Experience is par excellence

MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tiger Woods , the world's top-ranked player, shakes hands with No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy after a practice round yesterday.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tiger Woods , the world's top-ranked player, shakes hands with No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy after a practice round yesterday.
Posted: June 13, 2013

I LOVE WATCHING major golf or any tournament where Tiger Woods is in contention. It is absolutely fascinating how one shot, good or bad, can change so much so quickly.

I do not pretend to know anything about club selection, landing areas or, having played dozens of rounds in my life, par.

What I also don't understand are the rules of golf. Did anybody ask Danny Green and Gary Neal to sign the box score Tuesday night when the Spurs crushed the Heat? Why exactly are golfers required to sign their scorecards?

It is 2013. The PGA Tour can probably afford to hire somebody to keep score.

Just think, if they had that at the Masters, there might not have been all that hysteria about Tiger possibly signing an incorrect scorecard because he might have dropped the ball 2 feet from where he should have and some guy noticed it on TV and called in.

Did Tiger gain some great advantage? Commit a crime against humanity?

He must have because I kept reading and hearing that he should have disqualified himself.

One overwrought writer, who perhaps took himself and golf a bit too seriously, suggested he did not want golf to be like other sports. Apparently, golf, overrun by Mitt Romney-loving 1-percenters, is the only pure sport left in the world.

I was thinking of all that as the media bus turned into some very rich person's driveway at 8 a.m. yesterday morning and let me off a few feet from the 16th tee at glorious Merion Golf Club.

The tee box was surrounded by fans standing five deep. Did not think it was a threesome of Brandon Brown, Chris Doak and Branden Grace. In fact, it was Tiger, Rory McIlroy and Billy Horschel. Nice timing.

A few minutes later, I wandered over to the grandstand surrounding the 17th green to see the threesome tee off on the brutal par-3 where 3 will be a very good score. If you are going to be at Merion this week, try to get a spot at the left edge of those stands overlooking the 18th tee, with a perfect view of the 17th green and the trajectory of the drives as they head toward the green.

The golfers have to walk down a long set of steps from the 17th tee, head up a walkway and then head down another set of steps just to get to the front of the green. And when they get on the 18th tee, they could be in mid-backswing when a train flies by just beyond the tree line.

Golf tournaments are not just hitting a ball. Try swinging different clubs 70 times a day as you walk 7,000 yards up and down hills over 4 consecutive days while always trying to think a shot or two ahead.

Tiger was in white, Rory Irish green. It was just practice, but the fans in the grandstand were seeing the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players in what will surely be their most relaxed state until they leave town.

I wanted to walk down to watch them hit their tee shots on 18 when a friendly marshal explained she had just been told nobody could head down the path to the tee box. Not even me, with an "inside the ropes" pass?

"Nobody."

Tiger's group had gone off at 7 a.m. from No. 11. They were off the course after 18.

I was on the course, checking out some holes I missed during my Monday rain-soaked tour. It could not have been a nicer day.

I have heard it might not be so nice today. And that is a shame. Merion is a beautiful venue. It is clear years of work went into preparing for this tournament. Unless you have actually walked a tournament course, you can't imagine the logistics that go into staging an event of this magnitude.

Following a tournament obviously is much easier if you are watching on television. But there is just something about being a few feet from some of the pros that bring to life Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour-rule, so eloquently explained in "Outliers: The Story of Success."

You practice something for 10,000 hours; you might not become Tiger Woods. But you will be proficient enough to be a success.

These golfers are living proof of the theory. They make the extremely difficult look quite easy. No matter where I walked and who I saw, I was dazzled by the sheer skill it takes to hit a golf ball and drop it out of the sky within a few feet of where a player was aiming.

The players were practicing while looking for an edge. I could relate - sort of. I spent many summer nights during college waiting to play miniature golf with my buddy Jim Bob. What he did not know was that while he was working at his uncle's gas station, I was practicing on the course at Loch Raven and Taylor, outside Baltimore. I would pick him up late at night and we would head for the course, which never closed.

He could never figure out how I knew every break on every hole, never got stopped by a moving windmill and would routinely separate him from the money he had just made. One night, I made the mistake of shooting 28 for 18 holes. That was our final match.

The course is long gone, but, as I watched Sergio Garcia stick a brilliant shot 10 feet below the hole on the par-3 ninth, I was thinking I would have crushed him on my home course.

Speaking of the ninth, there is no better viewing spot than on the hill to the right of the green. You can see the tee shots coming in while looking over a panorama that spreads out to Ardmore Avenue, shots into the green on the 628-yard fourth, the fairway on the 504-yard fifth and the fairway on the 556-yard second. Bring binoculars.

Love the houses along the fairways on the seventh, eighth and ninth, with raised tables and bars where the occupants can watch on TV and see players pass by in the flesh. The players might not like it so much if they slice into somebody's backyard and out of bounds.

My friend Keith Jones, the longtime track announcer at Parx Racing, grew up in a house on the seventh fairway, a slice away.

"I did not buy a golf ball for 40 years," he said. "And they were always the best kind of golf balls."

Jones used to hop the fence at dinnertime and play a loop of holes that included seven through 10 and then two through six, far enough from the clubhouse to escape notice. He eventually went semi-straight, becoming a Merion caddie.

While the pros practiced, that plane trailing the "Six Died & No Change, Resign Nutter'' sign kept circling that same loop Keith used to play. Being at Merion was an escape, but, even on the Main Line, there was no escaping last week's Market Street horror.

It was a reality check above an historic piece of land where, for 4 days (or more), the world's best golfers will compete for the U.S. Open championship. The result will matter. The feeling will matter more.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

DN Members only: Check out this interactive look at the course at the Merion Golf Club, including fly-over videos.

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