The Golf Channel pundits filled the airwaves with predictions about how meek little Merion, at less than 7000 yards, could not stand up to the swift kicks of the best players in the world armed with the technology of the day. This was going to be a major with scores in the low sixties, maybe 20-under as a winning score. Tiger, Rory, Adam, and others were going to have their way with it and this was going to be a U.S. Open in Greenbrier Classic clothing.
Visiting the grounds of Merion on Friday it was obvious to me that the golf gods were not going to have any of this. With the help of the Mike Davis and the USGA set-up operatives, the intrinsic defenses of this classic design have stood sturdy and challenged the patience of these competitors. Any of them that believed this would be a short stroll in the park have been rudely awakened by the Merion reality.
The landing area on the blind tee shot on 11 looked like you could not parallel park four VWs in the allotted space. Deep confining bunkers like on the short 350-yard 8th forced players to play long iron-sand wedge into a green the size of a quarter set on it’s side. This hilly piece of real estate gave players awkward side hill billy goat stances even in the middle of the fairway. The green complexes provided the real teeth-steep fall offs shoulders, savage furry bunkering, and serious pitch and yaw to augment the streaking green speeds.
In the final chapter the bulldog at Merion left some torn cuffs and a few open sores on the ankles of those competing for the U.S. Open crown.
The array of holes and their sequencing made building a scorecard an existential experience. Two opportunity par fives, the only par fives of the day, come in the first four holes. The second one was over 600 yards and has a fortress green ringed by deep bunkering fronted by a crossing brook. The front pin was particularly difficult to negotiate, even with a sand wedge in hand, so birdies would be dear there on Sunday.
Steve Stricker fell victim to the Open pressure on the par five 2nd with two balky swings leading to a double OB experience and a triple bogie that dashed his chances for the day.
At 504 and 487 yards respectively, the two par fours at 5 and 6 played a cumulative 9 strokes for the average player, so this is where the wheels could come off early in the round. The side slant on the 5th green toward the creek front left can generate a 12-foot break on a par saving putt.
The tee boxes at the par threes at 3 and 9 were pushed back to 256 and 236 yards-pros were hitting three woods and drivers at the back pins on the 3rd. Again, a tight proximity of Cobb’s Creek to the front pin position on 9 made it into a risk reward par three on the final day.
Luke Donald and Charl Schwartzel butchered the front nine in 42 strokes each to end their Open dreams. Charl would not have beat a Pro-Am partner playing 3 thru 10 with six bogies and a double on 6. All the “Loooooook” cheers were stifled with his five bogies and a double on 6 in the same stretch.
The crowd noise opportunities were in the middle of the round. Short holes at 7, 8, 10, and 11 all seem to be scoring chances but these holes have serious technical difficulties that require impeccable execution to set off any fan bedlam. The ribbon thin 11th is where Bobby Jones closed out the last match of the U.S. Amateur to finish his historic Grand Slam at Merion in 1930.
Jason Day managed to capture the attention of crowd with a couple of birdies on 8 and 10. But he rinsed his approach into the narrow opening on 11 and two more bogies down the stretch left him two strokes too far to seriously contend.
Maybe the testimony to the quirky character of Merion was to be the 115 yard pitch and putt par three 13th. An on-level pitch to a green the size of your big toe nail, the players cannot see the surface of the green because it is obscured by a Groucho Marx brow on the top of the front bunker. It should be a certain birdie hole to anyone with their name stenciled on the side of their bag, but miscues into any of the green side bunkers makes par an elusive score.
Champagne Phil had successfully walked the leader tight rope with doubles on 3 and 5, a birdie on 4, and, in a pure Phil moment, holing out for eagle two from the fairway on 10. But the enigmatic 13th took it’s toll as Phil air mailed a wedge into the high grass behind the green and it was all he could do to make a bogie and stay in touch.
The final leg at Merion, starting at number 14, can break down the sternest competitor and those able to avoid the train wrecks through the quarry holes would be the ones with a chance to hoist this piece of silver.
The harrowing OB on the left of 15 haunted Sergio three times on Saturday on his way to a 10 on this par four taking him from one under to five over for the day and putting a fork into any hopes he might have of contending on Sunday. Hunter Mahan was hovering around the lead Sunday with a steady hand on the tiller until he made double on 15 with two shots wayward right, followed by bogies on the two difficult closing holes.
Phil made one more costly unforced error on 15. He took the bold driving line up the right and had a stock gap wedge from about 130 for a birdie chance that would have given him a chance to tie for the lead. It came up 10% air and the severe slope of this green sucked his approach all the way back to the front edge leaving him a pitch off the green surface and two putts for the bogie that was the final nail in his Open coffin this year.
Justin Rose kept the feisty dog at bay showing unperturbed patience through the roller coaster experience of the first sixteen holes. Successfully playing the Kitzbuhel drop to a long, narrow undulating tongue of a green on the par three 17th and negotiating two text book Hogan-esque shots into the impossible finishing hole, Rose came out with his trousers in tact to wrap his arms around his first coveted major trophy.
Dash the prognostications of those Golf Channel pundits. As we all saw today….it is the size of the fight in the dog.