LITTLE ROCK — Five inches of rain near Philadelphia has golf-smart folks at the U.S. Open talking about numbers like 63 and 268 instead of No. 1.
Before the skies opened last Friday, Tiger Woods’ uncharacteristically erratic play at Jack Nicklaus’ tournament was the subject of immediate interpretation and endless speculation about carryover to this week. Now, the rage is whether record low scores for 18 holes and 72 holes will be recorded at Merion Golf Club where there are five par fours less than 370 yards and the firm and fast first line of defense is gone.
Because of the gullywasher, the greens will be receptive, and tee shots are less likely to skitter into the penal rough that includes a mix of grasses and even some weeds.
“I don’t care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it’s not going to dry up,” said two-time champion Ernie Els. “We’re going to have a soft golf course … It means that if you’re on your game, you’re going to have a lot of birdie putts.”
Els’ big “if” is as an intro to Woods’ play at the Nicklaus-designed course in Dublin, Ohio, where he posted two triple bogeys in a tournament for the first time since 1997. His seven on the 18th included an amateur mistake on an uphill chip shot and his six on a par three occurred because he three-putted from 14 feet after intentionally leaving a bunker shot in the sand to avoid H2O.
On the third day of the Memorial, Woods’ 44 on his first nine, Matt Kuchar’s superb play, winds gusting to 30 mph, and super-slick greens shared the headlines. The 1-under-par 35 on Woods’ second nine got short-shrift.
On the fourth day of the tournament, Woods made more news with a triple on his third hole. Almost unnoticed, he finished the round even par and I wondered how many other pros would have hung in to that degree.
Far behind the leaders, scores on his second nine each day speak to his grit, a necessary ingredient at a U.S. Open.
Woods’ chances of winning his first major in five years hinges on how many times he hits driver and putting, of course. Although Merion is the first course under 7,000 yards to host an Open since 2004, it includes two par fours of more than 500 yards and three par threes I can’t reach with driver. Any player who is even par on the threes will be in contention.
Merion is “the longest short course I’ve ever played,” said Steve Stricker.
There are at least seven holes where Woods does not need driver and he can reach the green on the 10th with a 3-wood. To prepare for Merion, Phil Mickelson took driver out of his bag last week at Memphis and Masters champion Adam Scott added a 2-iron. Rory McIlroy plans to hit driver on only seven holes.
Woods is proficient at finding the fairway with his 3-wood and the low screamers he rips with long irons. He only pulled driver a couple of times per round at Murifield Village and the results were spotty.
Nobody will have a better game plan than Woods and nobody will grind harder. Still, there is his putting. A statistical putting leader on the PGA Tour this year, he never had the speed correct at the Memorial where 70 players putted better than he did on the linoleum-slick greens. If there is no more rain, the speed of the greens at Merion is supposed to be comparable and a 4-footer that lips out can be an 8-foot comebacker.
McIlroy’s 72-hole record is safe. Four days of gnarly rough and fast greens will take its toll.
Risking ridicule, look for the champion to be a first-time major winner.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.