No One Said This Would Be Fun
The USGA set out to prove Merion is still relevant. Did they take it too far?
Look, to stand on the 17th tee at Merion Golf Club is to stand and tremble. It's on a cliff's edge above a sheer rock formation that was shaped by glaciers during Sam Snead's childhood. The idea is to carry a shot to a green on the far, far side of a quarry cut deep below. It seems possible, sort of, maybe, almost. But then, on this day, you see where the flagstick is and you know God hates you.
The day's hole-location chart shows a spot three paces from the 17th's right edge and 14 paces from the front. Three paces? For a tee shot that must carry 245 yards? As for the 14 paces, what the number doesn't tell you is that maybe 12 paces go downhill at an angle that grows steeper with each scary heartbeat. From the tee on a cliff's edge, you have moved to a hole on its own cliff's edge.
Tiger Woods noticed. "Some of the pins they have out there -- " He seemed about to name all the evildoers. But said only "at 17, it's tough."
The problem is that God's henchmen, in their U.S. Golf Association blazers, came to Merion on a mission that may have been at odds with itself. The USGA wanted its U.S. Open championship played again at one of history's classic courses. But it knew today's bigger, stronger players, with today's rocket-launcher clubs, threatened to embarrass the grand place. At fewer than 7,000 yards, and after a week's rain softening it up, Merion would be vulnerable to four days of scores in the 60s.
So the USGA tricked it up.
Denied it, of course.
Said they didn't care what the scores were.
Said the course would prove itself in old-fashioned ways. Make 'em hit it straight. Make 'em think. Make 'em do it under U.S. Open pressure.
Some of us are red-number addicts. What's better than a shootout that on Sunday asks the lads to stand on the 17th and tremble at the sight of a muscular par-3? But even as the USGA denied it cared about the scores, its actions have showed it cared very much. Friday afternoon, after Woods said not once, not twice but three times that the USGA tricked up its pin locations to protect par, he was asked directly: "The USGA said on Wednesday that the U.S. Open is not about the winning score -- do you buy that?"
Woods answered directly: "No." Then he laughed at the things people expect us to believe. He said the players knew where the pins would be, "but we didn't think they were going to be as severe as they are. A lot of guys are missing putts and blowing them by the holes. . . . They've really tried to, I think, protect the golf course, with it being as soft as it is. And they've given us some really, really tough pins."
Here, you might find yourself short on sympathy. These guys have their millions and their private jets and, good heavens, they have to make hard putts, too? After all, some of us derive a guilty pleasure from the suffering of the radically comfortable. For those fans of schadenfreude, the USGA has provided Merion with more than cliff's-edge putting -- it also has allowed the rough to grow ankle-deep at the very edges fairways. I say "allowed" despite the USGA's assertion that the rough is up -- maybe seven inches deep a yard off the fairway -- only because it has been too wet to take its mowers onto the course. This is disingenuous. The rough could have been cut last week in anticipation of storms moving east.
"Most years at the U.S. Open, it's like this," Adam Scott said. "But it's thick and it's right next to the fairway. I think we got a little comfortable with that graduated rough the last few years."
Here's one man's trip through that rough Friday, Graeme McDowell describing his work: "Rip it down the middle of 18 and finish a yard in the rough and no lie. I was trying to miss that second shot as far left as I could and it kind of squirted right on me. And I had two very, very hard chip shots. The first one was difficult, the second one was a scruffy lie in the rough, and I walked off there with a double off a great tee shot."
Have we mentioned the wind?
"We have got that northwest wind blowing," Ernie Els said. "It was really blowing a bit this morning. So probably a two-club wind. And it's dead into you on 14, 15, 17. And then 18 is downwind."
That wasn't all.
"And it was raining a bit," he said. "So it was really more British Open championship stuff."
God hates 'em this week. Good.