The mystery of Merion ready to unfold


ARDMORE, Pa. – Even major championship memories fade.

Merion’s quirky and confined East Course has hosted 17 USGA championships, two more than any other club, and this week’s U.S. Open will mark the fifth time the national championship is played along Philadelphia’s storied Main Line.

Yet for most players in this week’s field that legacy feels like ancient history. In the 32 years since David Graham won the last Open played on the East Course the game has moved on. Merion has not.

Some of the angles have been adjusted and a handful of new tee boxes added for this year’s Open, but the layout remains virtually unchanged by time or technology.

Players will tee off at the first within arm’s length of what is essentially the 19th hole, play a card that reads 6,996 yards (the shortest Open course since 2004), and try to avoid an eclectic mix of grasses that make up the rough that superintendent Matt Schaffer calls a “potpourri.”

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Half the field will begin their week from the 11th tee because of routing concerns, players warm up on the West Course, a 20-minute shuttle bus drive from ... well, anywhere; and Golf House Road will be in play, albeit temporarily as players carve their tee shots over the byway, which is out of bounds, and into the 14th fairway.

Yet the accumulation of decades of knowledge does little to help the 156 players prepare for what is essentially the Merion mystery.

“I don't think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we're going to have to do and what we're going to have to shoot. The conditions keep changing,” Tiger Woods said. “It will be interesting to see what the players end up doing the first few days and getting a feel for what the number is going to be.”

Welcome to the Enigma Open.

Merion’s iconic wicker basket flagsticks may be the official logo of the 113th Open, but for a field full of first-timers – a dozen players in this week’s field have played a USGA event at Merion, but never an Open – a more apropos symbol would be a question mark.

After more than three decades outside of the Open rotation – the victim, some say, of runaway technology and the land demands of a modern championship – much of the chatter in the run up to this week’s event has been focused on what Merion has had too much of in recent weeks (rain) and not what it is lacking (space).

A parade of storms that began last Monday have turned Merion muddy, swelled Cobb’s Creek to within inches of the 11th green and prompted officials to prepare for the worst. Two holes on the adjacent West Course have been groomed to Open standards in case of flooding and just hours into championship week USGA executive director Mike Davis was already fielding questions about playing preferred lies.

“In terms of a doomsday scenario, who knows, if it's 10,000 to 1 that we would have that happen,” said Davis in reference to using backup holes from the West Course, although the same odds likely apply to the use of preferred lies.

“We don't anticipate that happening to the point where we're not going to be able to get the U.S. Open in or we're going to have to go to some holes on the West Course. We think that the golf course, again, drains beautifully for a non-coastal, non-sandy site, it really does.”

Mother Nature will dictate which Merion shows up this week. Since Monday’s storms, the weather has been relatively clear and breezy but Thursday’s forecast looks bleak, with rain chances at 80 percent.

On paper the East Course is a position golf course, with five par 4s playing under 400 yards (including the 303-yard 10th hole) and just three par 4s coming in over 480 yards.

But before players leave their drivers in the trunk, consider that the 18th will measure well over 500 yards for the week and three of the four par 3s will play over 235 yards.

“Obviously, you got to hang on at 3. (No.) 3 is a drivable par 4,” smiled Woods with tongue firmly planted in cheek in reference to the 256-yard par 3.

Most players this week contend Merion is the longest 7,000-yard course they’ve ever played and suggestions that scoring records may fall like June rain appear to be greatly exaggerated if early reviews are any indication.

“(The winning total is) certainly going to be under par, but I don't see 62's or 63's being shot on this golf course,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion. “I'd certainly take 8 under par right now and take my chances.”

But if Merion and the meteorologist are center stage in the buildup to Thursday’s opening round, there is no shortage of secondary story lines many of which begin, as they normally do, with Woods.

The 2013 U.S. Open officially marks the five-year anniversary of Woods’ last major triumph, a drought that seemed unimaginable even as he limped off Torrey Pines in 2008.

In his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ Grand Slam haul of 18 majors, the world No. 1 is in the midst of a 0-for-15 slide, although he has managed eight top-10s in that stretch. In a rare moment of retrospect, Woods was asked if it has become harder to win majors as the near misses have piled up since ’08.

“It was never easy,” said Woods, who will be playing his 16th Open as a professional. “The practice rounds are imperative. Doing scouting trips are very important, just like it is for this week. I came up here early. I had to do all that stuff. But then I have to go out and execute and go out and win an event.”

At Merion, more so than any other modern Open venue, execution takes a back seat to strategy. Will wet conditions demand a more aggressive approach, or will architectural subtleties require a more measured game plan despite the weatherman’s dire forecast?

If the U.S. Open is the game’s most demanding test, as many players contend, Merion appears to ask the most detailed and nuanced questions. At the Enigma Open finding those answers, even more than finding fairways, may be the most important test.