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Woods is likely to be the Merion menace

When the world’s No. 1 golfer doesn’t know the rules of the game, there’s always going to be trouble, and Tiger Woods’ ignorance of dropping procedures after going in the water created chaos in punting and bookmaking circles.

It was just as well the winning margin between him in fourth place and 28-1 winner Adam Scott was bigger than the controversial two-shot penalty he incurred (the majority felt he should have been DQ’d), otherwise there could have been a riot. As it was, the error of judgment cost Woods dear for the second time this year, having also dropped illegally in Abu Dhabi. Bookmakers initially felt he was more likely to be disqualified before round three and punters could have had 2-1 about him teeing up on Saturday after the 15th hole incident on the Friday.

As it turned out, there wasn't the slightest intention by the Augusta committee to disqualify the world No 1, only to decide on what penalty, if any, to impose. But as Tiger undeniably got a better distance and also possibly less slope on the fairway for his fifth shot, the tournament officials were negligent in their duty.

Be that as it may, Tiger’s defeat was greeted with great joy by the bookmakers, who had laid him heavily as 4-1 favourite after his three previous wins this year. One firm, William Hill, even went 6-1 for a reasonable time on the Thursday morning to grab as much business as they could and were inundated with bets. Ladbrokes alone faced a payout of more than £2 million if he won so it was all smiles for most of the firms.

One punter had £5,000 each-way on Scott in a bet that returned £185,000 while the Aussie was a six-figure loser for Bet365 before he teed off. However, that firm recouped that and more on the in-running market where most of the betting is actually done these days. Many punters prefer to make sure their fancy has made made the cut and has a chance to win before parting with hard-earned cash. Bet365’s Steve Freeth admitted: “The in-running side of things went our way, with Angel Cabrera, Jason Day and Woods all well backed at short odds.”

In offering a cautious 9-2 quote for Woods for the US Open, William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams explained: “Tiger will be able to take more positives out of his performance than Rory McIlroy will in finishing 25th.”

Cabrera was the week’s surprise packet despite being a past Masters champion. He started at 125-1 and would have won but for messing up the two back-nine par-fives on the final afternoon, covering them in one over par.

With only one top-20 finish prior to the Masters this year – and none at all in 2012 – Cabrera demonstrated that current form is of little account when Augusta comes around. Yet here he was recording his sixth Masters top-10. The burly Argentine is a prime example of the horses-for-courses theory, just like the evergreen Fred Couples, ten years Cabrera’s senior yet still a regular contender on his favourite patch.

It was a muted Masters for the big European contingent and that’s putting it politely, with debutant Thorbjorn Olesen the first home in sixth position. If only the young Dane had not given some of his rivals a ten-shot start with his 78 on day one – his last three rounds, a ten-under-par 206, was the best golf in the cathedral of pines. Those Mystic Megs who backed him to be Top European got 40-1.

So it is now 14 years since the last European winner and none this century. Three Ryder Cup heroes, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Nicolas Colsaerts, all missed the cut. A poor show. Scott is 7-1 with Ladbrokes to end the end the year with another major in his locker and – don’t laugh – 100-1 to do mission impossible, the Grand Slam. Woods is 6-4 with Coral to win a major in 2013 and 40-1 with Hills to win all three that remain.

COULD it be an omen for Sergio Garcia’s first major? The first US Open winner at Merion, back in 1934, was known as the Slammin’ Spaniard because Olin Dutra’s forefathers were among the first Spanish settlers in California. And he was the same age as Sergio, 33.

When assessing the chances of this year’s field, it is interesting to recall the words of that ace judge Bobby Jones in summing up why Dutra, who had lost over a stone through amoebic dysentery and spent time in hospital immediately before the Open, had managed to beat the 5-1 favourite Gene Sarazen even on shaky legs and playing 36 holes on the final day.

Jones said: “He is very, very straight and his action is a model of compactness which accounts in large measure for his effectiveness in a wind. Altogether, Dutra’s golf is of the sort that shows up best under adverse conditions and on a tough, exacting course.”

Jones’s biographer, O.B. Keeler, wrote that Dutra was “accustomed to playing in a hard wind and there was wind at Merion all three days, not always the same wind”. He spoke of Dutra punching low shots into the wind “straight as a line, or holding the ball up in a crossing current, or banking it craftily against a cushion of air.”

If that makes Merion sound perfect for Garcia, then step right in at 35-1, but if ever a major was hard to get a handle on, then it has to be this one. Why? Because the last Open there was 32 years ago when another straight-shooter, David Graham, became the first Aussie winner. Quite a coincidence that we have just had the first Aussie winner of the Masters!

A shot-maker in the Garcia mould won in 1971, when Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff, while the only other Open played there, in 1950, went to Ben Hogan, again after a playoff. When Dutra and Hogan won all those years ago, the course was a par 70 of 6,694 yards and the winner shot 13 over and seven over respectively; it was 150 yards shorter for Trevino’s level-par triumph and the same length, 6,544, when Graham became the only sub-par winner at seven-under 273. Even so, only five players in that field bettered par. To make it more capable of resisting modern equipment, they have bought more land and extended Merion to just four yards under 7,000 and what will frustrate those who rely on power is that they will have to play the last 14 holes without a cert-birdie par-five as the only two fall in the first four holes.

We can rely on the USGA to make the fairways as narrow as possible and the greens as fast as they dare. They say that without those two ingredients and significant rough, the modern-day Merion will have no defences. Past figures, however, suggest that is most unlikely and anyone who finishes under par will have a shout at winning it. Don’t forget that last year’s track, Olympic, is only 174 yards longer yet nobody beat par, Webb Simpson winning with 281 and that two Opens previous to that G Mac’s level-par 284 was good enough to conquer Pebble Beach, itself only 46 yards longer than the current Merion.

So although there will be much written about Merion being the first sub-7,000-yard US Open course since Shinnecock nine years ago, there won’t be a riot of low scoring and the same principles of hitting fairways and holding nerves on glassy greens will apply.

That’s why I think Woods has a great chance. He is a danger to himself and others when he gets the big stick out of the bag but there will be very few holes where he will need to do that. His ‘go-to’ shot, a squeeze fade with a 3- wood, will put him in play probably more often than Rory, and the Europeans most likely to trouble the favourite are Garcia, Luke Donald and McDowell, the Irishman’s confidence high after winning on another windy positional course at Hilton Head. That trio are always to be feared when par is a good score.

Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker, who also play tight courses well, are others for my short list – and now that Scott has finally broken through, don’t cross him out just because winning two majors in a row happens so rarely. He is certainly classy enough to join an elite band who have done just that. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Rickie Fowler won four matches out of four when the USA won the Walker Cup match there in 2009, although it’s fair to say the GB&I team was not strong and everybody ahead of Fowler in the betting would surely have done the same.

The US Open, Merion June 13-16

Best prices as at May 1: 11-2 Woods, 14-1 McIlroy, 25-1 Scott, Westwood, Snedeker, 28-1 Mickelson, Rose, Donald, 33-1 McDowell, Schwartzel, 35-1 Garcia, 40-1 Day, D. Johnson, Kuchar, 50-1 Oosthuizen, Stricker, Simpson, Furyk, Mahan, 66-1 Fowler, B Watson, Watney, 70-1 Olesen, 80-1 Kaymer, Poulter, Stenson, Van Pelt, Clark, Hanson, 90- 1 Choi, 100-1 Cabrera, Els, 110-1 Ogilvy, 125- 1 Colsaerts, Harrington, Jacobson, Z. Johnson, Laird, 150-1 and upwards others.

June 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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