By Jeff Silverman
These guys are good -- and I'm just talking about the caddies.
But with all due respect to Bones, Joey, Stevie, and their Tour confreres, something might have added to their men's performances at Merion: true local knowledge. How many important putts zigged when they should have zagged, or braked early, or zipped by the hole on cruise control?
"They don't know these greens because they haven't seen them enough," insists veteran Merion caddie Pancho Thornton, whose years of service have taught Merion's are not the kind of greens that reveal their mysteries in a couple of practice rounds or on some quick notations in a yardage book.
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Good as the visitors may be in reading greens elsewhere, Merion asked them to do their reading in a slightly different language, as Pancho knew it would. They had trouble with grain. They tended to perceive too much break, especially on short putts. And he knows why.
"They're playing what they see," he explains, "but what they're seeing is an illusion."
Consider, then, the performances of the Open's two low amateurs: 19-year-old Michael Kim and 21-year-old Cheng-Tsung Pan. Or, rather, consider what they reaped from their caddies.
Kim was accompanied by LaRue Temple, the lone Merion caddie enlisted for the competition, and Pan's bag was in the care of a former Merion man, Matt Ujfalufi. Through the first three rounds, these kids ranked high in the putting stats, and Kim was among the leaders. Local knowledge?
Like other Golden Age miracles, Merion was designed to defend itself on the greens. Get there and the fun starts.
How nice to have someone with a master key to its secrets -- and to the secrets that help you get there; the optimum lines of play, the blind alleys, the bounces, the grasses, the contours, the winds. Casual familiarity takes time to morph into real knowledge, and the knowledge needed to navigate Merion is Merion's, just as the knowledge needed at Augusta is Augusta's. That's why it's called local knowledge.
Until 1976, Tour caddies were verboten at the Open; when the door to change swung open, a piece of golf tradition was lost. Times change. Of course. That's golf's reality.
Still, how many more putts might have dropped this week had the putter been freed from his illusions by the local caddie at his side?