Long Day in Store at Merion
By Dave Shedloski
ARDMORE, Pa. – The first day of the U.S. Open became the Philadelphia Story. But already it’s starting to appear that the week might just belong to Merion.
Despite the best efforts of Mother Nature to compromise the strategic defenses of Merion Golf Club, the century-old East Course proved resistant to the scoring entreaties of the contestants Thursday in the opening round of the 113th U.S. Open. Two bouts of precipitation further softened a short and seemingly outdated golf course, but the clubhouse lead was the modest 3-under-par 67 produced by five-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson.
But while the weather was not cooperative, it also created its own challenges, mainly two suspensions totaling more than four hours. Play resumed at 7:13 a.m. EDT Friday with all of the players in the afternoon wave having to complete the first round before the scheduled second round commences. Some competitors have as many as 14 holes to finish, making for an arduous day on a stubborn old layout.
Among those who need to make birdies to get back into contention includes Tiger Woods, the three-time U.S. Open champion and No. 1 player in the world. Struggling with his putting and seemingly injured – he winced and held his left arm after a shot out of the rough at the par-4 fifth hole, Woods was two over through 10 holes. He had a short par putt on No. 11 when play was halted for the day on Thursday.
“I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow (Friday) and hopefully I play better than I did today,” Woods said.
That will be a challenge, not because Woods isn’t eminently capable, but because Merion might become increasingly stingy.
The weather forecast through Sunday looks much improved and the wind is expected to freshen. Merion could dry out quickly and scores could go higher in concert.
“I can’t imagine what this place will be like if this gets firm and fast,” Jason Dufner said after a 4-over 74.
“I would think that we have seen Merion play about the easiest it’s going to play,” said Steve Stricker, who cobbled together a 71. “A lot will probably depend on where they put the pins because the rest of the course is what it is.”
Jim Furyk, the 2003 Open champion, said the late start and the suspensions in play, “are not a big deal. We do it all the time.” The issue, he said, after finishing 12 holes in two over par, is simply the impending wearying day. “The toll's going to be [on Friday]. We'll have to get up really early, and I have six holes to finish and then turn around and try to finish the second round.”
Asked how he would adjust when the second round began, Furyk replied, “To be honest I can't guess what y'all [at the USGA] are ever going to do, so I don't know yet. I'll tell you tomorrow.”
A telling early sign that players could be in for misery despite Merion’s deceivingly short 6,996-yard configuration came just before the first weather delay when left-handed bomber Bubba Watson pulled his tee shot on the par-4 16th into the rough by about 18 inches and then moved his second shot a mere 30 yards due to the denseness of the grass.
“It's playing very long,” Hunter Mahan, the 1999 U.S. Junior Amateur champion and 2002 U.S. Amateur runner-up, said after a 72. “Yeah, it's challenging. The pins are tough. It's hard to hit it really close. You have to make some long putts.”
"Everyone that I saw on TV was saying that we're going to rip up this course. I can't see it," said Australia’s Jason Day, who shot even-par 70.
Expect some kind of crazy low score to be even less visible, less possible, as Friday’s play morphs from Round 1 into Round 2. The greens will get harder and faster and the rough will keep growing.
Merion is acquitting herself well already.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usopen.com.