The ninth hole at Merion GC.
In the run-up to this U.S. Open, there was widespread fear poor little Merion would be too short for modern professionals and our modern equipment. Well, so much for that argument. All of the pre-championship talk regarding yardage -- or lack of it -- turned out to be completely wrong.
Yes, Merion is just under 7,000 yards, but not every hole is short. In fact, most are really long. And the others are no shorter than they were the last time the club hosted the U.S. Open. I have no doubt the shots I hit to the greens on the so-called "short" holes were about the same length as those struck by David Graham back in 1981. The only difference is I used more-lofted clubs off the tee. Merion plays a lot longer than it measures.
My one criticism of the course setup would be that the fairways were too narrow. Merion is a great course with many great holes, but it was sometimes hard to tell with so much rough everywhere. It was tough to picture how it sets up and plays for the members.
I know that -- apart from next year at Pinehurst -- calling for more width in the U.S. Open is a forlorn hope. I have a suggestion though. I would like to see dry, "flier" rough rather than the "chip-out" long grass we had at Merion. Maybe the wet weather precluded doing anything about the thickness of the rough, but it would have been nice to see guys attempting risky recovery shots (perhaps the most exciting aspect of professional golf) rather than hacking out 50 yards or so up the fairway. Anyone and everyone can do that.
Of course, if most guys were like me, they were struggling to find many of the fairways. The "awkwardness" of the tee shots was something that struck me about Merion. Which is good. Practice rounds actually meant something. It wasn't enough to hit shots on the range and short-game area; the real work and research was done on the holes themselves. Merion is a course you have to study and learn firsthand.
I also loved the greens, which tend to be more tilted than undulating, offering the chance to hit some inventive shots. I especially liked the very cool fifth green. On Friday I landed my approach on the fringe maybe 30 feet from the cup, from where it rolled slowly down to the hole. Had conditions underfoot been a bit firmer, I would have been able to land that same shot maybe 10 yards farther back, the ball spending even more time on the ground. It reminded me of why links golf is so special.
There's nothing wrong with how the USGA sets up courses for the U.S. Open -- as long as everyone else doesn't copy what they do. That would be a mistake, even if there is actually much to admire. The championship is played on wonderful courses, Merion among them. And it usually throws up a star-studded leader board. So it does what it is designed to do: test and identify the very best. Even if, whisper it, there isn't much fun to be had along the way.
It will be a shame if the U.S. Open never returns to Merion. Given four perfect days of weather, things might have been better -- logistically compromised, yes, but so good the USGA would surely be compelled to go back. But given the conditions that prevailed last week, the practicalities of moving players around and getting them back onto the course in a timely fashion proved to be difficult. That's a minor quibble, though. Whatever else, we now know for certain that Merion is a terrific test of golf -- even for those capable of hitting 300-yard drives.