A sunny, quiet day of U.S. Open practice at Merion
Ardmore, Pa. • Merion Golf Club opened the gates Sunday to fans who wanted to buy U.S. Open merchandise. Some of them got a free glimpse of Tiger Woods.
But not for long.
Woods played 13 holes under hazy sunshine, far different conditions from what he saw two weeks ago in the wind and rain that made the shortest U.S. Open course in nine years feel much longer. He was among a scattering of players who spent a lazy afternoon getting to know a golf course that last held a major championship 32 years ago.
But while no one in the field played in that 1981 U.S. Open that David Graham won with a flawless final round, Kevin Chappell is among those getting reacquainted.
Chappell played four competitive rounds in 2005 during the U.S. Amateur, the litmus test for the USGA to make sure Merion was still current with the modern game. He lost in the third round that year, and while the surroundings look different with the grandstands and hospitality areas, one thing hasn't changed.
"It's a tour event on steroids," Chappell said.
Merion is 6,996 yards on the scorecard, making it the first major championship under 7,000 yards since Shinnecock Hills (also 6,996 yards) for the 2004 U.S. Open. But the yardage can be deceiving. One of the par 5s is 628 yards, and Geoff Ogilvy figured there would be dozens of players who struggle to reach the green in three shots, much less get home in two. Another par 5 has been shifted to the right, bringing out-of-bounds close to the edge of the fairway.
It has a par 3 of only 115 yards the other par 3s all are over 240 yards.
And perhaps the biggest change from most recent U.S. Opens is the rough. It's long and thick.
"The rough is longer than we've seen," said Ogilvy, who had never seen Merion until arriving this weekend. "You can't make grass grow in four days, but you can cut. Although I don't think they will."
USGA executive director Mike Davis was making the rounds Sunday afternoon, checking on a course that received about 3Â½ inches of rain Friday, so much that the creek near the par-4 11th green was starting to creep over the rock wall. It was back to normal Sunday, though the forecast is suspect for a big part of week.
Chappell played 18 holes with former Masters champion Zach Johnson and Tim Clark, and he couldn't help but notice how many of the fairways have shifted to move closer to the trouble. Then, he clarified what he meant by "trouble."
"Closer to the boundary stakes," he said.
Some of the fans leaned against the railing by the road on the left side of the 15th hole, so close to the fairway that they could have a personal conversation with Hunter Mahan, and even applaud his short iron to about 12 feet.
Merion has a lot of meat early in the round, particularly the opening six holes. What follows is a seven-hole stretch of par 3s and par 4s, the longest at 403 yards, which is short by today's standards. It's where the birdies are to be made, assuming the ball is placed in the correct part of the fairway. And then comes the strong finish.
Mahan opted for a driver off the 15th hole it's about 290 yards to cover the bunkers dotting the right side, so he picked out a tall fir tree just left of them. It was an aggressive play, and that's that Chappell expects to see from several players. But not all of them.
"There will be a big discrepancy in play," Chappell said. "You can challenge some of these holes if you want to."
The winning score at Merion has improved each of the previous four U.S. Opens. Olin Dutra won at 293 in 1934, followed by Ben Hogan at 287 in 1950, Lee Trevino at 280 in 1971 and Graham at 273 in 1981.
Chappell can see something along the lines of 10-under par if the week gets enough rain to make the greens soft. Yes, Merion can hold its own against the best in the world.
"There's too many wedges," he said, referring to the middle stretch of the golf course.
Ogilvy was walking up the 12th fairway when he pointed to the thick grass framing the landing areas and said, "There won't be any scoring records this week."
There was rain early in the week at Olympia Fields in 2003, which softened the course. Vijay Singh shot 63 in the second round. Jim Furyk was at 10-under 200 to set the 54-hole record at the time, and despite bogeys on the last two holes, his 272 tied what was then the U.S. Open record. It was soft at Congressional in 2011 when Rory McIlroy set the new standard, finishing on 16-under 268.
"I think there will be low rounds, but I don't think the total will be low," Ogilvy said.
There's no telling what this week will bring at Merion, though Ogilvy figured it would start from the tee.
"It takes a lot of practice to work out some of these lines," he said. "On 10 of the holes (minus the par 3s), you've got to be comfortable. There's no specific clue where to hit it. You have to know it. Off the tee, it's quite awkward. Someone who drives it the best this week will fare quite well not the straightest, but the best."
Furyk, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker played Merion in the 1989 U.S. Amateur. Chappell, defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and New Orleans winner Billy Horschel were among those at the 2005 U.S. Amateur, while Morgan Hoffmann and Rickie Fowler played Merion in the 2009 Walker Cup.
The biggest difference? Except for one qualifying round at the U.S. Amateur, that was match play. The worst anyone could do was to lose a hole. Starting Thursday, they have to count every stroke on every hole.