A few secret spots to watch the U.S. Open field at Merion

Posted: June 14, 2013

IT WAS 8:30 a.m. when I walked past the fairway on the Quarry Hole and who I think was Keegan Bradley was trying to hit it out of the quarry toward the 16th green. I was headed to the grandstand behind the 17th green to see Bradley's group, which included Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, hit their next tee shots. I heard somebody drive on the 18th when the air horns went off.

That wasn't much golf. Thunder, lightning and rain quickly followed, but 3 1/2 hours later, there was more golf, much more golf in the first round of the U.S. Open yesterday at wondrous Merion Golf Club.

As I ventured back on the course, I considered colleague Bob Cooney's sage observation that anybody smoking a cigar is more likely to know (or think he knows) about wind effect, pin placement, green sloping, really all things Merion. Over 3 days walking the course, I found that to be the one eternal truth.

Watched a few tee shots at No. 13, playing a mere 102 yards. Reminded me of my local pitch-and-putt course. Met volunteer marshal Hank Church, a member at nearby Llanerch Country Club whose walk to work this week takes exactly 22 minutes. Hank (Bonner/West Chester) told me that nine of the first 15 players at 13 got birdies and a few nearly holed their tee shots.

The one part of the course I had not visited turned out to be my favorite. Don't tell anybody, but, if you want to get a unique experience, head to the back of the secluded corner that includes the 11th green and 12th tee.

Do not, however, try to get there by going down the right side of the 11th fairway. Like several other spots on the course, the ropes come to a dead end. Consider potential dead ends if you decide to follow a group.

The walk down the far side of the 12th fairway is an absolute delight, a shaded walkway by Cobbs Creek where you hardly know there is a golf tournament being played.

For the 50th time this week, I had a good-natured fan ask the question without answer: "What happened to Orb?"

As I was walking down the pathway, old friend John Gallagher, the Hartford basketball coach, was walking the other way on his way to 17. A Delaware County native who went to O'Hara and Saint Joseph's, Gal knows all things Delco.

He explained that one of his friends has a place just off Ardmore Avenue and a few more friends might be appearing there in a few hours. I made a note of it, but duty called.

When you emerge from the strolling reverie, you are right next to the 12th tee. Watch a group tee off there, then grab a seat in the grandstand behind the 11th green and marvel at how close the iron shots come to the hole.

The grandstand was mostly empty when I was there around 1 p.m. If you want to sit in one spot and watch every group come through, that is absolutely your spot. But don't tell anybody.

When I was there, the first group to tee off in the tournament (6:45 a.m.) was coming through - Cliff Kresge, Roger Tambellini and Ryan Yip. They looked a bit forlorn. They finished a combined 21-over-par.

Yip's tee shot on the par-4 12th went quickly right and had that hideous cracking sound that meant ball met wood. He took a provisional and knocked it right down the hole that doglegs right.

Sadly for him, his first shot had ricocheted back into play, but in deep rough. He barely got it out, but it rolled just far enough to die in the creek. He hung in there to get a 6 on the way to a 76.

Yip was an alternate who did not find out he had an Open spot until Monday. He was jamming clubs into his bag in a way that suggested he may have wished the call had not come.

But he was still in the Open and gets to play at least another day.

Watched Ian Poulter, Jason Duffner and Boo Weekley putt out on the 18th after I made my way back across Ardmore Avenue. As I was waiting for the same group to tee off on the first (used my inside-the-ropes access to get a dream spot between the first tee and 18th green), I bumped into Merion head pro Scott Nye, a terrific guy I had met Wednesday on the set of Comcast SportsNet's "Philly Sports Talk."

We talked about how so few players were under par early on, that Merion was more than holding its own against the world's best.

After the morning rain, the course obviously softened and Scott said "it's not going to get any easier" over the weekend when the rains stop for good and everything gets harder and faster.

I made a second stop at that gigantic 17th-green grandstand, crashing into Gal again. Watched somebody hit a drive off 18 that went so far right, it clanged off a building next to the 17th tee. With that reminder of my game fresh in my head, I went inside the media tent to watch some golf.

Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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