The ninth inning of a baseball game with a no-hitter on the line is one of the most exciting spectator experiences in sports. The downside is that fans have to sit through eight relatively dull innings to get there. Keep that analogy in mind when watching golf’s majors in 2013. Based on this year’s venues, I suspect we’ll see three and a half days of no-hitter golf punctuated by a thrilling Sunday afternoon.
I’m not talking about the Masters. We all know that Augusta National regularly produces pins-and-needles finishes, full of dramatic recovery shots and stunning reversals of fortune. Those elements, however, will be harder to find at this year’s other three majors. Merion (U.S. Open), Muirfield (British Open) and Oak Hill (PGA) are three punishing courses. Assuming we get typical weather, hitting fairways and greens is going to play a particularly significant role in determining this year’s major champions.
Forget the prognosticators who think the field is going to feast on shortish Merion. It won’t happen, because Merion has never been about length. Navigating the layout is more akin to playing a chess match, with an emphasis on keeping the ball below the hole. Narrow fairways and difficult greens mean scoring will not be as low as some people believe. Think about the players who’ve won Opens there: David Graham, who hit all 18 greens on Sunday in 1981; Lee Trevino; and Ben Hogan. You need to control your ball to win at Merion.
It won’t get any easier for the pros at Muirfield. I’ve played it, and, man, is it hard. Like all British Open venues, the weather will be a major factor there—if the wind and rain are up, then it’s going to be a long, nasty slog. Nick Faldo made 18 pars on Sunday to win at Muirfield in 1987. That’s the kind of player who will emerge this year: someone who can strategize, hit it solidly and remain patient. Could we see an older player emerge here like Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009? Probably not. Muirfield might be too much course for the graybeards.
After getting beaten up in Philadelphia and Scotland, the pros won’t get much of a respite at Oak Hill in upstate New York. We’ve all seen Oak Hill’s famous tree-lined fairways in the Ryder Cup, U.S. Open and previous PGAs. It’s a course where you have to own your ball flight and keep it in play, which means you can expect yet another grindfest.
So what kind of player will excel at these sites? Luke Donald could hit a manhole cover from 175 yards and is a sound putter, so he’ll have a good chance to win his first major in 2013. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are always going to be in the mix because of their ballstriking, firepower and experience. Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, however, might struggle. They’re more erratic, and Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill won’t offer many chances at redemption after a wayward shot.
So ready yourself for plodding, workmanlike golf in 2013. And remember those no-hitters. You may be bored for eight innings, but the ninth makes it all worthwhile.