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U.S. Open

Pushover? Puh-lease

Merion may yield low scores this week, but don't worry: players will be plenty tested

June 12, 2013

ARDMORE, Pa. -- There's rain, wind, hail, and a possible tornado coming. So let 'em come. We're at Merion Golf Club. Today's worthies will walk where Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam. Where Ben Hogan hit that shot. Where the imp Lee Trevino threw a (rubber) snake at Jack Nicklaus. Is this a golfer's heaven? Yes. Merion isn't great because history was made here. History was made here because Merion is great. Pete Dye said that. Smart guy.

So it's not 7,000 yards?

So it's irons off the tees, wedges in?

So the fairways are squishy-wide and the greens are cushy dartboards because it has already rained a ton?

Don't care.

So it's an antique, a relic from another age, a major-championship golf course squeezed into 111 acres.  It's leather helmets and no facemasks. It's woolen flannels and railroad cars. It's "Casablanca" with Bogart and Bergman.

Love it.

So Olan Dutra, winning the U.S. Open here in 1934, hit a 3-wood second shot to the 18th.  Hogan in 1950 hit the 1-iron. David Graham in 1981 hit a 4-iron.  Today's players , standing at the Hogan plaque, see a different shot. Listen to Graeme McDowell: "I hit a 3-hybrid. I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm sure Mr. Hogan is rolling in his grave right now.'"

Time marches on, and here's the question most often asked here this week: "See a 62 out there?" Implied in the question -- the best Open round ever is a 63 by Johnny Miller 40 years ago -- is the idea that Merion, proud, old Merion, will be poor, pitiable Merion this week, defenseless against modern technology in the hands of athletes fitter and stronger than ever. Trevino said, "These players will take advantage of the (five) par-4s in the 300-something range." Then, with an old man's caution born of experience, he said, "But they better be straight."

That will be the fun of this Open.  There'll be birdies in bunches.  Eight birdies and no bogeys gets you a 62. That is doable for these guys at 6,996 yards in conditions so forgiving that Trevino said, "Merion may not have its teeth."

Still, it's the United States Open. Those words have their own teeth. Ernie Els, a two-time Open champion, anticipates a crowded leaderboard with numbers in the red. "If you're on your game," he said, "you're going to have a lot of birdie putts . . . You can put it in the fairway with an iron, from a 5-iron to a 3-iron, and then you've got quite a short second shot. . . You're going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues."

But, like Trevino, Els has been there and felt the anxiety: "What number is going to win, I have no idea. It's still a U.S. Open. I don't care if you play the easiest course in the world. Put 'U.S. Open' in front of it, everybody gets nervous . . . " A pause here  . . . "especially over the weekend." Merion's weekend test of a player's nerve will be only part of the problem. Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association executive director, decides how the course will be set up.  He used a precise word to describe this week's conditions:  "Merion is about precision."

When the USGA's set-up man says "precision," he means you better put drives on the short grass or you'll find what he slyly calls "a variety of lies" in rough grasses -- rye, bluegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, and the thick-bladed grass K-31 -- all of this jungle encouraged by rain and the USGA to grow ankle deep in the second cut and, a step or two beyond that, to unfindable heights.  By "precision," Davis also meant Merion's small greens demand precise placement of wedge shots. Here's McDowell's description of the trouble a player will encounter if, on flying at a back pin, he overcooks a wedge: ". . . massive trouble."

Davis promises "a truly magical week." He long has been smitten by Merion, last host to the Open in 1981, a gap that lengthened each year as the tournament became a corporate-tent monster needing more land than Merion's 119-year-old home could provide. This time compromises were made: fewer tickets, fewer tents, off-site accommodations. "To come back here and to have today's players measure themselves against the greats of Jones and Hogan, that's neat," Davis said.

He loves the course's mix of long and short holes -- most of the 452 yards added to Merion's '71 and '81 yardage come on the longer holes. "There's this wonderful balance to the course in terms of ebb and flow," Davis said. There are "opportunities for catch-up with birdies, but there are also holes as hard as any that you'll see in any U.S. Open."

Those holes are Merion's final five. Three par-4s : the 14th at 464 yards, the 15th at  411, the 16th at 430. Then the 17th, a par-3 at 246 before finishing on Hogan's 18th, a par-4, 521 yards. In McDowell's words, a phrase for each of the holes in order: "incredibly difficult," "aiming at the road," "if you find the fairway, very difficult second shot, " "all you want," and "all the length."

Come Sunday on those holes, we may learn the answer to a good question. Will the USGA ever bring its Open here again? When Mike Davis heard the question, he said the club, its neighbors, and the city of Philadelphia have been sensational in preparing for this Open. All that's left is to see how Merion does.

"It always start with the golf course," Davis said, "how special it is, will it test the world's best players, what kind of drama will you get."

Imagine playing those last five holes to win the U.S. Open. Imagine 10 guys coming through the 13th a shot or two apart. Imagine standing where Hogan stood, the Open trophy for the taking.  Could you breathe? Hell, it's only Wednesday and I can barely type.

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