Walking around Merion gets a golfer thinking. A mixture of the Scottish broom, Golden Age ghosts and the Platonic ideal of the pure game can create a stimulating elixir. Last week, seeing and feeling the U.S. Open finally return to a timeless shrine brought to mind a question: What is the defining mark of a great major championship?
The quickest and most obvious answer -- oft repeated among the typing set -- is the so-called "good" winner. It's usually simple. Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, Woods, et al. -- yes. Fleck, Nagle, Beem, Micheel, Campbell, et al. -- no. It's not always so clear-cut. Adam Scott? Yes. Justin Rose? Maybe.
I've grown to be against this system. Because if I've learned anything, it's that the differences between today's best and the rest have narrowed to the point that a hot "no" player will beat a cold "yes" player nine times out of 10.
Another measure is the heart-stopping finish. It can entail a crowded, ever-changing Sunday leader board, but your standard epic mano-a-mano is generally favored. Nicklaus in a showdown at a major against Palmer, Trevino or Watson achieved classic status, but so did Woods against Bob May or Rocco Mediate.
Still, it seems like such battles are more compelling and interesting at Oakmont, Merion or Turnberry than they are at Tanglewood, Valhalla or Torrey Pines. Which gets me to my answer. The greatest majors in history are most distinguished by the golf course where they were played.
There's a chicken-or-the-egg argument that great courses raise up the best players. St. Andrews is the best example, producing "good" winners named either Lema, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo, Daly or Woods over eight straight occasions hosting the British Open. But then the 2010 event was still magical for me even though the winner was Louis Oosthuizen. Similarly, after Merion gave us Hogan and Trevino, I was more than fine with David Graham in 1981, and now, Rose.
For me, the lasting image of a major is the panorama of its actors on its outdoor stage. The more aesthetically rich that stage, the more compelling the actors and the more memorable the action. Whatever the championship, there's something about an artistically distinctive golf course being negotiated by purely struck shots that fly true on the trajectory and lines intended by the architect that makes the final result more gratifying.
And whereas for others the intensity of the competition provides the thrill, for me it's a given. The best players always play hard, and those who love the challenge of the game will always be in tune with the inherent drama. But within that battle there is the art of the game, so that even in the blowout victories that Woods gave us at Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, the beauty of the backdrop elevates the act.
For me, nothing beats a British Open at St. Andrews -- the way the original course cleaves to the rumpled land and returns to the ancient town, along the way eliciting the most creative shotmaking a player will produce all year.
In America, Merion creates something very close. It's hard to define, but I know it when I see it, even on television. I sensed something special about Merion watching the 1971 U.S. Open. Sure, Trevino was my favorite player, but I had seen Trevino before. It was the look of Hugh Wilson's masterpiece that grabbed me through the screen: the way the holes moved quirkily amid tight confines and quarries; the color variations of the grasses; the contrast between the whimsical short holes and the treacherous finishers; the starkness of the wicker baskets. So that when Trevino turned his genius on Merion's demands, the alchemy was overpowering.
In person last week, Merion was even better, because for all its visual charms, on the ground the course's gritty substance was more palpable. Never have I witnessed a test of golf that so efficiently ground down nerves, eliciting Sunday collapses that left players helpless for several holes.
Merion was anything but a putting contest. In contrast to much bigger courses, superior ball-striking was rewarded more frankly than any major I can remember. It was right and just that Rose slammed the door by piping a drive and flushing a 4-iron on the kind of unforgiving beast of a finishing par 4 that used to be a considered a necessary validator of a satisfying victory.
Rose was indeed a good winner. Then again, Merion's examination was so complete that it couldn't have produced anything else.