Merion’s slick greens and sticky rough will make U.S. Open tougher than you think

Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods hits a shot Monday during a rainy practice round at Merion Golf Club.

ARDMORE, Pa. — Let’s start with the course. It won’t be as fast as it was in Mike Davis’s dreams. But it’ll be fast enough. The 3½ inches of rain that fell on the course on Friday made things still mushy by Monday, but the course will get drier as the week progresses and the sun shines and the winds pick up. So if you’re worried about this being the Stick-It-With-A-Wedge Open, it won’t be.

Besides, the greens are going to be wicked. The club already has them faster than 14 on the Stimpmeter, will let them dip into the low 13s for the practice rounds, then back to the low 14s for the tournament itself. That’s Oakmont speed. That’s Augusta back-in-the-day speed. That’s the kind of speed at which guys will putt it off the green from above the hole on Nos. 12, 15 and 16.

The marshals are going to have a very important job. With guys hitting hybrids and other lofted clubs off the tee, balls will be sailing into the lush, thick rough from a high altitude. The course would be unplayable for the ordinary golfer who has to find her own ball. But the players in this U.S. Open will have a big break -- fans and marshals to locate their errant shots. The British Open at Muirfield, in 2002, would have been unplayable without spotters. It’s a shame, to have to have rough that thick to toughen-up a course, but modern equipment has demanded it.

There’s going to be some funkiness, come Thursday and Friday. Even though the course is on a tiny property, just 111 acres, and even though the greens and tees are wonderfully close together, the first two rounds are likely to take close to six hours. It will take a miracle for the final groups, going off at nearly 3 p.m. on Thursday, to finish. And failure-to-finish just disrupts everything. It creates a logistical nightmare. But not anything the USGA has not dealt with before.

More oddness: The golfers, all 151 one of them, will go off two tees. The U.S. Open has been doing that for years, because the field is so big, and the pace-of-play so slow. Typically, the players start on either the first or the 10th, just as you do. But the 10th tee at Merion is not near the clubhouse. The 11th is. So the players are starting on one (that’s normal enough) and 11. Eleven! The hole where Bobby Jones concluded his Grand Slam in 1930.

All it is is a blind tee shot with a stream left and long and lethal rough right and a second shot that is played to what is effectively an island green. That’s what Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts will be looking at at 7 o’clock on Thursday morning. Welcome to Merion, gents!

And it’s not like you can get in some final hybrid-wedges at the end of your warm-up session, go straight to 11 tee and replay those shots. Oh, no. The driving range for this U.S. Open at Merion is a mile or so down the road, on the club’s West Course. The players are being shuttled by van from the West Course, where their locker room is located, to the East Course. Allowing for pedestrian traffic and various bits of commotion, the players can expect the elapsed time from the practice tee to the first tee to be at least 25 minutes. It’s really no big deal, except for the fact that it’s unusual, and the phrase “creatures of habit” was invented for Tour players.

The players, of course, are here to do a job, not to go sightseeing, but it is a shame that, because of various logistical needs, they are not using the Merion clubhouse. It’s one of the great places in golf, and if they can slip in there and check it out it will only give them a greater sense of the course they are playing. The locker room is manly and old-fashioned and more British than Bernard Darwin himself. The oversized showerheads are so impressive John Daly has been talking about them for years. The food is about the best clubhouse food you could ever consume, and the beer at Merion is colder than a Slurpee.

There are so many nooks and crannies in the clubhouse, so many trophies and portraits, it really is like a museum. Merion is the center of the American golf universe. You could say the same of Pinehurst and maybe Pebble and maybe Winged Foot. But this week it’s Merion, as it has been a dozen or more times before. The U.S. Open is being played at Merion. Nice words to type. Nice for us, watching, and them, playing.

 

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