ARDMORE, Pa. – Golf aficionados have been looking forward to today for seven (if not 32) years – the U.S. Open returning to fabled Merion Golf Club.
So many questions to be answered at long last.
Will a 6,996-yard course hold up against modern golf goliaths? Will it survive repeated lashings from biblical rains? Will someone shoot 62? Will Tiger Woods etch his name in the Merion ledger of champions with Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones? Will a major ever return to a boutique venue like this?
When the first round of the 113th U.S. Open finally gets under way under threat of an advancing “derecho” that could not only wash out the course but blow away the carefully wedged-in infrastructure with tornado-like conditions, only one thing is guaranteed.
The USGA will NEVER stoop to allowing its competitors to lift, clean and place.
“It’s been a long-standing philosophical point of view from the USGA to not adopt that preferred lies local rule in our national championships,” said Tom O’Toole, the championship committee chairman. “So we wouldn’t be adopting that rule this week.”
Despite six-and-a-half inches of rain since last Friday and the chance for up to three more Thursday, which could send the already saturated water table flooding over the 11th green where Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930, the USGA is sticking to its guns on playing the ball where it lies. Mud will be a major factor for the next major winner.
It’s not remotely the dream scenario everyone was hoping for to see the best Merion against golf’s best.
“You’re not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I’m sorry,” said Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open winner and reigning British Open champ. “I don’t care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it’s not going to dry up. ... Because of conditions, it’s not going to bare its teeth the way it should. I know guys were hoping for a firm test. It would have been really something like Olympic last year.”
Wednesday’s final practice round was a literal calm before the forecasted storm. Thousands of fans were milling about the historic grounds, soaking in the sun as golfers made final preparations on a course that was as close as it’s going to get to drying out. Long approaches from the vicinity of the Hogan plaque on 18 were releasing 15 yards on the slick greens, where another day of softening will make everything stick like darts.
Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, says he’s not concerned about what the weather does to scores. “Do we want it to be difficult? Absolutely,” Davis said. “That’s our DNA. That’s been around for a hundred plus years.”
Nature, however, is out of their hands and Davis said it won’t effect any future decision about the U.S. Open returning to Merion.
“For anybody to think that these rain events would curtail our enthusiasm for this, you’re misguided,” he said.
More rain and the corresponding mud balls that will come with it will have a profound effect on the outcome come Sunday (or Monday ... or Tuesday). Soft conditions take away whatever advantage the best players such as Woods or Phil Mickelson would normally have in what is considered golf’s toughest test. It opens the door for anyone. See Lucas Glover in 2009 at Bethpage Black.
And the USGA’s stubbornness to play the ball down only enhances the luck factor.
“I think mud balls are a problem,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 winner and ’12 runner-up who is a trendy favorite this week at Merion. “I think they’re unfair. I think golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway. If you hit it in that fairway, you deserve a great lie and a great opportunity to attack the green surface. That’s the reward you get for hitting the fairway.”
McDowell, like Woods and defending champion Webb Simpson, are among the favorites who tee off Thursday afternoon when the worst of the weather is expected to roll in. That may tip the advantage to morning starters such as Mickelson and Matt Kuchar.
None of this is what anyone hoped to be talking about this week. Merion is about history and 1-irons and white-faced bunkers and blind shots and strategic golf. That is what prompted the U.S. Open to return, and that is what everyone has been waiting since 1981 to see again.
“While Merion may be short on the scorecard ... it absolutely has stood the test of time,” said Davis. “In fact, if you ask me to rank other U.S. Open courses against it, I would say Merion has stood the test of time – in terms of going from hickories to steel-shafted clubs to the modern golf ball and so on – I think this place has stood the test of time maybe as good as anyone.”
Now when we hoped to find out if Merion could withstand the ultimate test of modern technology, we’re more than likely going to have to see if it can handle more water.
It would be a terrible shame if that’s the lasting memory the golf world has of Merion.