MARTIN Laird would have breathed a sigh of relief when he switched on his phone the other day and caught sight of the draw-sheet for the opening rounds of the US Open, which begins on Thursday.
It takes place at Merion, the storied old track in Philadelphia where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930, where Ben Hogan hit that 1-iron of the ages to the 72nd hole in 1950 and where no major championship has been played for 32 long years. Laird will tee it up with George Coetzee of South Africa and Marcel Siem of Germany. Big deal, you might say. Big deal, indeed. “I won’t lie,” says Laird. “When you get a text message with your tee time and who you’re drawn with you can go ‘Oh boy!’ if you’re drawn with one of the notoriously slow players.” Coetzee and Siem aren’t slow, so that’s a victory of sorts already. Laird won’t grow old waiting for them to play this week. Trust him. In this day and age, there is comfort in that.
“US Opens are normally brutally slow and can take about six hours. Slow play is a big problem in the game. Some weeks it seems to be really, really bad over here and some weeks it seems not so bad, but the weeks when it’s bad there are a few players, a handful, and I’m sure it’s the same on the European Tour, that are renowned for being extremely slow and don’t seem to make too much effort to hurry up.” Laird doesn’t name names but then he doesn’t have to. It would only happen in his nightmares but golf’s seventh circle of hell for a non-dawdler such as Laird would see him drawn with the ultimate lingerers Kevin Na and Ben Crane – there are many others – in a three-ball that could well turn into a reality show given how long they would spend out there.
“It’s frustrating when you’re playing with them [slow players] or behind them and you’re waiting on every shot. It feeds through the whole game. Watching these players with their pre-shot routines that take a minute… When you’re playing with these guys it’s tough to take. I’m all for any movement that speeds up the pace of play because I just like to get up and hit it when it’s my turn. Most players do. It’s a shame that we can’t always do that. You can’t really object to playing with a slow player but until we start clamping down on it – fines don’t seem to work – we’ll have to go the way of [penalising them] strokes.
“That’s the only way they’re going to start hurrying up.”
There can be no such thing as golfing ghosts for, if they existed, then saint Bobby and icy Ben would be doing some haunting of the slow coaches in the modern game. Jones and Hogan have dominated the narrative heading into Merion this week, not that some of those living in the present have noticed, Laird being one of them.
For Laird, memory lane is a cul de sac. On Tuesday, when promoting the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, the Scot was asked about his grasp on golfing history and his understanding of Merion’s place in the grand scheme of things. “I’m not much of a student of the history of the game,” he said, while admitting that he knew of Hogan’s victory so soon after his near disastrous car crash but didn’t know that he had won it at Merion. No point in getting him started on Lee Trevino and the rubber snake in ’71 either. “It’s probably something I should look at more,” he continued. “I’d say my knowledge is pretty poor.”
It’ll be better by the time he leaves Philly this week, whenever that happens to be.
The smart money, despite Laird’s win in Texas in April and his top five at the Players in May, is on an early exit. He has played in four US Opens and his record reads: missed cut; missed cut; missed cut; missed cut. Number of rounds under par: zero. Number of rounds in par: zero. Combined score over eight rounds at Oakmont in 2007, Bethpage in 2009, Congressional in 2011 and the Olympic Club in 2012: 34 over par. This is a championship that has inflicted some serious pain on Laird
“I’ve not fared well in this tournament. Last year was a really frustrating one for me. I really felt that the course [Olympic] suited me and I actually played really well but had a bad finish on Friday, bogeyed three of my last four holes, or something like that, and then missed the cut on the number, on a golf course where, if you got through to the weekend, you just had to hang around there to get in the mix. That one took me a while to recover from. I was playing well last year and felt I had a good chance on that course and ended up missing the weekend. The US Open is my worst record for majors. I’m looking to turn that around this year.”
In truth, for a player of his quality, Laird’s record in all majors is woeful. On the PGA Tour he has won three times in five years and has 20 top-ten finishes, a level of consistency that suggests he is capable of getting into the hunt at the biggest tournaments. In the majors, the best he can boast is one top-20, at the Masters in 2011. Since then, his performances in the major championships have been: missed cut; 42nd; 72nd; missed cut; 57th; missed cut; missed cut; missed cut.
Merion will be different to some of the joyless grinds we have seen in the US Open. At 6,996 yards it is not long by modern standards and it will produce birdies more readily than most of its recent brutish contemporaries.
If you can keep the ball in the narrow fairways and clear of the killer rough, then you are in business. What Trevino said in 1971 still holds: “Sure, there are 16 birdie holes here. But there are 18 bogey holes.”
Laird acknowledged: “These courses test your patience, that’s for sure, and that’s probably the biggest improvement in my game over the last six years.
“I used to struggle with that. It was the number one thing that caddies and coaches used to talk to me about. I feel that’s one of my strengths now.
“If you get impatient on Thursday there’s no way you’re going to be around on Saturday. You might bogey two or three holes in a four-hole stretch and it’s just the nature of a US Open.
“You’ve got to take it as you get it. They’re draining mentally. You’ve got to have a fighter mentality. That’s what it takes.
“I’m not sure about Merion but, from playing the US Open, you have to be patient and, if you make three bogeys in a row or a double bogey, you’d better have the personality where you can throw that off and get back to work on the next hole, because the next hole is going to be waiting to get you, too.”
The greens will be fast, the rough will be deep, the fairways will be narrow and the club-selection off the tee will require strategy and discipline.
Laird might not know the history of the course but he knows his own history and it isn’t good for a player of his ability.
Time to change that – and maybe give a nod to Merion’s immortals along the way.