SportsProf

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Father's Day at Merion

When I was in college and for a few years thereafter, my father and I used to get up early, sometimes at sun-up, to get one of the first tee times at a public course about 20 minutes from our house.  The course was tight, with what I'll call Pennsylvania lies (the type that most golfers ran into at the U.S Open this week).  Even after a good tee shot, you could find the ball on a sidehill lie, beneath your feet, what have you.  We played in rain, we outsprinted thunderstorms, we played in tremendous heat and humidity, with good players and not-so-good ones, humble ones and chest pounders.  Most importantly, we played, together, and were, perhaps, each other's favorite partners.  By the time he took up the game in earnest again, it was when I was in college.   He would  live for only five more years.

He had played as a younger man, even belonged to a private club, but it took too much time -- time away from the family, time away from helping build his career (even though a mentor or two told him that this was precisely what he should be doing).  As his responsibilities grew and his interests changed, he moved away from the game.   Thankfully, for that short window of time, he moved back to it.

I played with some vigor for about a dozen years, but once I met my wife and started a family, the rounds became fewer, the changes to go to the range even almost non-existent.  I got my son interested in some lessons a few years ago, but the burdens of work essentially made it very difficult for us to get out together.  After the sudden death of a friend and a realization that I will not be getting any younger, I've determined to find more hobbies, to rekindle some old ones and find some new ones, golf prominently among them.

I am not the best advance planner, so I didn't get a sense of the U.S. Open timetable and that it was visiting my area until earlier this year.  I suppose that when I first saw the news that it was going to take place at Merion, I thought, "Well, it will be a nightmare to get to, it could be hotter than Hades, and it could be very crowded.  Plus, you can get a better look at everything on television."  I also had figured that getting tickets was pretty much near impossible -- and it was at that. 

By the time April came around -- warmer and longer days -- my sense of "Yolo" (you only live once) got enhanced.  I thought about life, about getting out there more, about using weekends not for recovery from ever-so-hectic work weeks but as days to plan for aggressively.  I also figured that the Open might not get back to the Philadelphia while I'm still alive, given the trends toward huge stadium golf (I imagine that Disney and the USGA will combine to build the mega-golf resort complex replete with a full-stadium golf course and "fast passes" that will enable you -- on-line and in advance of a tournament -- to plan your day by booking seats in different grandstands along the course) and for long courses that don't require Merion's finesse -- that this might be one of the last Opens of its kind.  All of that weighed on me.  Sure, there were many reasons not to go, but there were many more for going.  Despite the potential for bad weather, for traffic jams and for having to work a bit to get a good view.  It didn't matter much when I boiled it all down.

It was the U.S. Open.

It was at Merion.

It was close.

It was Father's Day.

My son is a young teenager who likes team sports and running around a lot, so he hasn't been bitten by the golf bug yet.  He has taken some lessons and gone to a clinic, so taking him to Merion offered some risk -- he's not that tall yet, he doesn't know the game that well, it was going to be hot and humid -- but it was Father's Day, it was a big event, the big names were all there, and he liked golf enough to want to know and learn more.  And, in typical family fashion, we planned -- we read on-line, we read the local newspaper, and we got caught up on the course, the history of the Open and the players.  We both looked forward to the day very much -- and, come to think of it, how could we not?

We had a long day on Saturday, celebrating a life-cycle event with good friends and getting home late, so awakening a teenager at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning after getting home at 11 p.m. was no small task.  We got up and we drove about an hour to PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union, in order to catch a 20-minute shuttle bus ride to Merion.  There was no traffic, and we arrived at the gate near the second green at about a quarter after nine.  We walked in to greetings from volunteers of "Happy Father's Day" and "Welcome to the U.S. Open." 

Some had umbrellas, some had rain jackets, almost all were wearing collared shirts, a tribute, perhaps, to the Grand Dowager of golf, Merion, or to the Open.  We quickly went to the grandstands behind the second hole, a tough par 5, where player after player had difficulty holding the green and getting birdies.  We ran into a good friend there, who gave us good advice, which was, "at some point in the afternoon, you'll need to figure out whether you want to follow a group or pick a grandstand and watch everyone come by."

After about ninety minutes, we walked the course.  We walked down Ardmore Avenue, stopped at the very short 13th hole for ten minutes, and then proceeded to the back nine, to the main merchandise tent (it was "only" 24,000 square feet, whereas, at other Opens, it is 40,000 square feet, but the attendees nonethless did a good job of picking the place clean by Sunday afternoon), and then to the grandstands near the 17th green, where we could see the tee box at the 18th, which might as well have been in the Pocono Mountains for how far back it was from the fairway.  We saw the joy of victory in Shawn Stefani's hole-in-one (where he benefitted from a bounce typically only afforded members, as he hit the ball left into an angle of rough, which forced the ball onto the top tier of the green, culminating in a slow roll into the cup and the agony of a triple bogey, after South African George Coetzee hit his tee shot into the stands.  Both were great showmen -- Stefani kissed the ground where the ball hit and then applauded the fans who cheered him so loudly as he walked toward the 18th fairway after his tee shot.  Coetzee interacted well too, threw his ball into the stands after completing the hole, and then bowed to the fans after he hit his tee shot on 18.  That stuff doesn't draw the attention of the networks, but Coetzee will have some golf fans checking on his status as the weeks ensue. 

(This was my son's first golf tournament, and he witnessed in a hole-in-one, which he'll remember.  At his first baseball game, he saw a triple play, even though he doesn't remember it because he was four years old.  All I'll offer is that if your a horse trainer and your horse wins the Derby and the Preakness, you should purchase tickets for him and me in a box at Belmont -- your horse will win.)

Mike Weir hit a provisional there, and then found his original tee shot, and took what seemed like a week figuring out how to play it, only to duff it into the trap and then save it from there for an amazing bogey.  He's struggling this year, but he finished with a 69 on a day that under-par rounds were more rare than a Faberge egg.  Sergio Garcia arrived with pants that required a dimmer switch, a fuchsia-like color not normally found on the average golfer.  Martin Kaymer and Marcel Siem hit amazing tee shots, K.J. Choi looked calm, confident and professional, and Tiger Woods looked pained and aloof.  He played Merion this week; Merion won.

After hours of watching, it was time to go.  We were sweating but not dehydrated, hot but not bothered.  No, to the contrary, we were father and son, on a golf course on a Sunday, on Father's Day, enjoying a special event with one another, laughing, talking, smiling.  We shared observations, talked with the people sitting near us, had a good view of the quarry, and bought some merchandise, including Merion U.S. Open bag tags that will put on our bags and hopefully keep them forever, a sentimental token of a great time together.

It was the U.S. Open.

It was Merion.

It was Father's Day.

It was magic.

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