Five questions for the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open at Merion is full of unanswered questions. The days leading up to Thursday's first round are an anxious time for players, caddies, the USGA, media and spectators.
We're excited about what might unfold over the course of the week. We expect to be surprised because this is the U.S. Open -- maybe the hardest major to win.
Here are five burning questions that I have headed into the tournament.
Is it Tiger's time?
Tiger Woods hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. He's stuck on 14 majors. These two facts are arguably the most salient and pressing.
No matter how many regular events he wins in 2013, his season will be incomplete without a victory at a major. As he tries to win his fourth U.S. Open this week at Merion, he has to feel this growing weight.
Sure, we all want to know if Tiger will win on this little golf course, one that requires more finesse than brawn. Tiger can win both ways.
But for me the main question is will he put himself in a position to win on Sunday afternoon?
We know that he will have flashes of brilliance. Then he has spurts where he struggles. It's always been a roller coaster ride with Tiger. We expect nothing less from the most electrifying performer in the history of golf.
Last year at the Olympic Club, he played himself out of the tournament by going 8-over on the weekend. Most notably, he struggled to draw the ball with his driver.
Now a year later, he owns Sean Foley's golf swing and he's putting much better after a tip earlier this season from Steve Stricker. And it's been months since we heard him complain of any health problems.
In 1950, Ben Hogan won the first U.S. Open at Merion after almost being killed 16 months earlier when the car he was driving collided with a Greyhound bus outside of El Paso, Texas.
Tiger didn't have a near-death experience like Hogan, but he's seen his share of trouble since winning the '08 Open at Torrey Pines.
Tiger has come all the way back from some very trying times to return to the top of the game. This week at Merion, he's got a chance to come all the way back to the mountaintop in a major.
Can Merion hold its own?
When David Graham won the 1981 U.S. Open on the Merion East course, the Hugh Wilson-designed layout measured a measly 6,544 yards. Graham, who had won the '79 PGA at Oakland Hills, hit every green in regulation in the final round on his way to a 7-under par total of 273, which at the time was the second-lowest 72-hole total in the tournament's history.
In the prior three Opens at Merion, par had not been broken on the course.
At the 2013 U.S. Open, the East course will be a shade under 7,000. It will be the first U.S. Open under 7,000 yards since 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.
How will with these current players, armed with their 460cc drivers and multi-component balls, handle this historic course that opened in 1912 in Ardmore, PA., outside Philadelphia?
Will they establish new scoring records or struggle to stay around par?
All the talk here is about the last five holes. The 14th is where the tournament starts. That's the conventional wisdom.
"I look at it as two different golf courses," said Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, who played here in the 2005 U.S. Amateur. "Potentially through 13 holes if you drive it well you can have nine wedge opportunities.
"And then the last five are going to be some of maybe the hardest that we have ever had in the U.S. Open. So you kind of have the best of both worlds. And that's why I think this U.S. Open is going to be so unique in the sense that I don't think a long player or short player has an advantage."
How will the players handle this stretch of holes?
In '81, Graham started the final round in second place, three strokes behind George Burns III. But the Australian would take the lead from Burns with birdies at 14 and 15. Then he made pars on his final three holes to win by three shots over Burns and Bill Rogers.
The championship will probably come down to these last five holes.
Will the Philly fans feast on Sergio's chicken comments?
How will the notoriously tough Philly fans treat Sergio Garcia? The 33-year-old Spaniard hasn't played in the United States since he made his "fried chicken" comment about Tiger Woods in May during the European Tour's awards ceremony in London.
Garcia has been contrite and everybody seems to have moved on from the minor controversy. But will people in the gallery reignite the nasty mess with comments directed at Sergio?
There is a good chance that it's going to happen. Sergio has to face Tiger's fans in the U.S.
At the BMW PGA Championship, he was far away from Tiger's most powerful base of supporters in the U.S. But at Merion, the eight-time tour winner will be put on trial for his misconduct.
Will he get a tough Colin Montgomerie-style welcome or will fans leave him alone and let him play golf?
It depends on the context. If Sergio and Tiger are both in contention on the weekend and they are in the same group, it could be spectacular theater with a loud, opinionated gallery.
If Sergio doesn't play well, he might be spared from the taunting. Then it depends on the weather and beer sales. If there are drunk golf fans, Sergio is certain to get a good tongue-lashing.
Most importantly, how will Sergio handle the galleries and the questions about the "fried chicken" gaffe? How he handles the questions early in the week could determine how he plays in the tournament.
What if an anchorer wins at Merion?
Come January 2016, anchoring will be banned in putting. The USGA and the R&A made it official last month.
The final ruling comes after the anchored method was used by four of the last six major champions, including Adam Scott, who won his first career major in April at the Masters.
The technique is still legal. So no one in Philly should call Scott, Simpson or Keegan Bradley a cheater.
Yet, what's the impact of another major win with an anchored putter?
You want anchoring to go away now. Majors put the method in the spotlight. The ban doesn't happen if Bradley doesn't win the 2011 PGA Championship with his mid-length belly putter.
Bradley's major gets no asterisk, just like the winner at Merion who could wield an anchored putter.
Who will be Merion's Cinderella man?
James J. Braddock, a heavyweight boxing champion in the 1930s, was the real Cinderella man, but every year the U.S. Open has somebody like Francis Ouimet or Jack Fleck.
They don't always win like those fellas did. Sometimes they shoot 84 in the final round like Jason Gore did in 2005 at Pinehurst. But these underdogs are an indelible part of any U.S. Open.
Could it be 54-year-old Jay Don Blake, who plays his golf on the Champions Tour?
I would not be surprised to see 19-year-old Jordan Spieth turn up on the Merion leaderboard. At the Olympic Club, he tied for 21st in his first U.S. Open.
It's somebody's Cinderella story for the taking.