ARDMORE, Pa. – So much for Merion being embarrassed. So much for it being emasculated.
The conditions were ripe for a birdie-fest Thursday – a sub-7,000-yard course, little wind, moisture on the greens, heavy air – but the first round of the 113th U.S. Open morphed into the ultimate grind that we’ve come to expect from the year’s second major. What a beautiful sight, tiny Merion punching back, holding its own.
Of the 78 players who completed their opening round, there were twice as many scores in the 80s (four) than in the 60s (two).
The scoring average on the par-70 track was creeping north of 73.6.
Sergio Garcia, a ball-striking machine, shot 73.
“It’s an absolute shocker,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said. “The quote that you hear all the time is that everyone underestimates the difficulty of Merion. Thursday is really a super shocker.”
Funny, since it was Miller who belted the first notes among this chorus of naysayers. In a May 29 conference call, the two-time major winner warned that there “could be some records broken” this week – most notably, the 72-hole scoring record of 268 – and “who knows – a 63 could even get broken.” And remember, that was before Merion was deluged by more than seven inches of rain in a four-day span.
Earlier this week Webb Simpson said that if he drove it properly, he would have a wedge in his hands on nine of the first 13 holes. So, it was reasonable to assume that if a PGA Tour player was dialed in with his wedges and putting lights-out, he could possibly shoot 8 under – or lower – on the East Course.
It didn’t happen Thursday. Not even close.
“I think that everybody in that commentary box has never given this golf course enough respect,” Ian Poulter (71) said. “They were joking around laughing at 63s and 62s and just look at the board. I mean, they need to respect this golf course. It’s brutal.”
“I thought maybe these guys are better than I am, because I’m not seeing it that way,” Justin Rose (71) said of the prospect of a 62. “If you miss a shot, it’s really penal.”
Added Jason Day (70): “I saw on TV they were saying that we’re going to rip up this course. I can’t see it. You still have to hit the ball in the fairway.”
That can prove a difficult task, however, even with long irons off the tee. The USGA has topped off the rough at 5 inches on the shorter holes and 4 inches on the meatier ones. That’s severe, of course, but this combination of gnarly stuff is particularly treacherous: ryegrass, bluegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, thick-bladed K-31 grass. A potpourri of punishment. It’s thicker and more unruly than a vacationer’s unattended lawn, but it has proven just tempting enough for the long hitters.
“You think you can hit out of it,” Bubba Watson (71) said, “but then you just get into another bad spot.”
Indeed, Thursday at the Open provided its own unique set of challenges, even before the 3 1/2-hour weather delay.
Consider these factors:
• Several of the hole locations were tucked in the back of the green – 10 of which were 20 or more paces deep – which had already been softened by heavy rainfall throughout the week. Short-iron approach shots would hit the center of the green and spin back, farther away from the hole.
“You saw where they put the pins, didn’t you?” Jerry Kelly (70) said. “You can’t get to them on soft greens.”
Also troublesome: Some greens were slower than others, forcing players to be defensive on makeable attempts.
“They are not the fastest,” said Nicolas Colsaerts (69), “but they are fast enough to get you in trouble at times.”
• Another issue, as Watson so eloquently stated: “The par 3s are the par 3s.” Three of the four are longer than 235 yards, producing the unusual sight of having some of the game’s longer players (say, Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson) opt for 5-wood off the tee. Among the early-wavers, that trio of holes combined to yield only 14 birdies.
• And, finally, Merion is a classic, championship test that has proven itself over time. The winning score here has never been lower than 7 under. Somehow, that was forgotten during all of the misguided prognosticating.
“This was as easy as this golf course is going to play,” said Phil Mickelson, who has the lead among the early starters at 67, “and we are all struggling because it’s such a penalizing golf course. As the week wears on and the conditions get a little bit dryer, a little bit firmer, I think the course is going to get even more difficult and the scores are going to hover very close to par.”
A four-day birdie-fest? A 72-hole record score? Maybe a 62?
Oh, no. Not this week. Not even close.