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“I think mud balls are a problem. I think they’re unfair,” McDowell said. “I think golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway. If you hit it in that fairway you deserve a great line and a great opportunity to attack the green surface. That’s the reward you get for hitting the fairway.”

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WICKER SHOCK: Resting atop the flag sticks, wicker baskets are the official symbol of Merion.

They’re officially the biggest headache for caddies.

Sure, fans and Merion Golf Club traditionalists love the baskets. The flag sticks don’t have flags, and the origin of the color-topped pins remains a mystery.

So also is the maker of the baskets. The club guards the secret so tightly that few know who crafts them.

“We’ll never play anything like this,” defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson said. “It’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. It’s just part of the tradition of Merion, part of the tradition of the club. When I was here in September they told me they were going to keep the wicker baskets and I was pretty excited about it.”

While the baskets color up the course, they also stay as stationary as the sticks. Which way is the wind blowing? Might to have to try the ol’ tested way of licking a finger to measure wind strength and direction. Wicker doesn’t budge.

“It makes their job harder,” Simpson said. “They might be a little on edge to keep their job this week. We like it because it’s different. I honestly think it will make us make decisions quicker. We’re sitting there a lot of times and we see one flag over here blowing that way and a flag over here blowing that way, we get confused and second guess.”

It could still be tricky for Open contenders.

“You just have to commit and trust yourself, trust your caddie and trust you’ve got the wind right,” former U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy said.

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HAD HIS PHIL: Phil Mickelson always knew he would be home in San Diego the day before the U.S. Open at Merion. Wet weather put him home a little early.

His daughter, Amanda, is graduating from the eighth grade on Wednesday and is a featured speaker. Mickelson left early due to rain at Merion, giving him a few days of practice in pristine weather.

He will fly back after the ceremony, in time for him to tee off at 7:11 a.m. at Merion.

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