ARDMORE, Pa. – It's late Friday afternoon at Merion Golf Club, home of golf's coolest logo, even though it looks like a thermometer sticking through a parsley sprig, and nobody is quite sure what a good score is yet.
Nobody except the participants of this 113th United States Open. They know.
Luke Donald is even-par after 36 holes and loving it. "I'm very satisfied to be at even," he said.
John Senden shot 71 in breezy conditions Friday. "I'll take that," the lanky Australian offered with a smile.
Billy Horschel put up four birdies and shot 67. "Sixty-six sounded better," Horschel joked, "but it was a good day."
With each passing hour Friday afternoon, as the flags waved straight-out in a steady wind, that 67 looked better and better.
Merion is surprising all those observers who thought it might be prone to yielding record low numbers if the course was softened by rain. Well, we've had two days here at The Links at Tapioca Pudding, and the only thing taking a beating are the players' putting statistics.
"Who were those people who said scores were going to be low?" asked former PGA champion David Toms after his second-round 77 left him at 12-over-par. "People who don't play golf for a living? Enough said."
Merion has already proved it is no cupcake. Now we're going to see if anyone can solve this ancient riddle.
"Too much is made of the distance," said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "Merion is only considered short because there's six short holes. The winning score at the Open is always higher than you think it's going to be, except at Congressional. Judy Rankin told me, 'Everybody wakes up Monday morning surprised by how high the Open's winning score is.' "
We get that. Now we're more likely to be surprised by who winds up shooting that winning score. Merion's history is one of identifying golf's greatest champions, from Bobby Jones to Olin Dutra (yes, Olin Dutra!) to Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino and David Graham. It's the weekend at a major championship that separates the pretenders from the contenders, but right now they look a lot alike.
Donald is supposed to be one of the contenders. This is his 40th major and he's near the top of your Best Player to Never Win a Major list. Donald has made serious advances on Merion two days in a row, but both days he retreated and gave up the ground he'd gained. He climbed to 4-under-par on two occasions but the scoreboard says he's still even-steven. So the fact that Donald has racked up nine birdies in two days and is only at even, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe both.
"I've played the par-3s very well, four or five 2s," he said. "It's been a big key to my score."
Birdies on the par-3s are like stealing. Three are 230-yard-plus monsters. The other is a 115-yard sand wedge shot that looks like the obvious answer to a What Doesn't Belong And Why question.
In Donald's favor is that he knows how to win at Merion, thanks to a tip from Graham earlier this week. "I asked him what's the secret and he said, 'Keep it in the short stuff,' " Donald said. "Obviously, I think most of us know that. It's about doing it."
After two rounds, it looks as if Graham's advice is easier said than done. Donald had issues out of the rough Friday and also lipped out some key putts. He made a big one on the 12th hole, his third hole of the second round, then chipped in for birdie at the 13th. He survived the tough closing holes, playing 16, 17 and 18 in even-par. I'm considering dubbing them The Three Twins of Merion, although something about that moniker doesn't sound right.
It was the front nine where Donald ducked, quacking up with four straight bogeys. He was asked about a potential winning score and said he'd take a couple under par right now and take his chances.
Senden is a reverse-universe version of Donald. He's tall, a pure ballstriker with a fair short game and a sub-par putting stroke by Tour standards. Donald hits it straight at times and not so straight at others, but his wedge play is terrific, his bunker play is the best in golf and he's an excellent putter. Yet Merion and the Open play into both of their wheelhouses-uh, wheel-homes? Whatever.
It's good for Senden because Merion's greens are so treacherous that even the best putters aren't making much. He's a plodder, a fairway-and-greens guy out of the old Hogan mold, although unfortunately his putting at times also looks like the old Hogan. It's not that bad, really, but relative to Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods and the modern deadeyes, Senden is at a disadvantage on the greens. He has to get his work done with his shotmaking, and he does rank with the Tour's best iron players, right up there with Tim Clark and Phil Mickelson (when he's on) and a few others.
His name probably isn't familiar. He's 40, he grew up in Brisbane in Australia's state of Queensland and has won nearly $16 million on the PGA Tour. His only win came in the 2006 John Deere Classic, not a major unless you're a serious Midwesterner. But he is more competitive in an event where par means something instead of having a winning score of 22 under. You don't have to hole putts to win an Open. You can two-putt to victory if you can hit enough greens. And Senden is a very good wind player (as most Aussies are since it blows with regularity there), which helped him cruise to four birdies. His only serious glitch was a double-bogey on the shortest hole on the course, the 115-yard par-3 ninth.
You would've looked down the leaderboard at some point Saturday and just glanced right past his name without giving it a thought, but don't. He's far more likely to win an Open, this Open, then almost any regular PGA Tour stop. Senden finished fifth last year at Olympic Club, 30th the year before that, and missed the cut in two other Open appearances.
"I'm excited to play U.S. Opens because they choose really interesting and difficult golf courses," Senden said. "It demands good ballstriking and good putting. I like hitting long irons. There are a lot of long irons off the tee here and a lot of long irons into the greens. So if I play my game, hopefully I'll do well."
Maybe by Sunday we'll know what a good score is at Merion. Seventy? Sixty-eight? Seventy-one? We'll see. It's not the number we'll ultimately be talking about, though.
"There's going to be a guy lifting the trophy at the end of the week," said Rory McIlroy, the reigning PGA champion. "It doesn't matter if he's plus-5, minus-5 of plus-16."