Merion is still shrouded in mystery, but Tiger, Rory and Phil could make this an unforgettable Open

Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods
David Cannon / Getty Images
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods played together for part of their practice round Wednesday at Merion.

ARDMORE, Pa. -- In the absence of a compelling, coherent storyline, countless smaller ones fill the void. So it is as we await the start of the 113th U.S. Open at soggy but sunny Merion on Wednesday. When Rory McIlroy spoke of spinning his wheels earlier this week, his courtesy car skidding sideways as he tried to park it, it was an apt metaphor for a game struggling for traction.

Lucky for us, that's what the majors provide. All it will take to relegate the Tiger-Sergio feud to oblivion, and to make us forget about the storm runoff that threatens to drown the 11th hole, and to render the tiresome anchoring debate moot (for now), is four solid rounds out of Tiger Woods. That would give him his first major victory in five years, pad his total to 15, and reenergize his long-stalled chase to catch and pass all-time great Jack Nicklaus (18 professional majors).

"I don't think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we have to do and what we have to shoot," Woods said. "The conditions keep changing."

Does Woods still have a feel for winning majors? He keeps going into them as the prohibitive favorite, having started to rack up non-major victories like the Woods of old. He keeps coming close. He keeps not winning. Is it in his head? No player comes into this week hotter than Woods, who has already racked up four victories in 2013, including the Players Championship at fickle TPC Sawgrass.

(RELATED: BAMBERGER: At Merion, it's clear Tiger is more like Hogan than Nicklaus)

All it will take to cut through all the awful weather on Tour in 2013 is a victory by Phil Mickelson, who would desperately love to add a U.S. Open title to his resume after five runner-up finishes, but who flew home to San Diego on Monday, opting to attend his daughter's graduation rather than practice in the rain. Mickelson's results have been uneven, but he's coming off a T2 at last week's St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He almost always plays well at the U.S. Open.

A victory by McIlroy would also help bring clarity to a jumbled picture. He has been a bust so far with his new Nike equipment, but likes his chances at Merion better than he liked them at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club last year.

"I came off the back of three missed cuts in a row," he said, "and I wasn't playing very well. And this year I feel like my game's actually in good shape."

McIlroy, whose season has been a series of mini-dramas surrounding his changes of equipment and management teams, spoke Tuesday of potentially running up Philadelphia's "Rocky steps, wherever they are," if he finds a spare moment. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea. He owned the game at the end of last year, but after his woes so far in 2013 it's hardly a stretch to call him an underdog. He hasn't won. He opened with a 78 at the Memorial two weeks ago. The façade has cracked, but this U.S. Open could return him to us whole. For as bad as he's looked, McIlroy almost won the Valero Texas Open in April and made the cut at Muirfield after that 78 -- which wasn't as bad as Tiger's third-round 79. McIlroy also loves the soggy conditions here, which mirror those at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, where he blew everyone away for his first major trophy.

"My iron play's good," said McIlroy, who for the first 36 holes will play in the tournament's power threesome: Tiger, Rory, Scotty (Adam Scott) -- the top three players, respectively, in the World Ranking. "It's dialed in. As long as I just put it on the fairway, I feel like I can take advantage of that."

So could Scott, the dashing Australian who is coming off his career-making Masters victory. He'll play in the long shadows of Woods and McIlroy, but he is arguably the most dangerous player of the three, imbued with a new self-belief.

There has been much speculation about what the best players in the world will shoot at tiny, soft Merion, with journalists suggesting they'll go as low as 62. The players themselves doubt that. The truth is no one really knows. The course hosted the 2005 U.S. Amateur, won by Edoardo Molinari (not in the field), and the 2009 Walker Cup (won by a U.S. team that included Rickie Fowler and Morgan Hoffmann, both in the field this week). But Merion remains mostly unknown.

By minimizing the severity of the course the rain is expected to bring more players into contention, and it seems just as likely that this week's winner will come from somewhere outside the power threesome. Matt Kuchar, who splits plenty of fairways, has risen all the way to fourth in the world, and U.S. Open winners Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell could atone for disappointments last year. Defending champion Webb Simpson has put in more Merion reps than most.

By all accounts the winner will be someone who stays out of the rough.

"From what I hear the rough is going to be thicker than intended," said McDowell, who has finished T2, T14 and first in his last three U.S. Opens. "And fairways are going to play wider, but it's still a tough driving course. And driving the ball and wedge play are going to be the two keys this week."

Despite the soft course, the USGA will play the ball down, so players will not be allowed to lift, clean and place even if their tee balls wind up caked with mud. Mud balls can stray in any direction and introduce an added element of luck.

McIlroy expects to hit driver seven times per round. Others will play small ball at the first Open venue of less than 7,000 yards since Shinnecock in 2004.

"There's quite a few par 4s where you've just got to put it in the fairway," said Ernie Els. "You can put it in the fairway with an iron, from a 5 iron or a 3 iron, just putting it into play, and then you've got quite a short second shot."

McDowell calls Merion "tough." McIlroy said he doesn't expect the scores to be as low as they were at Congressional two years ago. Els says the rough is "as bad as I've ever seen it," and anticipates the tournament committee tucking Merion's wicker-tipped pins in extreme places. That is, when the tournament committee isn't busy trying to stave off puddles on the greens and elsewhere.

Five inches of rain have fallen since last Friday, making headaches for head superintendent Matt Shaffer, USGA championship committee chairman Tom O'Toole, and maverick USGA executive director Mike Davis. Spectators at the sold-out tournament are being asked to take the train due to sloppy conditions and flooding of a main parking lot. A greenside bunker temporarily became a pond on the 11th hole, the lowest point on the course and where two creeks come together.

"We put approximately three tons of new sand in and we plate-tamped it," head superintendent Shaffer said. "And we're ready to go."

The forecast has all but guaranteed more thunderstorms for the first round Thursday, but executive director Davis says the odds that the tournament will revert to the "doomsday scenario" of having to use holes on the West Course due to more flooding on the East are "10 thousand to one."

Once believed to be too short to handle the equipment advances of the modern game, Merion has not hosted the U.S. Open in 32 years. As always, Davis is the man charged with setting up the course, and he would love for the focus to shift from the wet weather back to Merion's quirks-only two par-5s, both of which come in the first four holes-and its long par-4s and par-3s.

The par-4 fifth hole is 504 yards. The par-4 sixth is 487, and the 521-yard, par-4 18th is one of the toughest finishing holes anywhere.

Three of the four par-3s-the 256-yard third, 236-yard ninth, and 246-yard 17th-are long enough to require anywhere from a long iron to a 3-wood off the tee. The 115-yard 13th is sure to yield plenty of birdies. "There's still not going to be that many birdies out here," McIlroy said. "You've still got to hit it on the fairways. It's still a pretty tight golf course."

We'll see. With the quirky course still shrouded in mystery, more storms in the forecast, and no clear favorite in light of Mickelson's streaky play and McIlroy's slump and Tiger's five-year drought in the majors, the 113th U.S. Open at Merion has more than a few wicker baskets full of questions to answer.

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