Instruction insight: How to handle wide variety of hole yardages
At a shade under 7,000 yards, Merion East is considered a bandbox by U.S. Open standards — much like the Phillies’ home ballpark, Citizens Bank Park, just down the road in Philadelphia. The famous Hugh Wilson design, home to Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam, Ben Hogan’s famous 1-iron, more USGA championships (18) than any other course, is the shortest U.S. Open venue to be played since Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Depending on how the course is set up, the East course could play as little as 6,800 yards and change some days this week.
But before you start to feel sorry for little 'ol Merion, remember that only two players in the field finished under par at Shinnecock (Retief Goosen at -4, Phil Mickelson at -2), which also played at 6,996 yards. And while Merion may be short in comparison to Torrey Pines, Bethpage Black and some other recent U.S. Open venues, it still has its share of long holes to contend with.
USGA executive director Mike Davis calls Merion a blend of both short and long. Nowhere is this more evident than on the par 4s: While five of the holes play less than 400 yards, including the driveable 303-yard 10th, three of them (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) measure 487 yards or more. Davis labeled the 521-yard 18th the toughest finishing hole in the history of the U.S. Open.
Then there are the four par 3s, three of them which stretch over 236 yards, including the 256-yard third hole. The lone exception is the 115-yard 13th which may feel like miniature golf in comparison. However, No. 13 boasts the smallest green on the course, and is obscured by a cavernous greenside bunker.
Clearly, those players who manage the disparity in these holes best will have an upper hand on the rest of the field this week. As for those of you watching at home, here are some strategical tips on how you can play these contrasting-length holes on your course.
Long Par 4: Unless you have some significant power, you’re going to have a difficult time hitting the green in two, even if you hit two really good shots. Your best option then, is to play it as a three-shot hole; take double or triple bogey out of the equation and consider a bogey 5 a worthy score. By approaching the hole like a par 5, you’ll swing more relaxed and within yourself both off the tee and on your second shot, which should help you keep the ball in play. Then you should be able to wedge it on the green, two-putt, and move on. If you make a 4, that’s better than most, and if you post a 5 it’s going to feel more like a par than a bogey. Longer hitters can be more aggressive because they’re typically able to flight the ball higher with their long irons and hybrids, making it easier to hold the greens on their second shots.
Short Par 4: The question to ask yourself here is, “Do I feel comfortable hitting a partial-wedge shot into the green?” If the answer is “no”, then you need to hit a club off the tee that will leave you a full wedge distance in. Many golfers try to run it up there as far as they can, only to find themselves in no-man’s land because they can’t execute a 40- or 50-yard half wedge from a tight lie. Suddenly, par looks like a good score. If you do decide to go for the green, consider the pin placement — you don’t want to leave yourself in a situation around the green where you simply have no chance to get the ball up-and-down. Take a more conservative line which, if you miss, will put you in the greenside bunker or a spot where you can get it up-and-down for your birdie. If your short game is not the best, then you’re better off laying up off the tee to a full wedge distance.
Long Par 3: If you have a club (high-lofted fairway wood, hybrid, long iron) you can hit high and carry safely onto the front of the green, then play to the fattest part of the green, take your two putts, and walk away with a well-deserved 3. But if you don’t have such a club, then play to an area short of the green where you feel that you have the best chance to make bogey and no worse. Who knows, you might even be able to get the ball up and down for your par. The mistake is going for the green when you know you simply can’t get there — that encourages you to swing even harder and brings in a whole array of possibilities, none of them usually very good.
Short Par 3: You’re obviously going to have no trouble reaching the green, so the first thing you need to consider is, “What is my best chance at making par?” In most instances, it’s hitting to the center of the green, because that gives you the widest margin for error. But if the pin is easily accessible and not tucked away in some corner or on a shelf, then by all means make a run at birdie and take dead aim at the flag. If you find yourself in-between clubs, which is very common at these shorter distances, then take one more club (i.e., a 9-iron vs. a pitching wedge) and make a three-quarter swing. This will help to keep the spin rate and ball flight down, so you have an easier time controlling the trajectory and distance.
Travis Fulton is Director of Instruction at the TOUR Academies, which includes locations at TPC Sawgrass and the World Golf Village. To book a lesson or learn more about the TOUR Academy Golf Schools, go to www.touracademy.com