PGA Tour Confidential Extra: U.S. Open predictions, Tiger’s drive for 15 and the best hole at Merion
The SI Golf Group convened a panel of experts and a Tour player who participated on the condition of anonymity to tackle all things U.S. Open in a special PGA Tour Confidential Extra.
1. Is Merion major-worthy?
Anonymous Pro: Both. It's major-worthy because of how they set it up. They have it so narrow, the fairway bunkers have rough between them and the fairway, which I don't agree with. The front nine has some painfully short holes. It's all about who can hit it straight off the tee with hybrids and irons.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's going to be fascinating. There are so many short holes that aren't easy. Plus, those greens are fearsome. You're hitting wedge in, but you'd better hit a perfect shot. And three of the par-3s are monsters.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: You may swagger through the first 13 holes but stagger through the last five.
John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: Merion has produced great champions. Bobby Jones completed the Slam there. Ben Hogan's epic comeback. Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. Merion required shotmakers to hit shots. I hope it still does. Van Sickle: I'm going out to the 18th hole during a practice round to watch how many pros drop a ball by the Hogan plaque, from where he hit his one-iron. It's about 210 yards. These guys don't even own one-irons. Now it's probably a six-iron. That's the fear about Merion, how it has been shrunk by technology.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The scores won't be a million under par. Ten under would be a tremendously low winning score. I think this is a real referendum on what a poor job the governing bodies have done regulating the game. Webb Simpson is talking about hitting all these wedges. That's not what Merion should be, and it diminishes the game.
Shipnuck: The doomsday scenario is that it rains, the greens are soft, they're throwing darts in there with wedges and some random guy wins at 19 under par, as if it's the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Maybe then the USGA will finally say, OK, there's a fundamental issue we have to address, and it's not anchored putting. It's the golf ball.
Van Sickle: And metal woods. Oops. Too late for that.
Shipnuck: Driver is still a big club at the Masters, but the driver has been diminished at the U.S. and British Opens. It's ironic that those are the events put on by golf's governing bodies. You take away the driver, and it becomes about course management and patience and putting. The personality of these tournaments is changing, and that'll be on full display at Merion.
Van Sickle: It was no different in the '70s when the USGA grew the rough so deep that it took driver out of the players' hands.
Bamberger: This Open could be the watershed moment when we observe that the pros play a different game. Even for top amateurs Merion is plenty tough. If we want the Open to keep going back to courses like Merion, and we want the pro game to resemble our game, we need to be governed by a different set of rules.
Anonymous Pro: This will be the last time they go to Merion. The pro game has outgrown the course, and that's going to be obvious.
2. Will Tiger Woods continue his winning ways at Merion?
Shipnuck: This is the right course at the right time for Tiger. He's playing a new brand of small ball. He won the Players hitting 290-yard five-woods off the tee. That's perfect for Merion. If he were going to Bethpage Black, I'd be less confident. I don't care that he struggled in the wind at the Memorial. It's the U.S. Freaking Open — he'll be ready to play.
Van Sickle: Are you saying Tiger is just dinking it out there?
Shipnuck: No, I'm just saying driver is still the weakest club in his bag. He can hit five-woods and three-irons off every tee at Merion. Who's going to outplay him from 200 yards in? Nobody.
Anonymous Pro: Just like he did at Hoylake. Tiger has been impressive this year. It's funny how he's gone from having an advantage on the biggest, longest courses to having an edge on the smallest layouts, where it's more like a game of chess.
Bamberger: Tiger owns pretty much everything and everybody except for his outsized desire. He used to have that desire so deep on the back burner that the big picture of getting to 18 or 19 majors didn't interfere. Now I wonder if it does interfere. It's asking too much. For the first 11 years all he had to do was play great golf. Now there seems to be another layer of interference.
Shipnuck: Here we are again. His life is in order, his physical golf game has been good. Merion is perfect for him. Is he really the old Tiger who thrives on pressure or just a flawed human who can be overcome by the moment? If he doesn't get it done, you have to question what's going on between his ears.
Garrity: Is Tiger back? I didn't say yes until he won his hissing contest with Sergio García. That was the old Tiger. He came out of that with Sergio humiliated and his game and character in question. It was a total shutdown of an opponent, the kind of thing the old Tiger did routinely on and off the course.
Anonymous Pro: Tiger's response that Sergio "is always complaining about something" was snotty, yet he came out of the incident looking like the good guy.
Garrity: It was hysterical.
Shipnuck: It was masterly rope-a-dope by Tiger. He baited Sergio and played him like a fiddle, maybe even a banjo.
3. All the attention is falling on Tiger? Who or what else should we be talking about?
Garrity: Tim Clark. He's a key figure in this anchored-putting ban, and if the Tour goes along with the ruling, we may be headed for court. He could break out as a major figure in that lawsuit because unlike the other anchored putters, he's got a disability with his forearms.
Shipnuck: Didn't Clark win a few college tournaments using a standard-length putter?
Garrity: I think he did. He started experimenting when he turned pro. It was his presentation at the players' meeting at Torrey Pines that was really influential and had a lot to do with the PGA Tour saying it opposed the ban.
Anonymous Pro: Adam Scott is talking to the lawyers along with Clark and the others. I think they've all got the mentality, Let's stick it to the USGA and the R&A. We haven't seen Adam much since he won in Augusta. He's still one of the best ball strikers out there, and I think he has that extra motivation because of the ban.
Shipnuck: Scott's the only player who can win the Grand Slam this year. It's funny because he pegs it like once a month now. He seems like a part-time golfer even though we're in the meat of the golf schedule. He'll be a keynote player this summer.
Van Sickle: Two guys who don't even get a mention lately are Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, former Number 1s. And there's also former flavor of the month Brandt Snedeker. We shouldn't overlook them, but we're back to all Tiger all the time, just like the old days.
Bamberger: I would say the kid from China, Guan Tianlang. What he did at Augusta National and in New Orleans was absolutely amazing for a 14-year-old. And he represents a country with potentially hundreds of millions of golfers. That's big.
4. What's your favorite hole at Merion?
Bamberger: I would say the 1st hole screams Merion. It's a drivable par-4 that I don't think anyone will hit driver on. It's narrow, well-bunkered and the green is difficult.
Anonymous Pro: The 13th is a great little hole. It's 127 yards with a sharp green guarded by a deep bunker. It should be an easy shot, but somebody will make a 5 there to ruin his Open. If you ask players about their favorite par-3s, no one ever says a hole more than 200 yards. It's always number 7 at Pebble Beach, 12 or 16 at Augusta, 17 at Sawgrass. Nobody ever says number 8 at Oakmont, which can get close to 300.
Shipnuck: That 13th hole is quintessential Merion. There's an intimacy there, like at number 1. It'll be a very popular gathering spot for fans. It's a great little hole.
Van Sickle: Merion's signature hole has to be 16. It's downhill, then uphill, and the fairway curves like a question mark around a quarry filled with bunkers, shrubs and trees. It may not come into play much during the Open, but nothing good can come to anyone who ventures in there. The scrubby quarry gives the hole a rugged, Scottish look.
Shipnuck: I love the par-3 17th also. Bamberger made me play the back tee, like 220 yards, and it's down a shoot. It's one of those special shots; that's why you play golf. It's so scary, it's so exciting, and if you pull it off, you feel like a hero.
Garrity: My favorite has to be number 11 because of the history. That's where Jones closed out Eugene Homans in the Amateur to win the Slam in 1930. It's a short downhill par-4 with a wandering creek. It's a fine hole.
Van Sickle: Homans beat Charlie Seaver in the semifinal that year. Seaver would later father Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver.
Bamberger: There's a boulder on the tee commemorating Jones' win. If you look closely at the plaque, you'll see the letters in “Tyre” are higher than the others. They originally engraved it ROBERT TRENT JONES and had to go back and correct it.
Garrity: Bad editing is always tragic. I feel their pain.
5. And the winner is …
Garrity: I'd like to extend my streak of picking major champions to two, so I'll take Matt Kuchar, even though he hasn't been driving it that well. He's got a great U.S. Open temperament; he doesn't demand perfection of himself. Plus, I can't imagine him not winning a major before he hangs up his spikes. My dark horse is John Huh, who was 11th at the Masters.
Shipnuck: Sometimes we can outsmart ourselves. In this case I'll take Tiger. It seems as if it's meant to be for the reasons I've already discussed. I'll take Billy Horschel as my dark horse.
Bamberger: I'll take Bubba to win.
Van Sickle: By Bubba, you mean Bubba Watson, not Boo Weekley?
Bamberger: Yes. Bubba can work the ball. His length with every club is an advantage. Shaping shots is huge at Merion.
Van Sickle: I'm with Alan. Tiger will probably win this Open, but it goes against my vision of 12 straight major winners who use anchored putting before the ban begins, so I'm going with Webb Simpson. I like the way Simpson has already analyzed the course and has a game plan. My dark horse is another anchorer, Tim Clark. He can always sue the USGA if he doesn't win.
Anonymous Pro: Rory McIlroy has been MIA. I think he'll rediscover his putting. I don't know if he counts as a dark horse, but there isn't a better wedge player and putter than Steve Stricker. He's never won a major, he's 46 and he's semiretired. His armsy swing is the best wedge technique in the game. And apparently, he's a savage.