In normal times, you don't turn to a U.S. Open, the ultimate grindfest, for relief. But these are not normal times, and Merion is not a normal Open venue. Merion is as beautiful as, and more charming than, any other course that has staged the national championship since the advent of the steel shaft. (Remember steel shafts?) There's a plaque for Hogan and a boulder for Jones and a 1st tee hard by a porch where the ladies lunch and the men revisit their $2 Nassaus and the view has not changed in forever. Hallelujah.
This has been the least civilized year American golf has ever known. Horrid, really. Vijay's suing the PGA Tour over deer-antler spray, and the anchor folk, some of them, are lawyering up. It's been Tiger this (his drop at the Masters) and Tiger that (his spat with Sergio). He's had a career since January — four wins — but who's talking about that? Instead we're getting Ted Bishop of the PGA of America versus Mike Davis of the USGA in a protracted sudden-death playoff that cannot end well.
Merion, take us away! When Lee Trevino won his second Open there, in an 18-hole playoff over Jack Nicklaus in 1971, he said, "I love Merion, and I don't even know her last name." At the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion, Edoardo Molinari, a Continental if ever there was one, had a lovefest with the members, who had never seen so many birdies, and such European style, on their links. Bobby Jones showed his skill at Merion and Ben Hogan his will and David Graham, at the '81 Open, his formidable Aussie golfing brain. Shotmakers, the whole damn bunch of them. Good drivers too.
Merion does things her own way (feminine pronoun courtesy of Trevino). Who ever heard of a U.S. Open course measuring 6,996 yards, all stretched out? The last time there was a shorter Open venue was at Southern Hills, which played 6,973 in 2001. And how about those bright red wicker baskets atop the heavy metal flagsticks? Weird. Great. At the 1954 Curtis Cup at Merion, Barbara Romack, a lively Californian, mocked the weeds in the traps. She was, of course, talking about the Scotch broom in the bunkers, a nod to the motherland and a point of pride for the club, then and now. Take a bow, Merion, and to hell with this year's hemlines.
To make the course challenging, the fairways will be about as wide as a garden hose.
And the rebels at the USGA should take a bow too, for bringing the U.S. Open to this itty-bitty place for the first time in 32 years. The course sits on 111 acres, too small for today's corporate tents and television compounds and teeming crowds and pad-the-coffers greed. Still, the Far Hillers did it. (This shout-out's for you, David Fay.) The 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, a suburban oasis reachable by train and barely 10 miles from a real downtown, will be a home run, even when the guys are bunting it around, and they will be, early and often.
But this U.S. Open will also be a harsh statement on what modern equipment, timidly regulated by the governing bodies, has done to the old game, which is change it forever. Webb Simpson, the defending champion, expects to hit wedge into nine of the first 13 greens. Some players will hit driver two or three times a round, if that.
To make the course challenging, the USGA will have the fairways about as wide as a garden hose, the greens bald and the rough like a shag carpet on steroids. That's not really golf. It's golf-for-a-week. Merion's greens are small and severe, and the tournament will ultimately test pitching, chipping, putting and thinking. That's all well and good, but whatever happened to driving? The 1950 Merion course that Hogan played would have to measure about 8,000 yards to offer similar demands today.
Enter into this picture Adam Scott, the only true hero (broomstick putter and all) in this year in golf that has been interesting for all the wrong reasons. (News flash: Rory breaks up with … his agent!) The 2013 Masters was ordinary on its first two days, bizarre and contentious on Saturday and sort of a snooze on Sunday, until Scott and Angel Cabrera saved the day with some expert play in the late innings. Had Scott not made that 12-foot birdie putt on the 74th hole to turn out the lights, the tournament would have finished the next day, and Monday finishes, as they say in Augusta, don't make mama happy.
Scott, a handsome man who wears Chuck Taylors away from the office, is the only golfer who can win the Grand Slam this year, and he came to Merion for two days in May to prepare for the second stage. He called the course "fiddly." Perfect, sir: a chiefly British word that suggests a need for precision. He played twice, with members, stayed in a member's house, chatted with the staff, reached No. 2 (556 yards, uphill) with some kind of big-headed two-iron, waved to a bridal party as he passed a tent on his way to 14 tee. Now that's not so hard, is it?
He knows, Stevie Williams knows, Tiger knows, Mike Davis knows: The hard part is about to come. Get your motor running. We got a tournament 'bout to commence. Four days of golf.