In the decades since the East Course at Merion Golf Club hosted its last major championship -- the 1981 U.S. Open -- the general thought was that golf at its highest level had outgrown the now-100-year-old venue in Ardmore, Pa. This is true to an extent, but the United States Golf Association wears many hats. One of them reminds the masses of the rich tradition and history of old ball yards like Merion, host of the 113th edition of the U.S. Open.
At 6,996 yards, it's the first host of the season's second major to measure under 7,000 yards since Shinnecock Hills in 2004. The tight, par-70 layout evokes the vibe of a Labyrinth game. Contours on fairways and greens will require a heightened sense of course management, but there is risk and reward all over the property that caters to the relatively modern mindset, especially since USGA executive director Mike Davis has been in charge of course setups. The par 5s come early at holes 2 and 4, but there is also a seven-hole stretch -- Nos. 7-13 -- where the longest is just 403 yards -- the par-4 12th.
With this week's U.S. Open counting as the 18th time that Merion has hosted a USGA championship -- more than any other venue -- the irony is that most in the field have never played the course until it was announced as the site. And with a predictably devilish routing, there's no such thing as having too much course knowledge.
While damp conditions due to recent heavy rains will help prevent many drives from rolling out and into the uber-lush rough, it's that same long grass that will lead to some second-guessing off the tees. (Golfers will go off in threesomes on the first and 11th tees during the first two rounds. It's the second straight year that the USGA has deviated from the customary starts at 1 and 10 due to on-site logistics. Nos. 1 and 9 served as the starting points at The Olympic Club last year.)
Ball-striking is the premium for the week with a tilt toward driving. Greens average 6,000 square feet, which is about average of most PGA TOUR tracks, but they are expected to run a minimal 12 on the Stimpmeter as most of the course drains well. That's a good thing since rain remains in the forecast through Thursday before a dry pattern finally sets in. High temperatures will flirt with 80 degrees all week. Wind is unlikely to be a factor.
A preview of Merion wouldn't be complete without a mention of the famous wicker baskets that sit atop all 18 metal poles (not fiberglass sticks). Holes 1-9 feature red baskets with red-and-white-striped poles; the baskets on the inward nine are orange affixed to orange-and-white-striped poles. Should a golfer lodge an approach into a basket, he will be allowed to place the ball on the lip of the cup without penalty.
NOTE: For similar characteristics among recent winners, please look for "Stats Suggest" in The TOUR Report on Wednesday.
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