Whiffs, wicker and while we’re young at the 2013 U.S. Open

If you are a golf fan I’m guessing you have been glued to the tube the past few days. The U.S. Open is taking place at famed Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., and most of us will be taking in the final round later this afternoon.

Prior to the opening round the venerable course was pounded with heavy rainfall. This led some prognosticators to suggest that Merion would likely yield some low scores. Soft greens may help golfers hold approach shots, but when you have U.S. Open rough, low scores aren’t likely to happen.

Low scores or not, the championship has been highly entertaining. We can start with the wicker baskets that sit atop the flagsticks at Merion. Trying to figure out why they are there has been difficult. The weird looking things have been in use since 1915, though no one seems to really know how or why they came about.

One possible explanation, though unconfirmed, is that they were installed so the golfer could not look at the pin and determine the direction of the wind. The baskets do not wave like the traditional flag. This seems a little silly to me as the wet finger, tossing up grass or looking at the trees on the course can give you as good an indication as the flag as to what direction the breeze is blowing.

Whatever the reason, the baskets do provide some interesting situations. Lee Westwood hit a basket with his approach shot in the first round. The wicker spit his ball back from whence it came, settling some 30 yards from the green instead of perhaps 30 feet from the hole. When this occurred, the announcers suggested that some golf balls had been wedged into the baskets.

When this unlikely event takes place the golfer gets to drop the ball without penalty as close to where the ball lies as possible. Don’t get too excited though, as the ball may not be dropped into the hole.

Friday morning I was watching the action with my daughter. The Carolina League will be on its All-Star break next week and she was able to get a couple of days off to come home and see her folks and the dog. I’ll let you decide who she missed the most, but she did watch some golf with me and even had a golf story of sorts.

Apparently she and a few other members of the Lynchburg Hillcats staff played golf recently. She proudly pointed out that she had a hole in one. I was suitably impressed until all the details came out. A couple of items made the story as different as having a wicker basket on a flagstick. First of all she was playing putt-putt golf. Then she said it was indeed an ace if you didn’t count the whiffs.

I asked the obvious question. “How do you whiff when you are putting the ball?” She pointed out that they were playing in the evening and it was very dark! As we were chuckling about her whiff our attention turned to the Open action. A golfer was standing in knee high stuff that looked like a hay field. He took a healthy cut and no ball came flying out. He whiffed as on cue. I’m guessing that nearly all golfers have whiffed before, but doing so while playing putt-putt

For all the great golf action, it was the commercials that attracted a lot of attention for this golfer/writer. The USGA sponsored some ads using the phrase “while we’re young” to encourage faster play on the links. For many of us, the worst thing about the game is the five- to six-hour round, where you are waiting on every shot. There is nothing wrong with playing poorly, we all do it – some more often than others – but you should never play slowly.

The first ad I saw involved a golfer who was about to tee off as his playing partners waited, though not necessarily patiently. He wiggles and waggles. Then a beverage cart pulls up to the tee. He notices and heads over to get a drink before hitting his shot. He finally selects an Arnold Palmer (half ice tea, half lemonade) only to have Palmer himself appear and say “while we’re young.”

The insinuation was that the man should play quicker. It is very difficult to watch people not be ready to play when it is their turn. The idea of the game is not to take forever so you don’t have to go home right away. Be courteous and quick. Everyone will be happier for it.

Will this year’s contest rival the one in 1950? It was the U.S. Open that year where Ben Hogan hit his 1-iron into the 18th green at Merion. The shot has been memorialized with a plaque in the center of the fairway where it was struck. Interestingly enough, the wicker flagsticks were not in use that year. Again, no one knows why!

The final round will take place this afternoon. If you have a TV on the patio, perhaps you could pull up your favorite wicker furniture and break out an Arnold Palmer (they are surprisingly good) while watching some great golf action. It will likely be memorable.

Al Stephenson is The Advertiser-Tribune’s golf columnist.

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