ARDMORE, Pa. – Was Merion tricked up?
Of course it was; it’s a U.S. Open.
In some way or another, every U.S. Open is “tricked up,” in the sense that a course’s defenses are dialed up to the extreme to repel scoring. While USGA executive director Mike Davis has brought more even-handed setups to the U.S. Open, with his graduated rough and his affection for the risk/reward of short holes, Merion felt like his toughest setup. Most notably, flagsticks (wicker-basket sticks?) seemed more extremely tucked. And if the rough was graduated, it started at tough and graduated to extreme.
Still, outside the par-3 third hole’s monstrous setup on Sunday at 274 yards, where some players struggled to reach the green with a driver in the wind, this U.S. Open didn’t feel unfair at all. There wasn’t anything close to the goofy golf elements that plagued the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in ’04 (the dead, brick greens), Bethpage Black in ’02 (fairways that couldn’t be reached with drivers) and The Olympic Club in ’98 (the clown mouth’s Friday pin placement at the 18th). This was a grueling, demanding but ultimately fair examination of smarts, skill and patience.
Davis had no regrets about the setup, other than Mother Nature throwing him a curveball and changing direction after Sunday’s set up at No. 3.
ldquo;I don't think we would have done anything differently,” Davis said. “We could be standing here right now and 12 under could have won, and we would have had the same tee locations, the same rough, same green speeds. We wouldn't have done anything differently. You have to remember, one of the reasons this was hard is it was windy out there. We had four days of wind. I thought coming into this (was) we would have zero days of wind. In June? In Philadelphia? Usually you get hot, humid conditions. If we would have had four days of still conditions, 1 over wouldn't have won. I don't know what would have won. So we didn't try to manipulate the scores as some would have it.”
The chief complaints from players were about No. 3’s Sunday setup, pin positions set three paces from the edges of some greens, a few fairways that looked like they were slightly moved from their normal routing, OB just a pace off a couple fairways.
Here’s a sampling of player reactions:
Zach Johnson after missing the cut – “I would describe the whole golf course as manipulated. It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how it manipulates golf courses.”
Jason Dufner – “I think the golf course was set up pretty fair for the most part. There are some holes that they kind of pushed a little bit that really challenged you, but then there are some easier holes out here if you can be in the fairway.”
Padraig Harrington – “The course is great. It was a surprising golf course to come to, from what maybe had been portrayed in the media. It was a big test. Massive greens, real difficult. Glad they weren't firm and fast. I think the golf course played super as it was this week.”
Brandt Snedeker – “It was a great test, I thought it was fair. A few pin positions probably got a little bit out of hand and a few of the greenside stuff got out of hand, but they try to do what they usually do to get the score around par and they got what they wanted ... I think that as great as this week was, I think the U.S. Open has kind of moved past one of these venues. It's been great to be part of it. I love the history here, but there's so much more that goes in a U.S. Open than just golf. Just from an infrastructure standpoint, from a fan standpoint, from a global marketing standpoint, I feel like this tournament needs more space to put on a championship in the right way.”
Tiger Woods – “It played tricky. The rough was up. They were raking the rough up every morning into the grain. And the pins were really tough ... sometimes we would be three paces off, they put it so close to the edge. A couple of times there, step over a hump. I didn't think they were going to be that difficult, but given the soft conditions, I think that's what they tried to do.”
Davis gets the last words on whether he thought the challenging operational logistics made it worth bringing the U.S. Open back to Merion: “I think that we went into it hoping that some of the things would come together, but you know what? At the end of it, regardless of whether some things were tougher operationally than normal, regardless of whether you make less money from it, which is a very minor thing as far as we're concerned, it was great for golf. And in the sense you got back to a great historic site. You celebrated history, you celebrated one of the great architectural sites. You celebrated a great championship site, so it was really worth it, I thought.”