By Ann Liguori
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It’s a shame that bad weather stole the “thunder” early in this U.S. Open tournament week. The rain and the effects of the rain — five inches of rain in four days — has softened the course so much that two-time U.S. Open champ Ernie Els summed up Monday’s rain-drenched conditions at Merion: “We’re not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I’m sorry. I don’t care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways. It’s not going to dry up.”
Yes, Mother Nature is the boss, and it will help dictate what kind of Open we have at historic Merion Golf Club. Rain stopped practice rounds twice on Monday, flooded a greenside bunker on the 11th hole and made most of the walking areas a mud bath.
On Tuesday morning the sun was shining and it was beautiful, but more rain is in the forecast.
But weather shouldn’t take the focus away from this charming, historic venue which has hosted five U.S. Opens among 19 championships overall, dating back to the 1904 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
The last U.S Open played here was in 1981, when Aussie David Graham beat George Burns and Bill Rogers by three shots.
The fact that the U.S. Open operation has downsized considerably to fit into acreage much smaller than “modern-day” Open venues is remarkable!
Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, described this Open at Merion Golf Club as a “boutique U.S. Open,” a throwback to the old days when the course yardage was shorter and the entire venue was much smaller. The golf course is situated on 111 acres of land.
I’m all for hosting majors at these historic venues. It brings the game back to its roots! Yes, they can’t sell as many tickets, even though they’ll squish as many spectators as they can inside the gates. And yes — players, media and spectators have either a ride or a long, long walk to the driving range which is off property. But I adore everything about this place.
I love the club’s history, the famed red wicker baskets instead of flags on the pins. I love the fact that many of the concession areas seem to be in the yards of private homes that are nestled very close to the course. And I like the fact that the first tee box is steps off the clubhouse veranda.
It’s compact and cozy. My kind of golf club. But will it provide the ultimate U. S Open test to the best players in the world? I think so!
Although it’s very short for a U.S. Open course or any championship venue by today’s standards — measuring 6,996 yards at a par 70 — the fairways are narrow, the rough is high and the contours of the fairways and greens are very tricky. Accuracy with all clubs will be at a premium. Drivers won’t be used much, with emphasis on keeping the tee shot in the fairway — otherwise balls will be buried in the thick, high rough — and precise iron shots will be key. Yes, with rain softening the fairways, players should be able to attack the pins more, but they still have to make putts! And the greens should be fast and tricky.
An interesting note is that there are no par fives after the fourth hole. And there are a variety of blind shots throughout the layout.
But the place oozes with history. My first stop was seeing the medal plaque which is embedded on the 18th fairway honoring Ben Hogan’s 1-iron into the 72nd green on June 10, 1950, when he went on to win his second U.S. Open title. This, of course, happened only 16 months after his legs were crushed in a head-on collision in Texas.
20 years before that, the legendary Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur at Merion, making him the only player ever to win the four biggest championships in one year.
David Graham, the winner here in the 1981 U.S. Open, was among a dozen or so former and current players who attended the Rolex dinner on Monday evening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which honors Arnold Palmer each year. Graham and Palmer shared stories on stage with Jim Nantz, the Master of Ceremonies, asking questions of various players in attendance — including U.S. Open defending champ Webb Simpson and Masters champ Adam Scott. Phil Mickelson was also in attendance.
Even at the dinner, the talk was about the rain and how it has softened up the course. Scott seemed to sum up my sentiments when he said, “Hopefully, the course will dry up and be the Merion we all want it to be.”
In Tuesday’s press conference, Tiger Woods said that despite the soft conditions, “execution doesn’t change. You still have to keep the ball in play and make as many birdies as possible.”
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