LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Former UGA golfers fighting way through ‘Little Merion’

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

If “Little Merion” can fight back when it is soggy and soft, as it did on Thursday, what can we expect if sunshine and winds, which prevailed on Friday, dry out this gem of an aged golf course nestled neatly in the Philadelphia suburbs?

With the cut being made early today and a backed-up field taking advantage of every ray of daylight, things won’t be normal until Sunday when this year’s national champion will be determined.

Georgia golfers Russell Henley — who won the Sony Open in Hawaii back in January, becoming the first tour rookie in 12 years to win in his debut tournament — and Bubba Watson fought, as did the rest of the field, their way around Merion Friday as the U.S. Open went through the longest day in recent memory.

Late afternoon tee times are normal for the U.S. Open, but the USGA squeezed every possible minute of daylight out of Friday’s round.

Monitoring the action back home was Chris Haack, the Georgia coach who got a lift in emotions last week when his former player, Harris English, won the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis.

That gave him two tournament winners this year with Henley winning in Hawaii.

“We had a nice group joining us for camp last week, and we gathered around the TV and watched Harris win,” Haack said. “We took a photo and emailed congratulations to him. He let us know how much he appreciated our support.”

Haack got a call from Henley on Saturday night before the final round at Memphis, predicting that his Bulldog teammate would win at Memphis.

He told Haack that the golf course was set up just right for Harris, and that Harris’ game was hot and his attitude serene.

“He is playing so well,” Henley said.

However, Harris had been unable to qualify for the Open and is back home at St. Simons taking the week off, which is a big disappointment.

Harris’ objective is to maintain his position in the FedEx Cup standings, which would enable him to return to the British Open in July.

He currently stands at No. 13 but knows he will lose ground after the U.S. Open this week. However, he hopes to maintain a position in the top 20, which automatically qualifies him for the British championship at Muirfield.

“After having such a good experience playing in the British last year — I just had the most enjoyable time I possibly could have — I not only want to go back, I want to be able to compete and contend,” Harris said. “Everybody knows the importance of majors. When you qualify for the majors and then play well, that means you are proving you can play and compete with the best.”

Haack saw English’s demeanor at Memphis as being what he remembered during his time at Georgia.

“He looked like the same old Harris — calm, under control and being able to make shots under pressure,” Haack said.

English had attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open at the Colonial Country Club on Monday before the FedEx St. Jude Classic, but he had a triple bogey and a couple of double bogeys that kept him out of the championship at Merion. He took a que sera attitude, not letting a bad day ruin his week. He regrouped, rebounded and won his first tour event.

Today’s players, including newcomers like English and Henley, are blessed with so much skill and talent that you expect them to put up red numbers wherever they compete on the tour.

There is length to their game, there is remarkable skill in their short games, and they know how to score.

They are realizing, at least at this point, that Merion is no pushover and is yielding very few red numbers.