INSIDE THE ROPES US OPEN AT MERION
By TOM LaMARRE, The Sports Xchange
You won’t be reading about how any of the players in the 113th U.S. Open this week did the last time the second major of the season was played on the East Course at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. That’s because it was in 1981 and some of them were not yet born. One thing you will hear is that a shot-maker is likely to be holding the trophy on Sunday night, based on the fact that among the winners in the five U.S. Opens at Merion were Ben Hogan (1950), Lee Trevino (1971 in an 18-hole playoff over Jack Nicklaus) and David Graham of Australia (1981). Bobby Jones claimed the U.S. Amateur on the East Course to complete the Grand Slam in 1930.
One reason the tournament has not been back to Merion is that the course is short by today’s standards, with the pros hitting the ball so far, and the United States Golf Association has been able to stretch the course to only 6,996 yards. That’s the same number Shinnecock Hills played to in 2004, with the shortest U.S. Open course since the turn of this century being Southern Hills, which played to 6,973 yards in 2001. “It depends on the weather,” said Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion who first played Merion in a corporate outing two years ago. “If it’s wet and gets softened, you’ll see good scores. “If it’s really firm and there’s no rain, then like any U.S. Open it’ll be really tough, because the greens are so difficult. … I don’t think there will be a player who doesn’t like it.” Tiger Woods will be seeking his fourth U.S. Open title, and first since 2008 at Torrey Pines, but a short course with deep rough doesn’t seem to play to his strengths. Or does it?
“I think Tiger will hit a lot of long irons, 3-woods and 5-woods off the tee,” said Andy North, who won U.S. Opens in 1978 at Cherry Hills and Oakland Hills in 1985. “I think if he putts the way he has for most of this year, he will do just fine at Merion. “I think Tiger understands how to play a golf course like that. The interesting thing about Merion is that the par 4s are either very short or very long. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits only two or three drivers per round. “Nicklaus hit a log of long irons and 3 woods, and Tiger has done that before and won. I think Merion is right up his alley. If he keeps the ball in the fairway, he’s going to be hard to beat.” Woods had never seen the East Course, other than on television, until a few weeks ago when he stopped by the course on his way to the Memorial Tournament, about 400 miles away in Dublin, Ohio.
Caddie Joe LaCava accompanied Tiger and they had a guide, Buddy Marucci, a long-time member at Merion who lost to Woods in the final of the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club in Newport, R.I The weatherman apparently didn’t know they were coming. “We played it as probably long as it will ever be played,” said Woods, who played Merion on a windy day with temperatures in the 60s and the rain coming sideways. “In June, obviously the weather won’t be like that. It will be hotter. The ball will be flying. The clubs will be different, but the lines will be the same. “It was nice to see and get an understanding of what I need to visualize … and get ready for that. Have a nice understanding of where my sight lines are going to be and where I need to land the ball.” … You have to be able to shape the golf ball, and you have to be so disciplined to play that course.”
For the 1981 U.S. Open, the par-70 East Course played to 6,544 yards, and it was lengthened to 6,846 yards for the 2005 U.S. Amateur. The USGA would find a few extra yards, but it’s still relatively short. “There are so many short holes, the only defense is to grow the rough, and I think they need to catch a break with the weather so that the course stays firm and fast,” said North, who tied for 43rd at Merion in 1981. “If gets soft, we could see a lot of low scores like Congressional (in 2011). No matter what the weather is, they will have to grow the rough because it’s the course’s only defense. “I think there will be good scoring, but like any major, you’re going to have to putt well and make those four- and five-footers for par, because you’ll get a lot of them. That’s what major golf usually is. If the greens stay firm, you can hit good iron shots and still end up on the fringe or in the rough. Even with a good pitch, you still can end up four feet away.” Woods, despite his hiccup in the Memorial Tournament, is the favorite of the bookies, even though he will have to keep his driver in the bag for all but about three holes at Merion. Of course, he’s done this before, winning the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills when he left the big stick in its Tiger headcover much of the way. And, more ominously, he also did that last month and won the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.