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The 2013 U.S. Open at Merion - Every Rose has Its Thorn

By: Jay Flemma


[Cybergolf's Jay Flemma and Marino Parascenzo are in Ardmore, Pa., for this week's U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. Here's Jay's fourth and final installment.]

As Merion and all its dryad loveliness, incomparable history and ingenious golf architecture that perennially stands the test of time and technology fades into the mists for what may be the last time on the U.S. Open stage, we can't help feeling somewhat deflated and underwhelmed. Of course we rousingly celebrate the newly-minted national champion, and deservedly so. Justin Rose is a terrific golfer, but an even better person, a humble kid who does what he loves and is grateful for it every day, a class act through and through. But even so, every rose has its thorn (cue that sad rock song), and we can't help feeling a great sadness about everything that transpired this week: sadness for Phil Mickelson, sadness for Merion and sadness for professional golf in America.

As even Kazakstanis know, Phil's never won a U.S. Open and has finished second six times. The monkey on his back isn't King Kong - he still has three green jackets and a Wanamaker Trophy, but it's getting to be the size of a Malaysian orangutan after this latest debacle. Excepting Winged Foot, this was Phil's best chance to beat that monkey to death with a gap wedge and - once again - he lost it with his putter . . . his putter!

Phil took 37 putts Sunday. That's flabbergasting. Despite hitting only eight fairways he also hit 15 greens - which is amazing considering the 4- to 5-inch rough - and his putter never got out of the trunk of the car. On the biggest day of his life, he produces a performance so inconceivably bad it must be considered a statistical outlier. When have you ever heard of a professional golfer taking 37 putts? Let alone Phil Mickelson? Thirty-seven putts . . . that's ineptitude.

"Oh, Phil! You're killin' us!" moaned one exasperated fan, just saying what everyone else was thinking.

People point to the two missed greens at 13 and 15 and say that's what doomed him, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Yes, Phil bogeyed the lollipop, the dinky 100-yard par-3 that was the only hole to play under par for the week. But 15 is a tricked up hole. Bending hard at an awkward place, with out-of-bounds feet from the optimal position on the fairway, 15 is a gnarled little grinning garden gnome giving you the finger.

Just ask Sergio Garcia who played it 8-4-4-10.

Considering how poorly Phil drove the ball and how lush the rough was, hitting 15 greens is Herculean. If Phil had simply taken a pedestrian 33 putts, he would have won by two shots, and if he'd have putted well he'd have dusted everybody by a mile. He led the field in greens in regulation, but he was T-56 in putting. That's how to blow a U.S. Open, and in particular that's how Phil seems to come up short almost every time in this tournament. Yes, Payne Stewart outplayed him at Pinehurst in a classic duel and, yes, Tiger Woods smeared everyone at Bethpage in 2002. But it was Phil's putter that failed him at Shinnecock, Bethpage in '09, and at Merion.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that he wasted that eagle on No. 10. That would have been the defining shot of the tournament and perhaps gone down in the history books right next to Hogan's 1-iron and Sarazen's deuce at the Masters in 1935. The roar that went up from the gallery when that Titleist dropped in the jar rattled every tree from Ardmore to Atlanta and from Haverford to Houston. But that was the tease.

Typical Phil - ever the drama queen. "You realize this is only going to make it more tragic," quipped Gary Van Sickle, channeling his inner Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

And we thought he was only joking.

As an aside, this is the second time Justin Rose has trampled Mickelson underfoot. Rose flat-out stole his match with Mickelson after being 1-down on the 17th tee at the Ryder Cup last September. After Mickelson nearly chipped in to win it, Rose rolled in a double-beraking bomb from 35 feet that proved the shot of the day to win the hole and tie the match. He then birdied 18 to win.

Rose is a worthy champion, and he did go out and take this title when no one else seemed to want it, except Jason Day. Hogan said fairways and greens win at Merion, and that's exactly what Rose did - T-2 in fairways hit, (42/56, 75 percent), T-7 in greens in regulation (50/72, 69.4 percenb), and tied for first in birdies with 15.

"I came here No. 1 in total driving on the PGA Tour, and last year I led greens in regulation. Ball striking wise, I felt like the U.S. Open was beginning to play into being one of the majors I felt comfortable with," he explained, cradling the trophy like a newborn son.

Golf fans love Justin Rose. He's not flashy, but he's gritty and his golf is a reflection of his life: stoic determination and leadership mixed with a humble genuineness.

Remember the 1998 British Open when he burst onto the scene at Birkdale to the joyful adoration of all England? Back then he was merely an affable teenager who captured the hearts and minds of the entire United Kingdom with a mixture of pluck, grace, youthful vitality and scintillating golf shots. He came of age in Southport that week, hanging in contention until the bitter end, and giving the crowd a thrill that still echoes through the years. Rose was about 40 yards short of the 72nd green and in a thick, clingy patch of marram grass. From the deck of that sinking ship he pitched in and all England rang with the cheering.

"The whole place shook when he holed that shot," recalled sportscaster Joel Blumberg. "It was an incredible moment. You felt the whole place just lift off the ground and then come back down."

"It was amazing," echoed David Clarke, editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine. "Everyone one jumped in the air at once when the ball disappeared. The entire grandstand reverberated and the place rang with the cheering. I've never seen the like to match it in golf: football, perhaps. The stands just shook and shook with the joy of it all."

But cut to 2013 and we still can't help feeling this Open won him. Going into Sunday morning, the conventional thinking was that Merion had befuddled, bruised and bludgeoned the players enough for one week, and that the USGA would set the course up more mildly to let the guys play golf for the title instead of snooker.

But when the pin sheet was released, that's when we knew how horribly, horribly wrong we were. That's when you knew the winner was going to be the guy who made the least mistakes rather than made a gallant charge. Every single pin was tucked dangerously close to perdition, no green-light flags whatsoever.

"I feel like I went 15 rounds with Mike Tyson," said Joe Ogilvy.

"I don't know what course all the writers and broadcasters were looking at because we all knew in the locker room this course was going to be murder," added 2013 Masters champ Adam Scott.

Suddenly Rose went from also-ran to an almost mortal lock. The best player wasn't going to win - the most phlegmatic was, just like in the 1980s.

Indeed, in too many respects, this year too often hearkened back to the dark ages of the U.S. Open, the bad old days of the 1950s-1990s and "The Tricked-up Open." Ludicrous rough, criminally narrow, contrived hazards (moving the fairways closer to out-of-bounds) and insane green speeds; they ruined Merion. The players were going to have enough trouble with the tilted fairways, smaller greens and wilder contours, and the USGA didn't need to put a restrictor plate on the field by making them club down to 5-irons off the tees. This is Merion, not Southern Hills.

As a result, we got a 1980s tournament. A plodder won by percolating down the leaderboard the least, not rising up the leaderboard the fastest. Every rose has its thorn.

"It was kinda boring," said golf fan Jonah Doreah, who came for the whole week. "There were so few birdies. They said they'd give guys a chance to go for eagles, but flying creatures were an endangered species this week."

And - mind you! - this is while it was soft and receptive. Think of what the winning score would have been if the East Course played fast and firm.

With all the added difficulty, it was like playing six-on-five basketball. They had no chance. But I ask Tom Fazio the same question I too often have to ask Rees Jones: You made the course harder, but did you make it any better?

The members' answer seems to be no. Several confirmed the changes Fazio made will be reversed quickly. They want to enjoy their day of golf, not get throttled by their home course, one that's brilliant enough to not need all that rough and out-of-bounds. Merion shows you don't need 7,500 yards and acres of water hazards to suppress scoring; you need smaller greens and more fairway and green undulations and movement.

"I'm telling you, we could play an 8,500-yard course with straight-aways, and these guys would have no trouble. It's when you all of a sudden get holes that move different directions, unlevel lies, wind, some blindness, greens that undulate, that's what tests these players. They can hit it a long way and they can hit it straight, but it's this type of architecture that you really have to think your way around it," said USGA executive director Mike Davis. "From a stroke-play average, it was the second-hardest, next to Oakmont. So we have known all along that it was going to hold its own."

But Merion is not supposed to be that hard! It's not supposed to be Winged Foot, Oakland Hills or Oakmont. Yes, it was hard, but to what purpose? Nos. 14-18 weren't golf holes, they were a shark tank, especially the 530-yard par-4 18th. We hear everyone talk about Merion not needing length, so why overdo it at 18? Why a 290-yard par-3? No one made birdie all weekend.

Merion, like Riviera, has always been short on the scorecard, but that is irrelevant. You don't need length to defend par. The 10th at Riviera says more in its scant 310 yards than most par-4s say in 460. On average, the 10th at Riviera still plays over-par to the field at the Nissan Open.

I know the question on everyone's lips is, "Will we return to Merion? Perhaps in 2030 for the anniversary of Bobby Jones' Grand Slam?" But we have other urgent priorities first - like getting Oakland Hills back into the rotation. There's a course that could drop what it's doing and host an Open every single day if it had to because it has the room to do it. Before we get too caught up in the euphoria of the moment of a new champion's coronation, the warm remembrances of Merion and wax beatifically about bringing it back, let's be sensible:

The game and technology have not outgrown Merion, but the U.S. Open has. "We didn't see Merion this week. We saw a golf course amidst columns of tents. We saw the holes, but we couldn't see the whole," said one golf course architect, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

To bring the Open to Merion, they stuffed a size-9 foot in a size-5 shoe.

That brings us to the second reason for being sad about the lessons this Open taught us: we can't keep going back to places this small, no matter how good the architecture or the history. The logistic nightmares of Merion are incurable. The USGA can use that old cliché about dating: "It's not you, it's me." They are too big for Merion's tiny size.

Look at the difference between this year and 1981:

In 1981 there were 800 volunteers, 13 hospitality tents, 18,000 patrons, 10 hours (weekend only) of TV coverage, overall course yardage of 6,544, a purse of $361,730 ($55,000 to winner David Graham), and five marshals per hole.

In 2013, those numbers were switched to (respectively): 5,000, 32, 30,000, 35 hours, 6,996 yards, $7.8 million ($1.44 million to Rose) and 20-plus marshals per hole.

The 2013 U.S. Open just had more bacon than the Merion pan could handle.

It's a good thing they "dialed back the footprint," because we'd have all felt like living in Old Mother Hubbard's shoe otherwise. The fan experience was terrible. Nothing was intuitive or convenient, and you couldn't move anywhere except to "Spectator Square," where you could watch it on TV and shop.

Who flies all the way across the country to watch the U.S. Open on a Jumbotron?

Oh, but the merch tent was easy to find. After all, all roads inevitably lead to the cash register. You couldn't miss it in fact, it had to cover all of Liechtenstein. (But the media were moved to the 15th green so the hospitality tent for the members could stand where the old media center was. After all, we can't put them too far away from the wine cellar.)

Yes, we proved that we could do it, but someone needs to ask next time if we should do it. Every rose has its thorn, and if this is what it takes to come back to certain old smaller venues, either dial back the footprint even more or leave Merion and other great courses of its size to host the U.S. Amateur. In fact, what about a U.S. Amateur rota, and we make it a major like it was before? That way we don't lose the aura of history and grandeur of such courses and the world gets to see them on TV anyway.

Of all people, Woods, despite his trials and tribulations this week, summed the situation up correctly: "I'm sure it [the Open] will come back," he said sarcastically. "It could definitely host another major championship. But I don't know if the USGA wants to. They make a lot of money on other venues."

Leave it to Woods to mention money.

And that brings us squarely to the third reason to be sad about what we learned this week: the American pro golfer has lately being outmanned, outgunned, outplayed, and outclassed by an order of magnitude in major championships by the Euros, and it's left the Yanks time and again searching for answers. The problem is that while everyone else is gearing up to win, some players are instead busy with "apparel scripts" (can't they dress themselves anymore??!!). There was also one idiot with octopi on his pants. Dude looked like he was going yachting with Judge Smails after the tournament. (Cue Spaulding Smails: "Ahoy, Billy Horschel! Where'd you just come from? A sky test?")

Fashion statements take priority to winning, so get the brand in there. It's no wonder Horschel melted on Championship Sunday, he was too busy with his own personal Land's End shoot. Golf first, fashion statement later: You have to win something before you get to be eccentric, until then you're just a kook.

So as we leave lovely Merion behind, will it be for the last time? Had Phil won, probably not, but with Rose, who knows? In 2006, when Merion beat out the Country Club for the right to hold this Open, Brookline members screamed bloody murder about the USGA ignoring an important golf historical anniversary, Ouimet's win in 1913. The USGA will face the same dilemma when it comes to 2030.

They will have to choose once again between history or fans, fond remembrances or sensibility (not to mention money). There's a thorn to this rose, and no matter how pretty or fragrant, there are always troubles lurking closely as well.

Extra! Extra! News, Notes & Quotes

All Hail the Maintenance Crew!

Matt Shaffer and his team did a great job, and thanks for getting us out of there on time and with no mud balls. He was the real winner of this event. Rose walks off with the trophy, but this was Matt Shaffer's week.

Let's Go While We're Still Young!

Great idea, USGA, now please enforce it. It has to start at the top. We can't reduce rounds at munis on weekends until the guys on TV speed it up to.

Interesting Factoids . . . Or Not

In each of the five U.S. Opens at Merion, the winner has come from behind on the final day. Rose was the first to win with five birdies in the final round since Cabrera at Oakmont in '07, but also the first to make five bogeys and win since Ernie Els in 1994 . . . speaking of which.

Hey Ernie! Was it Something He Said?

Remember what we said pre-tournament about Els being difficult with the working press? The so-called "Big Easy" was once again backed that up, this time in a broadcast interview where he was confronted with his pre-tournament gaffe of a prediction that Merion would be laughably easy. When a local Philly TV guy asked him the U.S. Open equivalent of, "I'm checking back with you now, how did that turn out?" Els became sulky, surly and stupid, in that order. After denying what existed in print for everyone to see, he dropped an "S-word" during the interview, stormed off snarling "That's it, I'm outta here," and then lobbed a lusty "eff ewe" at the guy off camera.

The lunacy of it reminded me of that scene from Fargo where Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is confronted by the cop (Frances McDormand) and drives away. "He's fleeing the interview! He's fleeing the interview!" Philly.com has the story here: http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/golf/2013-us-open-merion/20130617_Els_ties_for_4th__fit_to_be_tied.html.

For those of you scoring at home, the ability to act this way is found in the copper-riveted gold-plated Grade-AA Jerk's Bill of Rights, Vol. III, Chapter 2, Sect. 37-3(a). See Tim Finchem for more details.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.