2013 U.S. Open: Will Merion hold up?

2013 U.S. Open: Will Merion hold up?

June 8, 2013, 1:45 pm
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After 32 years without a major championship in Philadelphia, the golf world will descend on Ardmore, Pa., this week for the 113th U.S. Open.

The excitement for the city's first major since 1981 is understandable. And so are the questions that come with it:

Can I still get tickets? Where do I park? Wait, this shirt costs how much? Really?

But lost in the excitement is the one question that will hang over the tournament this week: Will Merion hold up?

At the championship's pre-tournament media day in late April, USGA executive director Mike Davis denied that Merion's 32-year wait between major championships had anything to do with the course itself. Instead, he cited the challenge of fitting an event this large onto Merion's available space, of which there isn't much.

That may be true, but it doesn't eliminate the fact that fans could see a very different kind of U.S. Open this week. To get a sense of how the USGA views its premiere championship, one need only look at its mission statement:

"The USGA strives to make the U.S. Open the most rigorous, yet fair and complete, examination of golf, testing all forms of shotmaking as well as mental skills. … [A U.S. Open course] can truly be called 'the toughest test in golf.'"

Will Merion truly be that test?

Past Open champions from Webb Simpson to Graeme McDowell to Tiger Woods have all lauded the course's challenge, but even Davis admitted that scoring is going to be a little different this year.

"There's going to be more birdies made, trust me, at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history," he said. "Why? Because there's just some holes out here that lend themselves to it. Which is wonderful. Then there's some holes that are very tough. I mean, I would contend that you've got this balance of some of the easiest holes for U.S. Opens that you'll see in the modern era, yet at the same time they have got some [of the toughest holes]."

Simpson, for his part, insisted that even par will still be "an incredible score," but also provided this caveat:

"I think that rain will be a big factor because if you got this golf course a little wet, scores are going to be better," he said. "And that's just kind of universal with golf courses on the PGA Tour."

On Friday, what was left of Tropical Storm Andrea dumped more than three inches of rain on the course, causing waters from the creek on the 11th hole to almost spill over onto the green (see The700Level).

With just a scenario in mind, Golf Digest previously reported that the USGA has a contingency plan in place that would involve players using two holes from the West Course - where they'll be warming up - and playing the remaining 16 on the East, in the event the 11th and 12th holes become unplayable. That said, Davis characterized the plan as a true "doomsday" scenario, and not a likely happening.

On Saturday, Merion assistant golf professional George Forster told Comcast SportsNet that although the course - and that area in particular - was wet, the greens still seemed firm.

Flooding or no flooding, the 10-day forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms on Monday and Tuesday and the potential for showers on Thursday. The East course's primary defense for keeping scores close to par will be the speed and undulation of its greens. Softer putting surfaces at slower speeds are going to make for lower scores. Just take a look at what happened thanks to the soft conditions at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, where the winning score of 16-under was 17 shots lower than the average from the seven prior Opens on a course that is about 600 yards longer than Merion.

The opposite concern, assuming the weather cooperates, is that in order to protect par and the course, conditions go from "rigorous, yet fair" to rigorous and unfair. The U.S. Open hasn't been played on a course as short as Merion since it was held at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. That championship is still remembered for conditions that made the golf course almost comical and certain greens that proved unputtable for everyone but champion Retief Goosen during his back nine on Sunday.

That's why Simpson added: "But if [Merion] can stay firm and fast, it will be so hard, even just to keep it in the fairway. So I think the scores will be a little bit weather permitting, but again they will set it up great for us."

Beyond the excitement of seeing a U.S. Open champion crowned in a city with as rich a golf history as any other in the country, there's an element of pride attached to this week. Merion has to hold up, but it can't be turned into a gimmick.

The club, the USGA, the fans and the players are all looking for that perfect middle ground.

As Scott Weiland once groaned, "So much depends on the weather."