The U.S. Open is finally here! The season’s second major will take place at Merion GC in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. The 6,996 yard par 70 has hosted four previous U.S. Opens, with the last in 1981.
Winners of those events include Olin Dutra (1934), Ben Hogan (1950), Lee Travino over Jack Nicklaus in a playoff (1971), and David Graham (1981).
As any savvy golf fan will immediately notice, a layout of less than 7,000 yards is tiny. We are going to preview this tournament from several angles and the distance of the course comes into play.
The course has just two par 5s, and both come in the first four holes. Really only the 556-yard second hole is reachable. The fourth plays 628 yards and has a small creek just before the green that prevents running an approach up to the green.
The par 3s could be the biggest defense the course offers. The third hole is 256 yards, the ninth is 236, the 13th is a measly 115, but the 17th is 246. This could offer an advantage to longer hitters or expert scramblers.
Seven of the 12 par 4s are 411 yards or less, but two are over 500 yards. Most players who have played the course say they expect to hit driver about six times. That means the par-5 second and fourth holes and the par-4 fifth, sixth, 14th and 18th.
As you can imagine, because the course plays as short as it does, the USGA has squeezed the fairways as tight as possible and hoped for firm and fast conditions. This can only happen if the course is dry. The bad news is, almost four inches of rain were dumped on Merion Friday due to the remnants of a tropical storm. If that was it, the course may have time to recover. The worse news is, there is a chance of thunderstorms several days between now and the start of the tournament, including during the tournament proper.
The unpredictable nature of the weather coupled with the USGA seemingly losing, at least partially, control of the setup could lead to a number of scenarios on the leaderboard.
A firm and fast Merion would have put an extremely high priority on finding fairways. Drives that were too aggressive would have run through the tight fairways into the dense rough and made it nearly impossible for approach shots to have held small and firm greens. Even approaches from the fairway would have required laser precision. As it would go, scrambling around the green would have also been huge. Putting would only matter if approaches were in the proper places.
A softer Merion will be easier to navigate, both off the tee and on the greens. I read “Learn to Win a Major,” by Morris Pickens recently. In it, he detailed Lucas Glover’s win at Bethpage Black. (Pickens is Glover’s mental/strategic coach.) You may remember the first few rounds of that U.S. Open were a soggy mess. Pickens highlights that Glover had total confidence with his driver that week because he knew his drives wouldn't release into the rough if he hit his lines. He credits this as a big reason to why Glover was able to win. A soggy Merion will be much the same, except that players won’t have to hit drivers off the tee nearly as often as Glover did at Bethpage. They’ll be throwing darts with long irons and fairway woods. They’ll also find soft greens, which will hold and even spin. This could lead to a birdie binge and a winning score deep into the red.
So what type of player will win at Merion? Now you understand why the answer to that question is weather-dependent.
If the course plays as the USGA hopes, then guys like Graeme McDowell or Zach Johnson or Tim Clark jump to mind. Very accurate players tee-to-green and decent putter/scramblers. McDowell leads the PGA TOUR in both driving accuracy and scrambling, which should play well. It would also put a premium on strategy. Knowing where to take a driver and where to hit an iron. Knowing when to play for the fat part of the green and where to miss.
If the USGA loses the course to the elements, then a worst-case scenario means any number of things. For example:
- Bombers could be back in business.
- A guy you’ve never heard of could be in the mix on Sunday. Think Jason Gore at Pinehurst in 2005 when Michael Campbell won.
- Strategy could mean less. I’m not sure Phil Mickelson or Dustin Johnson are patient enough and focused enough to win on a firm/fast Merion, but they could be in play if elements come into play that allow them to be more aggressive.
- It could turn into a putting contest. Keep in mind, most U.S. Opens are more about ball-striking and less about putting. If everyone is in the fairway 240 yards off the tee and hitting a wedge into a green 130 yards away, it becomes a putt off 15 feet at a time.
When preparing for various games this week, control what you can control. It’s impossible to predict a Jason Gore or Michael Campbell without a massive amount of luck. Don’t try.
You can keep up to date with the weather and various news outlets reporting on how players say the course is playing. You can be aware of who has a history of success in USGA events. You can look back and see who played in the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion and the 2009 Walker Cup at Merino. You can understand who is trending well coming into the event. You can keep an eye on if certain tee times on Thursday or Friday appear to be better than others.
But you can’t account for everything.
Tomorrow we’ll return with our power rankings for the U.S. Open. I’m not sure if it will be the usual Dandy Dozen, or if we’ll go a little further.