A good walk, unspoiled, except for rain

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tiger Woods fiddles around after putting on the 15th green during his practice round at Merion.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tiger Woods fiddles around after putting on the 15th green during his practice round at Merion.
Posted: June 12, 2013

The Daily News covers the Open: Check out PhillyDailyNews.com's U.S. Open page for our guide to the tournament at Merion.

IT WAS A BIT overcast at 7:15 a.m., but no rain as I headed off for my first visit to Merion Golf Club. The closest I had been was to Haverford College to watch some hoops, but I never even knew the course was just in back of the school.

Figured what would usually be a 45-minute drive to Ardmore might take an hour in rush-hour traffic. Then, it started to rain before it began to pour. And I saw nothing but brake lights ahead, and that was 2 miles before the Bensalem entrance to the turnpike.

I turned on KYW. First two words were "flood watch." Then, I heard the U.S. Open morning practice rounds were postponed because of lightning. Quickly encountered standing water on the turnpike. This did not bode well for some of Merion's low-lying areas or my imminent arrival at the course.

And there was the idea that Philadelphia (OK, Haverford Township is in Delco, but they are still Philly) was already losing another game, and none of its sorry professional teams was even playing.

Why did I feel as if I was driving to the Kentucky Derby when it stopped raining just long enough to run the race?

Stuck in turnpike traffic that was barely moving, I felt as if I were playing in one of those charity golf tournaments with a few guys who take 27 practice swings before every shot and line up their putts for 15 minutes. Yo, you are not in an Open qualifier. Just hit the ball. And just get your cars off the turnpike.

This was not going as planned, and I was barely 20 minutes into a trip that would take just a touch longer than anticipated.

The good news was that the rain had abated by the time I got to Ardmore. I found the media parking lot and the shuttle. I arrived at the gigantic media tent next to the 16th tee, ending a 2-hour, 41-mile marathon to Merion.

The players, I was told, would not be allowed to practice until 10 a.m. at the earliest. I began to wander the course.

I noticed more tents that you would ever see at a national park campground - merchandise tents, concession tents, corporate tents. And they weren't really tents, but small buildings disguised as tents.

Fans were all over the place with no place to go. Saw a few friends who said they were hoping I was not the most famous person they encountered all day.

Huge crowds gathered in front of the first tee, hoping to catch a glimpse of a golf ball, a golf club, maybe even a golfer. One forlorn fan was seated at the top of the grandstand behind the 18th green, perhaps imagining what it might be like there early Sunday evening with the tournament on the line.

Word began to leak out that the course would open for practice at 11 a.m. I was wandering from hole to hole and just kind of stumbled upon 13, the 115-yard par-3, the kind of hole I could reach in two.

And who should be standing on the tee at 10:50 a.m. in a onesome, nobody but Tiger Woods himself, staring at a green, fronted by a bunker that looked like the Sahara Desert.

He swung, the ball seemed to hit a low-lying cloud and landed a few feet left of the flag. Easy game. Just a few hundred people were between the tee and the hole, but I knew that was not going to last when word got out that Tiger was on the course.

Tiger took a few dozen putts at imaginary holes marked by tees, trying to guess where the pins might be each day. One thing you can never tell from TV is the slope of the greens. These Merion greens have some serious slope, with flat greens a rumor.

Followed Tiger to the 14th tee and it was apparent word had gotten out. They were lined up five deep outside the ropes.

I walked inside the ropes as I headed up the 14th fairway when a voice said, "Excuse me, sir, you can't be inside the ropes."

It was Delaware basketball coach Monte Ross. He had been cruising the course, saw all the commotion and joined in. We followed Tiger, marveling at what Ross kept calling all the "preparation."

Monte told me his star center from last season, Jamelle Hagins, has been getting serious NBA looks in preparation for the draft this month. He might even get drafted.

We watched Tiger drive on the 16th, the "Quarry Hole," and then sat in the grandstand to watch him fire shots at the par-3 17th.

My notes said the 18th is a par-4 and 521 yards. That can't be right. It is right. Tiger drove it so far, I could not see it. Monte assured me it was in the middle of the fairway.

Monte was going to try to catch Tiger on the first tee. I went back inside the ropes to watch him putt a few on the 18th.

I positioned myself right outside the clubhouse to run into Sergio and Tiger and invite them to a late lunch at Joe's Steaks and Soda Shop (nee Chink's Steaks) on Torresdale at Benner in the Northeast. I was thinking chicken cheesesteaks might be a nice compromise meal on the way to a truce.

Alas, Tiger went by me without stopping and, sadly for Monte and so many more who were waiting, continued right past the first tee box and back to 14 tee.

I had to get away from all the people, and it was time to scout out the rest of the course for the next time Merion gets the Open. Nearly 10,000 tried to qualify this time. Could be me next time.

Or not.

I crossed Ardmore Avenue and saw Geoff Ogilvy and two guys I never heard of teeing off on No. 2. Saw Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Jose Maria Olazabal driving it toward the fifth hole. Wanted to head to No. 7 tee, the far corner of the course and then work my way back through 8, 9, 10 and 11.

Just as I got to No. 7, the farthest spot from the media tent around 1 p.m., it began to drizzle and then it began to rain - hard. Why exactly did I leave my umbrella on the desk?

My jacket and hat quickly soaked through. I detoured back down Ardmore Avenue. Those other holes would have to wait.

I walked past the stately homes on Golf House Road, hard by the 14th fairway, their lawns populated by porta potties and concessions. One of the houses, looking as if it had been dropped from a Scottish moor, had a massive rent-a-fence surrounding it, suggesting the occupants were not necessarily pleased with the goings on at the club.

Strolled by a foursome in the 15th fairway. I knew none of them. I was their gallery, but not for long. Only my feet were dry.

I made one good call. Had a backup T-shirt, shorts and socks. After changing, I considered going back out on the course again with the umbrella as the rain had stopped. It was, however, a small umbrella. I realized I had no third set of clothes.

Then, it started to rain, so hard you could hear it pounding the media tent. It may have stopped by now. I wouldn't know. I never went outside again.

Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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