Rose displayed remarkable grit, and the other big winner was historic Merion

No. 17 Merion
Simon Bruty / Sports Illustrated
Playing as long as 254 yards, the par-3 17th hole ranked as the seventh-toughest hole at Merion. It yielded only 22 birdies over the four days, but on Sunday, Shawn Stefani became the first player to produce an ace at the club during a U.S. Open.

We're starving. Not for food. Oh, no. We stop for a slice at the first stomach rumble and follow it with six ounces of fro-yo because we can. No, what we hunger for is dirt. Hogan’s ­driving-range dirt is the first thing that comes to mind, but anything from God’s green earth will do. We want grass, wind, rain. We want a racing heart from climbing a hill too fast, eager to see the view from beyond the crest. We want some solid thing that will last, that has no motherboard, that we can deposit in our memory bank, like the smell of a childhood beach.

And into this vast chasm of desire, who should enter after a 32-year disappearance from U.S. Open fun? Merion, the old gal herself, site of national championship number 113, with her sweeping hills and rocky outcroppings. The sprawling white clubhouse is the very picture of gentility. Phil’s exposure to the elements left him wet (Thursday), wind-burned (Saturday) and both (Sunday). The rough was long, the creek was high, the tees were back (a few crazily), the pins were tucked (a few crazily), but what the hell, it was the same for everybody. Merion, bless her curvy soul, held up. Turns out, we spent all that time worrying for nothing. Isn’t that often the case?

Really, she more than held up. Even Mike Davis, a golfing savant in the area of course setup, was surprised by the scoring. The USGA executive director told his fellow Far Hillers that he did not see this coming, a winning score over par. And that was with soft greens that never dried out, with fairways that were nearer to mushy than firm, on a course short enough that it could be played without a driver, even if Luke Donald hit driver on the par-3 3rd on Sunday, 266 yards, up the hill. (Phil Mickelson carried a 64-degree wedge instead of a driver.) Justin Rose’s winning score was one over par, on a course that measured 6,996 yards at its longest.

The USGA likes to say it does not care about, quote, defending par. “I absolutely don’t believe that,” Bill Walsh, a 91-year-old lion of Philadelphia golf, said on U.S. Open Sunday, while marshaling the 13th hole. He first came to Merion in the early 1940s as a caddie. “It’s the U.S. Open! As good as these players are? It’s terrific that par holds up. It’s vindicating!”

The various combatants, 156 of them, ranging in age from 18 to 54, came to the par-70 course, wielding titanium, their fast-twitch muscles all twitchy underneath their “technical fabric” golf shirts. A euphemism for polyester, no doubt, but who really cares: 281 strokes for four rounds of golf last week got you—that is, Justin Rose—the trophy and a check for $1.4 million, just as 280 strokes, in the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, got Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus spots in an 18-hole playoff, which Trevino won. He pocketed $30,000.

That’s the equivalent of $172,000 today, and Trevino, of course, won in ’71 with persimmon woods and steel shafts and balata balls and other museum pieces. In ’81 David Graham won with the same stuff. If you want to make the case that every­thing’s changed in the game over the past 32 years, the stage is yours.

But Merion showed that where it counts most, nothing has changed, and the scoreboard totals are an illustration of that. The goal, to take the fewest strokes over four rounds, and the challenge, to transmit the intent from head to ball, has not changed and will not change. Rose surely hit shots last week that Trevino could never have imagined. The Englishman did not, however, have a thought or an emotion the Merry Mex did not know. The game is the game. Thank you, Merion, for reminding us of that all over again.

Why were the scores so high? The greens (weirdly canted). The fairways (narrow, seldom level). The bunkers (unusually deep). The rough (wet and long). The hole locations (often three yards off the collars). The shape of the holes (often curved). The modern ball (flies far, curves little). The wind (four days of at least a mild blow). The occasion (title sponsor: the United States of America).

On Tuesday night there was a clubhouse dinner for U.S. Open champions. Johnny Miller started crying as he talked about what the national championship meant to him. Trevino talked about his old girlfriend, the one who lives on Ardmore Avenue. Arnold Palmer talked about his only national championship, at Cherry Hills in 1960. He has a much lesser career without it, and he knows it. Phil came to Merion with five runners-up and now has six. It’s inconceivable that any other tournament could produce such a record.

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