With the U.S. Open drawing nigh, we thought we'd gather our golf writers for a preview discussion. Jeremy Schilling, Ed Cushing, Greg Vara, David Ferris and Steve Emmert took turns peppering each other with questions.
1. Merion plays under 7,000 yards from the tips, making it quite short by modern standards. Who's in the best position to take advantage of that setup?
Jeremy Schilling - For a while I thought it would be someone on the short and accurate side of things (see: the Lee Westwood type), but then I saw Tiger's performance at The Players and realized that this opens the door for anyone who can find the fairway off the tee. I think especially if the course is firm and fast - and there was a bunch of rain in Philly the week before the event - Tiger's game of 3-woods, 5-woods and 3-irons could lead him (and any other long hitters who go his method) on the track to a major win. But if the course is damp, I think it not only a) rules out short hitters (sorry Tim Clark), but b) brings back the longer, accurate hitter like a Justin Rose because thick, wet U.S. Open rough is a no-no.
Greg Vara - The rain that came through this weekend will lengthen the course a bit, somewhat nullifying the advantage that the short hitters were thought to have entering the week. But if it dries out during the week, we could see typical Open conditions for the final two rounds. I'm not sure it matters much, though, as with any U.S. Open, it all comes down to accuracy off the tee. So, who leads the PGA Tour in Driving Accuracy? Graeme McDowell, former U.S. Open Champion, who just happens to be fairly short off the tee. Looks like a good setup for McDowell this week, but as Jeremy mentioned, any of the big hitters who can go down a club or two off the tee and keep it long and accurate, will have a big advantage.
David Ferris - It's natural to try to find a way to discount the shape of the course helping the bunters, but here's the thing - so many of the short hitters can't win on a behemoth course. At least this layout theoretically increases the pool of possible winners, and that's a good thing. Tim Clark was the first name I thought of, and Jeff Maggert qualifies as a crazy long shot - he has the temperament for the challenge, and he looked fairly spry at Sawgrass last month. Would you believe this guy has seven Top-10s in this event? (I know, they were all ages ago - but you don't need me to tell you Graeme McDowell is good.)
Steve Emmert - On several holes, even average drivers will be hitting wedges into Merion's greens, conceivably for four days in a row. I think that gives an advantage to a guy like Steve Stricker, who is among the elite wedge players on Tour. But Jeremy makes an excellent point: any of the longer players who can control a 3- or 5-wood off the tee will have the same wedge opportunities. That makes the Thursday/Friday pairing of Dustin Johnson, Nicolas Colsaerts and Bubba Watson an interesting one to follow. If these long knockers have the discipline to leave the head cover on the big stick on occasion, they'll be in good shape.
Ed Cushing - The U.S. Open always presents bogey opportunities by having tight fairways, severe rough, tucked pins, stimp at 13, etc. Graeme McDowell, Open winner at Pebble Beach (2010) and T2 at the Olympic club last year, certainly has been dunked in the U.S. Open experience. This year's performance stats favor him: He ranks No. 1 for hitting fairways, fifth for approaches from 125-150 yards, No. 3 in bogey avoidance, No. 1 in scrambling and 11th in strokes gained/putting.
2. About Merion, Phil Mickelson said last week: "It's really a wonderful set‑up. It's the best I've seen. I think the reason I like it so much is they've made the hard holes more difficult. They've made them harder, but they did not make the easy holes harder. They gave you birdie opportunities on the easy holes, and they made tough pars a little bit harder, which allows the player that is playing well to separate himself from the field. I thought that it was probably the best Open set‑up I've seen." This sounds like quintessential Mike Davis. Are you a fan of his Open set-ups? Why or why not?
Greg Vara - Like many golf fans, my favorite event each year is the Masters. Beyond the scenery and the history, the reason I prefer the Masters is fairness of the course. If a golfer is playing well, he can score on the back nine. If not, he's going to struggle mightily. Classic U.S. Open setups punish someone playing poorly as well as sometimes the golfer playing well. I like to see a tough test as much as the next guy, but too often the setups bring dumb luck into play such as greens that can't hold reasonable approach shots. If this year's setup is similar to that of Augusta, I'm all for it. In my opinion, it's much better watching an event where guys can play their way up the leaderboard on Sunday as well as down.
Steve Emmert - This takes us straight back to Winged Foot in 1974, when nobody won the Open; Hale Irwin merely "least lost." Davis's predecessor, Sandy Tatum, was asked that year if the USGA was trying to embarrass the greatest golfers in the world. He famously quipped, somewhat snidely, "No; we're trying to identify them." While I understand the concept that "par is a good score," any tournament in which the best of the pros cards a score of 7-over (as Irwin did in '74) is going overboard to make it artificially tough. Real excitement in golf comes not from fairway-green-two-putts repeated endlessly; it comes from eagle putts and birdie opportunities, interspersed with long, dangerous par-4s and 235-yard par-3s. Merion's setup should do that.
Jeremy Schilling - I am totally a fan, as it has revitalized the U.S. Open after the catastrophe that was Shinnecock. He's made the U.S. Open interesting again, and not the penal test that it too often was in the early 2000s. He's brought shot-making AND decision-making back into the equation and allowed for some excitement (see: Tiger Woods, back nine, Saturday, 2008 U.S. Open) instead of a stream of pitch-outs, bogeys and double bogeys. Yes, those are all still possible, but he's allowed more chances for birdies and eagles with interesting set-ups that include both reachable par-5s and drivable par-4s.
David Ferris - I hope they make the U.S. Open difficult, as difficult as possible. We already have enough events where par is a crummy score. Tournaments are more interesting to me when negative movement is possible at all times. Interesting to see Lefty bag a T2 this week at the paper-thin Hey Jude. Is there ever a good reason for a marquee player to tee it up the week before a major? I'd always want that time off, but everyone is different, I guess. I'll be surprised if he contends at Merion (though that's not connected to playing this weekend).
Jeremy Schilling - It's interesting, re: playing before a major. Phil says he gets too excited when he comes back after time off, and wanted to get into a nice rhythm before a major. But my retort to that is, aren't you going to be juiced up anyway headed to one of golf's biggest events?
3. For the last two years we've heard that Tiger is back, then he's not, then he is, and so on. It would appear now, more than at any time over the past five years, that he is, in fact, back (Memorial performance not withstanding). There is a segment, however, that won't admit he's back until he captures a major. Does he need a major to regain his aura, or has he already regained his prior status with his four victories this season?
Jeremy Schilling - I firmly believe Tiger's game is back. I think everyone knows that, too, and so does he. However, HE won't be back until he wins a major. His entire life has been focused around 18 and what 18 represents. And until he gets to 15 it won't be good enough for him. And because it won't be good enough for him, I don't think we can fully call Tiger back. If Tiger's career wasn't centered around 18 then this is not an issue. But he made it about 18 and because of that he's not fully back yet.
Steve Emmert - He's won four times this year. Matt Kuchar is in second place with two wins. No one else has topped a single victory. Damn skippy, he's back.
David Ferris - Obviously "back" is something you need to define. I'd say Tiger is back in that he's now the unquestioned favorite for any event he enters. That's enough. The 2000s steamroller is an unfair comp for anyone. Doing the Lindy Hop with that skiier seems to agree with Tiger. A happy personal life goes an awfully long way. Miss Vonn for 2013 MVP? On my clipboard, it should be unanimous.
Steve Emmert - Oh, David ...
4. What will be the winner's score relative to par?
Ed Cushing: 8-under
Steve Emmert: 7-under
Jeremy Schilling: 12-under
Greg Vara: 5-under
Here's the forecast for the course, courtesy of our pals over at The Weather Channel:
Tuesday - high of 80; 40 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms
Wednesday - Mostly sunny; high of 82
Thursday - High of 73; 50 percent chance of thunderstorms, which may be severe
Friday - Mostly cloudy; high of 74
Saturday - Sunny and 78
Sunday - Sunny and 78