Flesch avoids bunkers, leads at Memorial
Thu, Jun. 01, 2006
by DOUG FERGUSON
DUBLIN, Ohio - Steve Flesch was one of the few players who had no issues with the bunkers at the Memorial, and for good reason. He wasn't in any of them Thursday, which might explain why he was atop the leaderboard.
Flesch made sure he kept his ball in the lush grass of Muirfield Village, playing his best golf of the year to reach 6 under par through 17 holes when the first round was suspended because of storms in the area. He was in the 18th fairway, typical of his day.
Sean O'Hair made double bogey from a bunker on No. 3, then responded with four birdies on his next six holes. He saved par the next time he was in the sand, birdied the 18th and finished one of his best rounds this year with a 5-under 67.
The large group at 69 included Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Fred Couples and Nick Price, most of whom had one thing in common - they could do without the furrows left behind by the gap-tooth rakes being used as an experiment this week.
"I don't like it at all," Price said. "It's a bit of pot luck, to be honest. You can get in there and have a perfect lie when it lands on top of a groove, then you can have another one that goes in the trough, and you've got no chance."
Love didn't bother stopping to talk, perhaps because he would have said something that offended tournament host Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson, the most pragmatic of the bunch, was tied for the lead until hitting into a fairway bunker led to bogey on the 17th, and he failed to get up-and-down from short of the 18th for another bogey.
"Everybody has to play it," Mickelson said. "These bunkers are just a different variety than we're used to."
Nicklaus is not playing the Memorial for the first time in its 31-year history. Tiger Woods, who has not played since the Masters, missed the Memorial for the first time since he turned pro. All that was forgotten when the first round got under way and the attention turned to the great debate over bunkers.
Does it require more skill to play a sand shot when the ball is nestled between the ridges? Does it negate the advantage of good bunker players who now rely more on luck?
It was a different test, for sure, although the end of the round was all too familiar in a tournament where rain delays are the norm. Thirty players failed to finish their round, and they were to return at 8:30 a.m.
All that mattered to Flesch was hitting the ball clean, which he did.
"I kept the ball in the fairway, and I was good with my irons," he said. "I made seven birdies, birdied all the par 5s. This is probably the best I've played in a year."
But just because he kept sand out of his shoes didn't mean he was gloating.
"It was frustrating just to watch the other guys get out of them," Flesch said. "You about have to play bunkers as a water hazard."
As expected, players complained as though someone took away their courtesy cars.
PGA Tour rules official Slugger White said the only mistake might have been failing to alerting the players ahead of time. And he stressed this was only a test, not a policy.
"Everyone is a little bit stubborn when it comes to change," he said. "We'll see how this plays out."
Love was poised to be among the leaders when he stood on the 18th tee at 5 under par. His tee shot went into the fairway bunker, however, and his next shot sailed some 20 yards to the right of the green in deep rough. He chopped it out some 60 feet beyond the hole and three-putted for a double bogey.
Mickelson showed far more energy than the last time he returned from a break.
Lefty took two weeks off after winning the Masters, but never got into contention at either New Orleans or the Wachovia Championship when he decided to take three weeks off. After spending the weekend at Winged Foot to get ready for the U.S. Open, he immediately got into the mix at the Memorial.
He also got some luck.
Mickelson was going for the middle of the par-5 fifth green with a 4-wood, pushed it slightly and watched with relief as it narrowly cleared the water and settled 6 feet from the cup for an eagle. On the par-5 seventh, he was buried in deep rough and trying only to carry it over the front bunker. It came out perfectly and set up a short birdie.
Only the final two holes marred his start, but he had few complaints.
"I'll gladly take it," Mickelson said. "I know there's a low round out there, with the greens being receptive. But there's three other days to get that."
Defending champion Bart Bryant had a 70, and Colonial champion Tim Herron had to settle for the same score. Lumpy showed it wasn't only the bunkers that can cause problems at Muirfield Village, especially with some of the precarious pin placements. His approach on the 18th landed close to the hole, then spun off the green and into the fairway. His chip rolled back toward his feet, and he escaped with bogey by making an 8-foot putt.
The group at 71 included David Duval, who had six birdies and saw a good round slip away when a potential eagle turned into a shocking double bogey with five putts from 25 feet.
Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen each shot 74, while Jim Furyk had a 73.