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The Month Ahead - June

By: Tony Dear


When, in 1999, Carnoustie reappeared on the list of Open Championship venues after a 24-year absence, some pretty atrocious weather - together with the R&A's regrettable decision to narrow the fairways and let the rough grow out of control - ensured the Tayside link's long-awaited return would be remembered mostly for all the wrong reasons (a rather eccentric Frenchman by the name of Jean Van de Velde did his part, too).

A month earlier, Donald Ross's once exquisite No. 2 Course at Pinehurst in North Carolina hosted the U.S. Open, its first major championship in 63 years, and had likewise failed to impress.

The somewhat tired course, the victim of a short-sighted ownership group that had made no attempt to retain the firm, strategic qualities Ross created over 90 years before, hosted the event six years later. And again, most of the players and those watching felt the course had seen much better days, that it was never designed to endure a typically un-strategic U.S. Open set-up, and that it was in desperate need of a makeover (fortunately, the decision was taken to hire Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to carry out a recent major renovation, which will be on view at both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open next year).

In 2006, Hoylake near Liverpool made a similarly unremarkable comeback, 39 years after its last Open Championship, with fairways so firm the winner, Tiger Woods, got away with hitting only one driver from the tee all week. Firm is good and certainly preferable to soft and over-accommodating. But when conditions are such that a player, regardless of how brilliant and tactically astute he is, can complete 72 holes of a major championship by all but removing his driver from the bag, then something is wrong.

This month, golf fans will get to see Merion Golf Club's 100-year-old East Course on TV screens for the first time since the 1981 U.S. Open, when Australia's David Graham hit all 18 greens in a final-round 67 to win his second major title. Golf addicts and enthusiasts worldwide have waited patiently (sometimes impatiently) for this moment to arrive, and are naturally eager to appreciate Hugh Wilson's superb layout and marvel at the way he crammed 18 outstanding holes onto a mere 126-acre plot.

There is a fear, however, that because the course is so short by modern standards (6,996 yards) the USGA will deem it necessary to bolster its defenses with near-solid knee-high rough, 20-yard-wide fairways, and concrete greens running a ludicrous 15 on the Stimpmeter. Watching the world's best knocking 4-irons off the tee to avoid said rough or hacking violently at a hidden ball that missed the short grass by a few feet would suck the joy right out of watching quality players trying to solve Wilson's conundrums. The winner would surely be he who safely defends his total the best rather than the adventurer in pursuit of birdies, the telecasts becoming as tedious as those from Carnoustie in 1999 (except for the last hour or so, perhaps, when the crazy Gaul shocked and amused the crowds with his one-man circus).

It absolutely goes without saying that Woods will begin the tournament a very hot favorite. Not only is he swinging the club with great fluency and power, he's also without peer in today's game when it comes to preparing, plotting and positioning. His performance at Hoylake in '06 proved he has the patience to resist most, if not all, temptation and, with a significant lead in the PGA Tour's Strokes Gained Putting stat, Merion's smallish, undulating greens probably won't confound him as much as his competitors.

Defending champion Webb Simpson will be trying to turn what has been a so-so year thus far into something truly special. But whoever wins, the hope is Merion's fifth U.S. Open will have been worth the wait and not be remembered for anything other than a great champion winning on a great course.

Before we get to Ardmore, Pa., for the second major of the year, Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament will hopefully have dodged the weather that affected the second round and 72 holes will have been completed in good time. And Dustin Johnson will have endeavored to defend his title in Memphis at the FedEx St. Jude Classic against a field that will include Phil Mickelson but on a course - TPC Southwind - that shares few similarities with Merion.

Following the U.S. Open, the players will head northeast to Cromwell, Conn., and TPC River Highlands for the Travelers Championship, won last year by Aussie Marc Leishman, who closed with an 8-under 62 to beat 2010 champion Bubba Watson by a shot. Then it's on to the AT&T National at Congressional, where Woods will be going for two wins in a row in the tournament he hosts.

In Europe, the Nordea Masters finishes this weekend at Bro Hoff Slot in Sweden before moving a thousand miles south to Atzenbrugg in Austria for the Lyoness Open. After the Continent's best return from Philadelphia, they head for Munich and the 25th playing of the BMW International Open, which England's Danny Willett won in a playoff last year and where 2014 European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley finished tied for third, his best finish since August 2008.

In the last week of the month, a fine field, including Ireland's "Big Six" - McGinley, 2009 champion Shane Lowry, 2007 champion Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, will assemble at Carton House in Maynooth, County Kildare, where the Montgomerie Course will be hosting its third Irish Open. Back to defend will be Wales's Jamie Donaldson, who won his maiden European Tour victory last year at Royal Portrush in his 255th start.

The seniors, having embarked on their exhausting five-majors-in-seven-weeks journey, have two majors this month - the Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek in Alabama and the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Fox Chapel in Pittsburgh. Japan's Koki Idoki will be trying to emulate England's Roger Chapman by adding a second surprise, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me major win to his how-did-that-happen first (Idoki came storming through the field with a final-round 6-under 65 to win the Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive CC in St. Louis).

The women of the LPGA Tour have two majors of their own - the Wegmans LPGA Championship at Locust Hill CC in Pittsford, N.Y., and the U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack on Long Island, N.Y. Korean Na Yeon Choi will seek to make it two U.S. Open titles in a row.

With the Masters in the rearview mirror, golf fans are ready for some major championship golf again. Five professional majors will be played in June with the focus squarely on Merion June 13-16, when we'll see how well Wilson's design stands up to today's power hitters, and if Woods can win his first Grand Slam event in five years. You have to say, his 15th major title does appear imminent.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.