At 6,996 yards, mini Merion doesn't stand a chance against today's big bashers… or does it? Our experts offer five reasons why the course will take a beating — and five more why it could pack a surprising punch.
WHY MERION WILL BE…
1. Um, yeah, it's short
Especially holes 7 through 13, which as a group barely average 300 yards. During stroke-play qualifying for the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion, that stretch featured four of the easiest holes on the course, including the par-3 13th, which will play a piddly 115 yards at the Open. Four more par 4s — Nos. 1,7,8 and 10 — are potentially drivable. USGA executive director Mike Davis expects the 303-yard 10th to play under par, which is unusual for any hole in a U.S. Open.
2. History says so
At the 1934 U.S. Open at Merion, the winning score was 293. In 1950, it was 287, six shots lower. In 1971, it was 280. And in 1981, 273. Natural progression, then, takes the winning score in 2013 to about 266, which, at 14-under, would be the second-lowest winning score in relation to par in event history. The course is only around 400 yards longer than in 1981, and the average Tour pro is 40 yards longer, so the math — and the more lenient recent USGA setups — favors a scoring-fest at Merion. Says Golf Magazine columnist and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, "It's very possible that the lowest score ever shot in the U.S. Open, 268, by Rory McIlroy, will be broken."
3. The weather
Ardmore averages about four inches of rain in June; if enough of that falls during Open week, Merion will yield bushels of birdies. "If you can't control the rain, Merion will get slaughtered," says Lee Trevino, who won the 1971 Open at Merion. "A lot of moisture will [effectively] make the fairways wider, making it easier to keep the ball from running into the rough. The greens will be softer, making it easier for putting, chipping, and for holding shots out of the rough with a wedge. And rain will make it much harder for the USGA to find difficult pin placements."
4. Flatter greens
Two of the tougher par-4 greens on the course — those at the 403-yard 12th and the 411-yard 15th — have had their slopes softened at the USGA's request in order to create more hole locations. These surfaces will still challenge, but are less daunting than they were in the past.
5. The wind (or lack thereof)
There's rarely much of a breeze in the Philly area in June, and the only recent U.S. Open courses of comparable length — Olympic Club in 2012 (7,170 yards, par 70) and Pebble Beach in 2010 (7,040 yards, par 71) — are near the ocean, where wind and moisture-heavy air provide defense. Sure, the scoring average at the 2005 U.S. Amateur qualifying was a hefty 78.16, but those were amateurs with the benefit of only one practice round, not seasoned veterans who are better course managers and more skillful players.
WHY MERION WILL BE…
1. Treacherous chipping
"The real difficulty is the greens," Trevino says. "They're small, and many of them are shaped like dinner plates — they're deep in the middle, and the sides go up. If you miss those greens you're almost always going to have a downhill chip. You just have to hang on for the last four holes. They're all you can handle. If the USGA can control the water and the course stays dry, the course will hold its own. None of the holes are going to be pushovers."
2. The tough holes are really tough
The par-3 3rd plays a gargantuan 256 yards, up from 219 at the Amateur. It's Redan-style, with an uphill shot to a 40-yard-deep putting surface that's partially obscured by a huge bunker front-right and by the front portion of the green, which is tipped up. The par-3 9th swells to 236 yards, up from 206, and it terrorizes with a stream, a pond, a half-dozen bunkers, and a sectionalized green that's bisected by a ridge. While the par-4 16th remains 430 yards, its infamous quarry wreaks havoc. Trevino points out that it's one of the only holes he knows where people hit 40-yard layup shots: "If you miss the fairway there, you don't want to take on that quarry carry from a bad lie. So you just chip out." The par-3 17th checks in at a mere 246 yards.
3. No par 5s in the last 14 holes
Merion has just two par 5s, which isn't all that unusual for a U.S. Open setup. Trouble is, they're in the first four holes (Nos. 2 and 4), and the 4th is a brute, stretching to an all but unreachable 628 yards. So if guys have visions of eagles and easy birdies dancing in their heads, the par 5s won't be much help. The 18th might feel like a par 5 — at 521 yards, it's 16 yards longer than it played at the 2009 Walker Cup, where it was the hardest hole during qualifying — but it's actually the third-longest par 4 in U.S. Open history. Said Rickie Fowler when he played in the '09 Walker Cup, "On the long holes, you better get it in the fairway or you're not getting on the green."
4. A dastardly setup
Mike Davis & Co. have no intention of tricking up the layout, but dense rough, devious mowing patterns that bring more danger into play and fairways that have been narrowed to an average of 23 yards won't leave much room for error. Trouble also lurks at the 556-yard, par-5 2nd, where the fairway has been shifted closer to the out-of-bounds road on the right, and at the wild 504-yard, par-4 5th, where the fairway tilts hard right-to-left, and where the plan is to shave down the rough left of the green to propel imperfect approaches into the bunker or even the water. At the iconic short-par-4 11th, the fairway has been rerouted to play up the left side, bringing the creek into play off the tee.
5. It's the U.S. Open, dummy!
Trevino offers three simple reasons why Merion will more than hold its own, despite its lack of length: "It's a U.S. Open course, it's a U.S. Open course, and it's a U.S. Open course," he says. "Players know that the words 'U.S. Open' mean double the pressure. You can make a mistake at Augusta and get away with it. Not at a U.S. Open."