Merion's Oh, Man Corner

DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Padraig Harrington hits out of the wet rough on the par-4 14th fairway.
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Padraig Harrington hits out of the wet rough on the par-4 14th fairway.
Posted: June 14, 2013

THE BOMBERS came through Oh, ManCorner and walked away shrugging.

Then came Sergio. He might have left weeping.

Oh, ManCorner is where the U.S. Open is to be won or lost.

A fearsome five holes, Nos. 14 through 18 at Merion, are what Amen Corner is to Augusta National. The difference, of course, is that Amen Corner comes in the middle of a Masters round. At Merion, Oh, ManCorner will finish matters in Rounds 3 and 4, a punishing test for the technology that supposedly made this dowager obsolete.

Three tricky par fours precede an insane par 3 and an absurd, par 4 finishing hole that most amateurs couldn't reach with their two best shots. It was supposed to make meek Merion a monster.

On its maiden voyage in the Titanium era, Merion's homestretch was everything the USGA hoped it would be. The course and the committee can only hope the fear lasts through the weekend.

The third hole, a long par 3 that plays uphill, combined with an impossible pin location on No. 5 yesterday to be among the toughest holes in a generation, and bedeviled the players as much as any of the final five.

However, those holes' combined scoring average, slightly more than a half-stroke over par, was virtually identical to No. 18 and No. 16 combined, or No. 18 and No. 17, a 243-yard par 3.

Yesterday, for half the field, Oh, Man tested them relatively early. Half of the field started on No. 11, so they were nice and warm, but not worn out, when they reached No. 14.

The first group of the first day shares a body type (lean), a gait (rolling strut) and the capacity to punish golf balls.

Dustin Johnson and Nicholas (The Muscles from Brussels) Colsaerts rank second and third on the PGA Tour in driving distance, and Bubba Watson led the Tour last season. Yesterday, they each had birdie putts on the downwind 14th and 15th holes, which measured 446 and 413 yards. Colsaerts converted his birdie on 14, where he and Johnson hit 3-woods. Watson abandoned driver for long irons on 14, 15 and 16, the last of which measured 440. They escaped the other three holes with only one bogey among them, even after they had to abandon their tee shots during a 3-hour and 32-minute, early-morning rain delay.

Easy, huh?

"No. We all hit just some really good shots," Johnson explained.

Sergio Garcia did not. The odd heckler did not bother him; his fear of high heather did.

On No. 14, his foot slipped (of course) and he yanked his 3-wood out of bounds, re-teed and made double-bogey 6. On No. 15, his adidas this time supplied fine traction, but he yanked his 3-wood . . . out of bounds. He then brutalized his way to a quadruple-bogey 8. Another bogey, on 18, and Garcia - admittedly unfocused at that point - was 7-over through his first eight holes.

A respectable driver, Garcia, who began on No. 11, exited the grueling stretch hoping to remain relevant in the championship. It is a testament to his talent that he rebounded to finish 3-over.

"For me, it was very tough," he said.

Clubhouse leader Phil Mickelson plodded through Oh, Man at par and finished 3-under. Colsaerts, 1-under and second among finishers (rain stopped play again in the evening), played it 1-under par, as did Charl Schwartzel, tied for third among finishers at even par.

Those guys can kill it. The five-hole run must have crushed a little guy like 5-7, 165-pound Tim Clark, right?

Nope; he played them even par. In fact, he had birdies lip out on 15 and 16.

"It's important to note that 14, 15 and 17 played downwind," said Clark, even, just like Schwartzel.

The holes played downwind for everybody else, too.

Unfortunately, No. 18 did not. That made the uphill, 500-yard hole play like a beefy par 5 from the white tees at the best course you ever played. Jerry Kelly, 46, might have stolen a few headlines from Mickelson if not for the devilish 18th. He was 2-under, had birdied 15, made par on the other three final holes and lay fine in the fairway . . . and he's 46.

All lies on the landing area on 18 are above the feet of a righthander. Kelly's bugaboo on such a shot is failing to shorten his swing enough to keep from pulling it left.

On a course he has seen just once - Tuesday - on the 18th and final hole of a 10-hour day, Kelly, terrified of the trouble left of 18, hit it thin and right and took a double-bogey.

"It's a little bit of a learning curve when we have got this kind of preparation beforehand," Kelly said. "And I just didn't do it in my mind well enough before this week, because I didn't have the knowledge."

Therein lies another issue; most of the players here had played zero competitive rounds at Merion. Poor weather limited practice opportunities Monday. Many of the field, like Kelly, played last week at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis and were unable to camp out in Ardmore to experience the course.

At 46, having played Tuesday, Kelly refused to grind himself down further on Wednesday.

"I don't play 18 holes the day before a major," Kelly said. "I'm too old for that."

For Garcia and for Kelly, fate and commitment and fear played parts in their first-day failures. Part of the problem with Merion is that, for 32 years, she has hidden from the big boys.

She is supposed to remain soft and receptive, at least until Sunday. A little more familiarity, a little more commitment to the right lines, and the golfers might have the advantage. They might come to Oh, Man Corner and be thinking:

Oh, boy!


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

hayesm@phillynews.com

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