching–Lee.  Also, two guys named “Lee” can’t win a major on the same course.  Violation. 

Webb Simpson/Stephen Fox/Ernie Els–One day, I hope one year the defending US Amateur champion just loses his game and shoots 112 at the Open.  Not Fox, he seems like a nice kid, but I’d still like to see that happen.  I have problems.  Also of note: how will the Philly faithful deal with the long putter contingent?

Bubba Watson/Dustin Johnson/Nicholas Colsaerts–The obligatory long hitters group.  Can’t see more than 5 or 6 drivers for anyone.  We’ll see.  I’d give Colsaerts the best chance.  

Phil Mickelson/Keegan Bradley/Steve Stricker–Phil has himself talked into this week.  He LOVES Merion.  And, he rallied for a good finish yesterday.  One of these years will be Phil’s last, best shot.  Did it already happen?

Rickie Fowler/Matteo Manassero/Jason Day–There will  be at least 1,000 dipsh*t kids in flat brims following Fowler around. And half of them will dressed in some monochromatic Puma nightmare.  Steer clear.  Fowler could do well here if he could get clicking.

Sergio Garcia/Stewart Cink/Paddy Harrington–I fear that an article will be written this week about Sergio, Philly fans and Santa Claus.  I’ll post the link by Friday.  

***

Random Predictions:  

Low Score of the Week:  63–Thursday.  It’s coming.  Brace yourself.  I expect it may come from an American player you’ve KINDA heard of.  He’ll then shoot 71-70-76.  

High Score of the Week:  83–The Wheels are coming off someone’s wagon on Sunday.  

The Forgotten Hazard:  People might hit some balls OB this week.  Seems like pros rarely visit the white stakes, but there are some lurking pretty close at Merion.  

The Overrated Hazard:  The Quarry on 16.  It’s an incredible visual, it makes for a great hole, but it’s not like guys are going to be hacking around in the bottom of that thing.  

Most Fun Hole to Watch:  13.  The tiny little par three will feature countless easy birdies and probably a bunch of guys making a mess in the cavernous bunkers.  Also–Hole-in-One potential. 

Number of Times Hogan’s 1-Iron is Mentioned: Over/Under 234.5

Hardest hole on the course:  18.  No question.  On Sunday, you will hear, “We’ve had (pick a number between 1 and 3) birdies here all day.  

Winning Score:  11-under.  

***

The Definitive, Yet Arbitrary Top-10: 

  1. Phil Mickelson
  2. Justin Rose
  3. Matteo Manassero
  4. Charl Schwartzel
  5. Tiger Woods
  6. Bill Haas
  7. Frederik Jacobsen
  8. Jordan Spieth
  9. Scott Stallings
  10. Rickie Fowler