Lateral Hazard: Patience and strategy are required for 2013 U.S. Open at Merion

Golf history comes rushing toward us this week, dominates our senses, fills our souls with nostalgia. The U.S. Open starts Thursday at Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia, where Bobby Jones completed his 1930 Grand Slam, where Lee Trevino outdueled Jack Nicklaus in 1971, where Ben Hogan in 1950 hit the most famous 1-iron in golf history.

To which every player in the field under the age of 40 says: "What's a 1-iron?"

Yes, sports fans, this will be a blast from the sport's past, a rotary phone of a golf experience in a smartphone world. Merion is so old-school and unique, the flagsticks on each green feature red wicker baskets instead of flags. Ask 90 percent of the field about the wicker baskets, and most of them will only associate wicker with their grandparents' patio furniture.

And yet, there are potential downsides all over the Merion experience.

• Four par-4s measure less than 360 yards. Guys like Dustin Johnson hit 330-yard drives these days, and complain that they hit it off the toe of the club.

• Merion's acreage is so tight, the driving range and player locker rooms are a mile away, at the West Course. For players who are used to complimentary deep-tissue massages in trailers near the first tee and caviar as an appetizer in the grill room adjacent to the 18th green, this will be a culture shock.

• Ambient noise from church bells will ring every half hour, and a train line nearby will rattle Merion with whistles. For players who give major championship scowls if a photographer passes gas during a pro-am, this will be a test of their high-strung nerves.

• Corporate hospitality tents, the money-making faucet for the USGA, have to be severely curtailed and placed in awkward spots, because of Merion's claustrophobic conditions. For a USGA that likes to think of the "S" in their title as an "$," this will surely cause agita.

• The course measures only 6,996 yards. Last year's Olympic Club layout, at 7,100, was considered like a miniature golf course, so today's pros will be wondering if they're hitting from the ladies' tees.

• Heavy rain, a strong possibility during the week, could soften the greens so thoroughly, the players in the field may shout 'Target Practice!' before firing wedges at the wicker.

• Also, potential floods mean a doomsday scenario has the USGA prepared to play two holes from the West Course, a mile away, if needed. Can't you just hear Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller now, whispering into the microphones: "And now we'll see third-round leader Matt Kuchar sliding into the mini-van for his trip to play the 11th hole a mile away … he's asking that the radio be put on a "classic rock" station … his driver wants to hear "adult contemporary" and this could be a problem, Johnny…"

And you know what I say to all of that?


Let's see something different. Let's see wacky challenges confront these guys. Let's see these guys keep their space-age drivers in their bag and have to hit 4-iron off the tee all day. Let's see these guys get bedeviled by a canted fairway, by a sloped green, by the idea of thinking their way around a golf course, not bombing their way around a golf course. Let's see them get uncomfortable.

The USGA would probably like to patent that phrase for all of their national opens: "The U.S. Open: Let's See These Guys Get Uncomfortable."

Besides, that teensy bit of yardage at Olympic last year? Yeah, Webb Simpson won at 1-over par. Turns out these big boys get all itchy and scratchy when they can't hit it anywhere they want. Merion could mess with these guys, big.

Who does it all favor? It favors a player with patience, a short game, a strategy and more than just distance off the tee. In other words, it favors most U.S. Open champions. Last year at Olympic Club, Simpson did the best thing possible – shoot a final-round 68 from the front of the pack, then sit back and let the U.S. Open chew up Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell, inch by inch. Two years ago, Rory McIlroy blew away the field at Congressional, but that was wholly different for two reasons: One, heavy rains and long yardage made it a bomber's paradise, setting up well for Rory's style; and, two, Rory was a whole different guy, unencumbered by Nike dollars, self-doubt and a girlfriend that takes up a lot of his time and attention. But three and four years ago, McDowell at Pebble Beach and Lucas Glover at Bethpage(!) played the sort of grind-it-out golf that makes a USGA champ.

And five years ago? Well, that was Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines. That was a whole different deal, for many reasons. That was Tiger when he was Tiger, and all that it entailed, even on one leg.

Make no mistake. Tiger loves the allure of history. And Merion oozes it. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Tiger employ his irons-off-the-tees strategy he used to obliterate the field at the 2006 British Open at Hoylake, and end his five-year drought.

Tiger likes places where names like "Bobby Jones" hang in the air. The two share a common love of St. Andrews and Hoylake, for example. And while Tiger doesn't share common triumphs with Ben Hogan – the Wee Ice Mon won at places like Riviera and Oakland Hills and Oakmont and Carnoustie; while Tiger favors Pebble Beach and St. Andrews and Torrey Pines – Tiger does, after all, know what a 1-iron is. That puts him ahead of 90 percent of the field.

Merion's an old soul in a Twitter world. And I don't care if you can summarize your thoughts in 140 characters. This week, it might be wise to respect your elders.


72-68-68-75 – 5-under 283, Inbee Park, winner (in playoff with Catriona Matthew), LPGA Championship, Locust Hill CC, Pittsford, N.Y.

If you were watching the rain-soaked second LPGA major of the year, a championship so soggy they had to squeeze 36 holes into Sunday (and then play three more for the Park-Matthew playoff), you saw Park, nursing a one-shot lead, hit her tee shot into the left rough on the 18th hole. It disappeared into the thick stuff.

Park, already a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour this year, already a winner of the year's first major, all of a sudden looked to be toast – especially when she only advanced her second shot some 50 yards, and kept it in the left rough. Her second shot looked like something I'd hit. No bueno.

It was time for one of those, "Never-Let-'Em-See-You-Sweat" moments, and Park managed to hit her third to the back fringe, and two-putt for bogey to get into a playoff. Pretty darn good bogey, if you ask me – especially as it came at the end of a marathon day and capped a rough-and-tumble final round 75.

Then, on the third playoff hole, she ousted Matthew with a birdie putt.

And women's golf definitely has a new queen, even if nobody pays attention to the quiet, 24-year-old South Korean. She took over the No. 1 ranking eight weeks ago, and now becomes only the seventh player in LPGA history to win the first two majors of the year and the first since Annika Sorenstam in 2005. She's already pocketed $1.2 million in earnings this year, and we're not even at the Fourth of July.

The next biggie is in three weeks. It's the U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack in Southampton, N.Y. Park is such a big shot in women's golf, she should be getting invites to hang with the Hamptons elite. Knowing the low-key persona she's created, though, you'll probably be more likely to find her checking into the Hampton Inn.


"He'd dearly like to win a U.S. Open" – Ian Baker-Finch, on CBS, speaking of Phil Mickelson.

Yes, here comes another national open. And yes, here comes Philly Mick, tilting at the windmill yet again.You think of U.S. Opens and you think of players rewarded for calm play; for frill-free steadiness; for valuing par. In other words, none of the qualities Mickelson has crafted over a 21-year pro career.

See, it makes sense that Philly Mick has won three Masters. He's the guy who likes to make eagle or die trying; to hit 6-irons off pine straw from great distances to a green fronted by Rae's Creek.

But U.S. Opens? That's the turf of Andy North and Jim Furyk and Geoff Ogilvy.

And yet, Baker-Finch is right to raise the topic again. Mickelson's U.S. Open career, counterintuitively, has been stunningly good, and immersed in near-miss heartbreak.

Pick an Open, nearly any Open. You can start with 2006 at Winged Foot, when his awful 72nd hole cost him the championship, and he famously opined: "I am such an idiot." You can study 1999 at Pinehurst, when only Payne Stewart's long putt on the 72nd hole stopped Lefty from being a champion. His only consolation was Stewart's heartfelt good wish for his impending fatherhood. You can look at 2009's Bethpage, when bogeys on the 69th and 71st holes left him two shots behind Glover. You can mull over 2003's Shinnecock Open, when the New York crowd went berserk for Lefty – and he obliged by storming to a one-shot lead coming to the 17th tee on Sunday. But he double-bogeyed 17, three-putting from five feet, and finished two back of Retief Goosen.

He darn near won every one of those.

So, yes. Phil Mickelson would dearly love to win a U.S. Open, with the final round falling on his 43rd birthday at Merion this week, no less. You would think Merion and Mickelson – control and lack thereof – would be an awful match. But you'd be wrong to forget how our national championship so often brings out the best in Philly Mick.


In fact, let's stay on Mickelson for our Mully o' the Week. While we send our congratulations to young Harris English, the 23-year-old from Tennessee who starred at the University of Georgia, for his first career PGA Tour win, let's go back and re-visit Mickelson's 18th hole at TPC Southwind in Memphis at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Mickelson stood on the 18th fairway, two shots back of English, 169 yards shy of the pin, and launched one of those classic gun-slinging Phil "Moments" – a golf shot struck so purely and aggressively, it damn near landed in the cup on the fly. His Callaway golf ball landed probably six inches in front of the cup and trickled back, stopping about 18 inches from glory.

"Goodness gracious," said Bill Macatee.

"You think he's ready for the U.S. Open?" said Peter Oosterhuis.

Had he jarred it, Lefty would have moved to 11-under. While English birdied 17 to get to 12-under, and probably would have won anyway, it would have been fun to see what kind of hell would have broken loose had Mickelson eagled the last.

Plus, seeing Lefty dial in from 169, and looking to make it, is fun as heck. So let's go back out to 18, drop a small bucket of balls, tell Mickelson to give us one last pre-U.S. Open thrill, let him fire away and … give that man a few mulligans!


If you have to ask, you'll never know. It's U.S. Open week, amigos. I love me some America, and I love me some golf. Put the two together, and I'll race you to see who can weave a wicker basket fastest.


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