Merion Not Coming Up Short As Open Test
By Stuart Hall
ARDMORE, Pa. – Merion Golf Club's East Course, when stretched to its limit, measures 6,996 yards for this week's U.S. Open. Not since 2004 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club has an Open course been this short. But as players are recognizing this week, shorter length is not translating into lower scores.
"I actually think this course plays more like a 7,400- or 7,500-yard golf course just because you have the stretch [of holes] from seven through 13, besides the fact that number nine being a long par 3," said Rickie Fowler, who opened with an even-par 70. "If you made those [holes] regular length, it's going to add up on the scorecard closer to 7,400 or 7,500 yards."
The seven-hole stretch Fowler refers to features five par-4s and a pair of par-3s. The combined distance is 2,143 yards, with the longest being 403 yards. But with the added precipitation, including two weather suspensions in Thursday's opening round and the light rain that fell overnight, the course is playing deceptively long.
While rain helps keep balls from rolling out on the narrow fairways by an estimated 10 to 15 percent, it also lengthens holes. As a result, the so-called scoring holes have become more difficult and the course now has additional fangs. The moisture also makes the rough more challenging, placing a higher premium on accuracy off the tee.
Holes 7-13 played to a field scoring average of 26.052 in the opening round, a fraction higher than even-par 26. The remaining 11 holes more than picked up the slack. And the entire course played more than four strokes higher than par at 74.212, or seven strokes higher than first-round leader Phil Mickelson 67.
"I actually made a comment last year, I thought that if it was going to be soft, I thought that this course would be scoreable," said John Senden, who opened with an even-par 70, "but not with the cold conditions. It seems to be holding up really well. And shooting a par round today, I'm very happy with it."
Slate gray skies and temperatures better suited for mid-autumn greeted the 78 players who were finishing their first round on Friday morning. Ernie Els likened the conditions to that of a British Open, which he has won twice, including last year.
"It was really blowing a bit this morning," said Els, who shot 71. "So probably a two-club wind. And it's dead into you on 14, 15, 17. And then 18 it is downwind. And it was raining a bit. You throw the rough in there, then the length of some of the holes, it's a tough finish."
Add quickening greens to the equation, as Tiger Woods found out in making a bogey on the par-4 12th hole as part of a 3-over 73.
“It's unbelievable how much faster they were this morning,” said Woods. “That pin on 12 is a little quick from above and I barely hit mine and I ran it by about eight feet. And there are a couple pins like that.
“It should slow up a little bit by this afternoon, but there's still quite a bit of moisture in them so I think that the uphill, into-the-grain putts are really slow and then obviously the downhill, down-grain putts are really quick.”
Reigning U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson believes the course creates a mindset that low scores are readily available, when in actuality patience will produce the opportunities.
"I think you'll hear guys talk about this all week, but this course never lets up," he said.
Even if the yardage says otherwise.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.