Tsk, Tsk, a Basket Could Decide U.S. Open

By: Marino Parascenzo

[Cybergolf's Marino Parascenzo and Jay Flemma and are in Ardmore, Pa., for this week's U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. Here's Marino's first installment.]

Goodness knows England's Lee Westwood has found enough ways to let a major get away from him, being 0-for-60 to date. And if he should end up two shots shy of winning this U.S. Open, he knows where he can find them. Worse yet, he knows why - the wicker baskets of Merion.

Those are the red upside-down tear-drop baskets stuck on Merion's flagsticks from where flags usually hang - or flap, in the case of wind. And that's another thing. Golfers and caddies alike complain, not for the record, that the wicker baskets don't give a clue to which way an ill wind is blowing, not the way flags do.

But tradition is tradition, and they're stuck with the baskets of Merion, and Westwood was stuck with the result. Namely, hitting one cost him a share of the lead. (But the worst was yet to come Friday.)

This is Westwood's 14th U.S. Open, and for a guy good enough to win twice on the PGA Tour and 22 times on the European Tour, he has nothing to show for his efforts except perhaps some calluses on his hands and possibly his psyche. It's stuff like this that makes a guy a front-runner to get the tag, "Best never to have won a major."

Some think it should go to Spain's Sergio Garcia, who has been equally adept in brushing up against golf's premiere events - the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship. Well, it's a coin toss.

Westwood is credentialed. Maybe over-credentialed. He's one of the few golfers to have won on every major continent, and on his way to 39 career wins - two on the PGA Tour - he's come away with enough endorsement logos that he looks like a medal-chested Latin American general.

The episode in Thursday's first round drove Westwood to the tweets. "So much tradition at Merion to talk about . . .," he wrote, "like those delightful wicker baskets."

Merion, just outside Philadelphia, is heavy with tradition, of which the wicker baskets are a big part. Various stories attempt to penetrate the mystery of how and why they came to replace flags, none of them truly compelling or interesting.

But the baskets became plenty relevant Thursday when Westwood came to the par-4 12th sharing the lead with Phil Mickelson at 3-under. Shades of Tiger Woods' watery shot at this year's Masters - Westwood's third was also much too good. It hit the basket on the fly and bounced back toward him some 30 yards, back in the fairway. He double-bogeyed and was out of the lead.

The matter came up Friday, after he completed his rain-delayed first round, a 1-under 70. Then a bogey at the 17th left him at par-70, three behind Mickelson.

"Peter Dawson [CEO of the R&A] has assured me that for the Open Championship, we'll be going back to flags, like a normal tournament," Westwood said, spreading a dollop of sarcasm over Merion. Then he returned Friday for his second round and shot 77. That should pretty well assure him of going 0-for-61, if he makes the cut at all. With Thursday's rain delays, the halfway cut won't come until the second round is completed sometime Saturday.

The book on Westwood in majors reads like a horror story for a golfer of his stature. He's 0 for 14 in the Masters, 0 for 13 in the U.S. Open, 0 for 18 in the British Open and 0 for 15 in the PGA Championship. It's almost spooky, the way he's managed not to win. He's had two seconds, three thirds and finished in the top-three seven times, the top-five nine. The law of averages almost weeps that at least one of those ought to have dropped into his hands.

In the 2010 Masters he was leading by a shot going into the final round and was run down by Phil Mickelson. Three months later, in the British Open, he was runner-up to Louis Oosthuizen, though a distant one. He had a crack at the 2012 Masters, but fell on his putter and tied for third out of the playoff in which Bubba Watson beat Oosthuizen.

And in case he still hadn't got the message, in the 2012 U.S. Open, he started the final round three off the lead, lost his ball in a tree at No. 5 and double-bogeyed to tie for 10th.

Westwood didn't set a precedent for hitting a basket and getting punished. Though there are no known records for the zinger, it will be recalled that Hubert Green was in contention in the 1981 U.S. Open until he hit a basket. At least his ball had the decency to carom well off to the left rather than returning almost to his feet in the fairway.

Westwood left the course waiting for someone else - bunches of them - to enjoy the riches of Merion's tradition. "Good times at Merion for all," he twitted in a tweet. "I can't wait until these baskets come into play on Sunday and everybody freaks out about them."

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.