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Monday, December 31, 2012

Merion's Open year is here

  It’s New Year’s Day 2103 and that means it’s just 163 days until the biggest event in golf returns to the Ardmore section of Haverford Township and Delaware County for the first time in 32 years when the U.S. Open tees off at Merion Golf Club’s historic East Course.
   It was spring of 2006 when word started to leak out that the bid by the Merion membership to stage a fifth U.S. Open at a layout seemingly doomed by its shortish length to never host an Open again had suddenly emerged as the frontrunner for the 2013 Open.
   At the time, 2013 seemed far away, but now here we are.
   A lot of the credit for this belongs to the people at Haverford College who were willing to give up a big part of their campus so America’s corporate bigwigs would have a place to hobnob with their fellow wizards. They might not have as much spending money now that it appears their taxes are going up, but I’m sure they’ll be OK.
   It’s been quite a last eight years for golf in Delco. The 2005 U.S. Amateur was staged at Merion and it was widely viewed as a test drive for the beefed-up course. The Grand Dame of the Main Line held up just fine against the top amateur players in the world and less than a year later the United States Golf Association decided to bring its most prestigious championship back to the East Course.
  Then came the Walker Cup at Merion in  2009. It was a wonderful opportunity to see some of the bright young stars of the game. It was also the best chance the average golf fan would have to really get up close and personal with the golf course where Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam in 1930, where Ben Hogan capped his comeback from a horrific car accident to win the 1950 U.S. Open in a playoff, where Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff in the 1971 U.S. Open, where Australian
David Graham pitched the golf equivalent of a perfect game in the final round to win the 1981 U.S. Open.
   If you’re lucky enough to score some tickets to the Open this year, you won’t get to walk the fairways the way you could at the Walker Cup. Of course, Tiger Woods wasn’t playing the Walker Cup in 2009 either.
   Then in 2010 and 2011, the PGA Tour came to town when Aronimink Golf Club hosted the AT&T National while the event’s usual site, Congressional Country Club in suburban Washington D.C., played host to the 2011 U.S. Open,  now widely known as Rory McIlroy’s professional coming-out party.
   It was really a nice treat to see the game’s best players teeing it up at a classic American golf course like Aronimink. And I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Justin Rose, who won the 2010 AT&T at Aronimink, on the leaderboard at Merion in six months.
   Things are rough right now. The Andy Reid era with the Eagles ended with a 4-12 thud, there are big question marks with the Phillies, the Sixers desperately need Andrew Bynum to get healthy and the Flyers are locked out and on ice.
   But with a U.S. Open coming to town, there is something to look forward to.
   I got my first taste of a U.S. Open as a forecaddie on No. 6 at Merion in 1971. I was in Pittsburgh for a wedding in 1973 and was at Oakmont the day Johnny Miller shot a final-round 63 to win. I covered the 1980 Open at Baltusrol for The Mercury in Pottstown. I had a bag at Merion in the 1981 Open (and I hope it was as memorable a week for Jay Cudd as it was for me, even if he didn’t make the cut). And I crashed with my cousins in Pittsburgh and got to see a lot of the 1983 and 1994 Opens at Oakmont, won by two great champions, Larry Nelson and Ernie Els, respectively.
   Golf history will be made at Merion’s East Course in six months. It is, after all, the U.S. Open. And it is, after all, Merion.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jaster shines at Polo Invitational

   Managed to sneak a story in Wednesday’s Daily Times print edition concerning two-time Haverford School  All-Delco Scott Jaster’s decision to commit to continue his academic and golf pursuits at Dartmouth College.
   What there wasn’t room for on the printed page was a mention of an outstanding effort by Jaster over the Thanksgiving Day weekend in the American Junior Golf Association’s Polo Golf Invitational played at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., site of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic.
   Jaster qualified for the Polo after being named an HP Scholastic Junior All-American as was reported on your favorite golf blog earlier this fall. Academics played a big part in that honor, but Jaster showed once again at PGA National that he can play a little, too. Jaster will be fully exempt to play the AJGA circuit in 2013 and he added to that resume at the Polo.
   “It was 36 holes of medal play and I finished in a tie for 12th and the top 32 got into match play,” Jaster said. “I won two matches and the lost on the 18th hole to the eventual champion (Adam Wood). I’ll pick up a lot of (AJGA) points for that.”
   Jaster was the lowest-seeded player to advance to the quarterfinals and he gave Wood all he wanted in the match. Jaster had the Zionsville, Ind. resident 1-down with three to play before Wood won the next two holes and got a half with a par on the 18th for a 1-up victory.
   Along the way, Jaster certainly earned Wood’s respect.
   “He (Jaster) was similar to my first match against Jacob Solomon,” Wood told the AJGA website. “Like Jacob, he hit nothing but straight shots. He played really quality golf and never opened any doors, so I was feeling the pressure a little bit. That kind of pressure was really similar (to the first round), so I guess that gave me a little more confidence that I could pull it out late like I did in the quarterfinals.”
  Wood, who reached the semifinals a year ago, went on to take the title as he made six birdies in a 3-and-1 victory over Scott Scheffler of Dallas. Scheffler was the qualifying medalist and beat four Rolex Junior All-Americans on his way to the final.
   I haven’t been able to track down the exact score, but Jaster said Haverford School beat Episcopal Academy “by  about 12 shots” as the teams squared off on the front nine at Merion Golf Club’s East Course, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, as part of Haverford-EA Day last month.
  “I hit it OB on seven – way OB – and I think ended up with a 39,” Jaster said. “We’ve played there twice now for Haverford-EA Day and a couple of other times, but I think it’s my favorite course.”
   Join the club. And for those of you who are counting the days until the 2013 U.S. Open tees off right here in Delaware County, on this December Monday morning, the countdown is at 186 days.
   One other thing that there wasn’t quite room for in the story on Jaster that appeared in Wednesday’s Daily Times is how Dartmouth has really mined Delaware County for some top talent this fall.
   Joining Jaster in the recruiting class for the Big Green men’s team is Episcopal Academy senior Sean Fahey. Coming off a monstrous summer during which he advanced out of the first round of U.S. Open qualifying, qualified for the Philadelphia Open at the famed Pine Valley Golf Club, and teamed up with his Episcopal Academy teammate Alex Dupre to win the Hussey Memorial at Rolling Green Golf Club, Fahey’s scholastic season was interrupted by a spill he took on a bicycle. But Dartmouth is getting two of the best players in the state’s most talented golf league.
   Another big name headed for the Dartmouth women’s program is Radnor senior Jamie Susanin, the PIAA East Regional champion who led the Red Raiders to the PIAA Class AAA team title. Fahey and Susanin are both members at Overbrook Golf Club.
It’s been quite a year
   Seems like just yesterday I almost fell off the couch when Louie Oosthuizen holed out his second shot on the par-5 second hole at Augusta for a double eagle in the final round of The Masters.
  And it took an equally great shot by Bubba Watson out of the woods in the playoff to beat the sweet-swinging South African in the first major of 2012.
  Did somebody say Woods? It’s been just more than three years since the wheels fell off of Tiger’s marriage and he hasn’t added to his total of major professional championships since winning the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg at Torrey Pines for number 14.
   Woods had some fast starts in majors this year, but the third-round fades are starting to look as inevitable as the victories used to be.
   Having said that, he is a threat to win anytime he tees it up. Four years ago, as Woods rehabbed his surgically repaired leg, you might have thought he’d be approaching, if to ready to surpass, Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors by the time he arrived in Delaware County for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club’s historic East Course.
   It is pretty amazing how much golf history has been writ at Merion East. Maybe it was just meant to be that Woods will finally end his majorless streak there and join the roster of champions that includes Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus and Lee Trevino in the process.
   Meanwhile back in 2012, Webb Simpson showed true grit and talent in winning the Open at Olympic. And probably hastened the process of the slow ban that is now under way on his weapon of choice on the greens, the suddenly sort-of outlawed belly putter.
   And Ernie Els added a little to a resume that had already earned him a spot in golf’s Hall of Fame by winning the British. In this case, the belly putter couldn’t prevent the meltdown over the final holes that cost Adam Scott a first major that seemed to be his.
  But the real fun in 2012 started when Rory McIlroy took over the game with another major romp, this time in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
   By time the smoke cleared at year’s end,  McIlroy had won the money titles on both the PGA and European tours, matching Luke Donald’s feat of a year ago, and was the unquestioned No. 1 player in the world.
   He got a little help along the way from his new girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, the attractive and talented tennis star who spent quite a bit of time as the No. 1-ranked player in the world with nary a Grand Slam title to show for it. She got there by outworking everybody while Serena Williams was hurt and her work ethic has worn off on a noticeably fitter and stronger McIlroy.
  Which brings us to the Ryder Cup.
   The meltdown at Medinah was three days of incredible golf, even if U.S. fans felt like they got punched in the gut at the end. McIlroy certainly added to the intrigue of the final day by nearly missing his tee time for his singles match. Central time, Eastern time. Whatever? It’s the middle of the next day in Malaysia.
  For two days, it was an American lovefest – and the fans in Chicago were as much a part of the show as the players – as the U.S. built a seemingly insurmountable lead.
   Nobody had more to do with the European comeback than that quirky Brit Ian Poulter. He talked a little Ryder Cup last week with Doug Ferguson, who covers golf for The Associated Press.
   For all the angst about how U.S. captain Davis Love III set up the singles pairings and the spirit of Seve Ballesteros and whatever else you want to attribute the U.S. defeat to, Poulter, who had recently seen the Ryder Cup highlights for the first time, said you could narrow it down to two shots – Steve Stricker’s poor chip shot on the 17th hole that enabled Martin Kaymer to get the clinching point on the 18th hole and Justin Rose’s 35-foot bomb of a birdie putt, also on the 17th hole, that squared his match with Phil  Mickelson.
   If Poulter faults DL3 for anything, it was the pin placement on 17. Poulter thinks a pin on the left side would have aided the American players, most of whom favor a right-to-left shot.
  For those of us who enjoy the women’s game just as much as the men, it was  nice to see an American woman – and a gritty, talented American woman at that – finish the year as the LPGA’s best player in 2012 as Stacy Lewis had a rock-solid campaign.
   Yani Tseng, who appeared on her way to dominating the women’s game the way Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa once did, stalled in 2012 and Lewis, among others, was there to fill the void.
  Na Yeon Choi, one of my personal favorites among the many great South Korean players, won the Women’s U.S. Open in dominant fashion. I expect there are more major championships in the future for a player who just goes about the business of trying to beat the golf course every time she tees it up.
   Scott wasn’t the only player to let a major get away in 2012. The major season began with another of the talented South Korean women, I.K. Kim, needing just a tap-in to win the Kraft-Nabisco Championship.
   Her horrified expression when the one-footer caught the edge of the cup and spun out is one  the average golfer knows all too well. Kim would lose the title in a playoff to countrywoman Sun Young Yoo and put a scare into television commentators everywhere who routinely “concede” short putts to the best players in the world.
   Here’s hoping I.K. can get that major that so rudely eluded her sometime soon,  maybe in 2013.