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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Finesse — not power — is key at this year’s U.S. Open

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

The pre-tournament forecast was that Merion would be intimidated by the abundance of wedge shot opportunities. If you allow the best players in the world to reach for their wedges on par-four holes, the likelihood of low scores can be expected-repeatedly.

Well, a funny thing has happened this week.

Webb Simpson, the defending champion, noted before the championship got under way that with drives in the fairway there were wedge options (for second shots) on nine of the first 13 holes.

Phil Mickelson began the tournament with five wedges — and no driver — in his bag.

Merion yielded birdies grudgingly the first two rounds, and Saturday was no different. The tournament is not over, but Merion has proven that the big hitters cannot feast on its limited yardage as had been projected. Finesse, not power, is the game that Merion has dictated for three rounds.

Historically, it was the wedge that changed the game dramatically, dating back to 1931 when Gene Sarazen, the double-eagle man, is credited with inventing it. Interestingly, the wedge was a controversial club.

Joe Dey, the onetime commissioner of the PGA Tour, recalled that two of the early icons of the game, Francis Ouimet and Tommy Armour, called for the outlawing of the club. That said it was “foolproof.” It is also a reminder that the controversy over golf equipment is not a latent thing.

According to Dey, Bobby Jones used a concave-faced sand wedge when he won the Grand Slam in 1930. That club was later outlawed by the USGA. Then Sarazen soldered lead on the base of his niblick with a heavy flange, and he used it to win both the U.S. and British Opens in 1932. Sarazen’s wedge allowed him to pitch as well as explode from the sand.

The forerunner of the wedge was the niblick, which corresponded to the nine iron. Before the niblick, there was the track iron, which dated back to the old days in Scotland when links land was available for use by everybody — golfers, farmers, herdsmen and people taking a stroll. If a farmer passed through with a wagon and created a rut, and a golfer happened along next to find his ball in the rut, he had to find some way to advance the ball, which is how the Scots came up with a club known as the track iron. With the track iron, the golfer could dig his ball out of trouble and advance it in the direction of the green.

Finding a better club to make the game easier to play has been a goal of golfers since the game was invented by the Scots centuries ago. From the time when golf was played with woods entirely until modern times, there has been the challenge of making better equipment to make the game more enjoyable.

One of the most interesting developments in the lore of the game were the clubs that the Scots named “Sunday Sticks.” The club was disguised as a walking stick. The club head fitted in the person’s hand, which concealed the clubface. As he walked along the course and felt that he was not being observed, he could immediately play a few strokes as he walked in the direction of the sanctuary. The Church of Scotland discouraged the playing of golf on Sundays for years, but we all know how that turned out.

The church influence was strong enough, however, to keep the British Open from allowing competition on Sunday. It wasn’t until 1980 that the British championship concluded on Sunday. For years the championship concluded with 36 holes on Friday. Since competition was not allowed on Sunday, Saturday had to be reserved in case of a playoff. The British at least have a winner on Sunday now with its version of a sudden-death playoff. In the U.S., it is a full 18 holes on Monday.

One way or another, Merion will likely take its toll.