Here are some of the stories we'll be following when the players tee it up at the Merion Golf Club for the 2013 U.S. Open on Thursday morning:
Is Merion Tough Enough?
In the clubhouse at Merion Golf Club hangs the iconic photo that has found its way into many picture frames across the world: Ben Hogan’s famous 1-iron shot to Merion’s 18th green at the 1950 U.S. Open. The photo is famous for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it captures Hogan on his way to winning the U.S. Open less than two years after nearly being killed in an auto accident that affected the rest of his career. But also notable is the fact that Hogan is using a 1-iron. Nobody uses that club today. And it is quite unlikely that a player today, hitting from the same distance to the pin, would need that much club.
The club near Philadelphia will host the U.S. Open for the fifth time, but the first since 1981. The course was believed to be too short for the world’s best golfers 30 years ago, which leads to the same kind of questions today. And if it is not too short, then how will the United States Golf Association’s Mike Davis go about setting it up to make it a firm enough test?
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, had the chance to play at Merion last summer and raved about the venue. He also wondered “just how high are they going to grow the grass, how difficult will the rough be?’’
It's a given that the rough will be brutal, the fairways narrow and the greens as fast and treacherous as possible given the torrential rains that have soaked the area.
In order to get the Open again — it is played on the club’s East Course, about a mile from the West Course, where the players will practice and have locker room facilities — Merion officials had to agree to some changes put forth by the USGA. Of course, lengthening several holes was part of the process. In 1981, when David Graham hit all 18 greens in regulation during the final round, Merion measured less than 6,500 yards.
The USGA feels that those changes were worth it, and that Merion is worth showcasing. “This is a national treasure in the world of golf and to expose it to the world, I feel good about that,” said Davis, who is the USGA’s executive director and also in charge of setting up its championship venues. “If I have a fear, it’s four days of wet conditions, where they are throwing darts, but I feel that way at every Open. If we get firm conditions, this course will be an awesome test.”
Whether it's playing tough or not, Merion should provide plenty of thrills, as tweeted by Rory McIlroy: "What a golf course! Plenty of birdie chances mixed with plenty of potential disaster! Going to be an exciting US Open!"
The marquee group for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open at Merion is a doozy: three-time Open champ Tiger Woods, 2011 champ Rory McIlroy and reigning Masters champion Adam Scott. The grouping provides subplots aplenty, not the least of which is the fact that Woods and former caddie Steve Williams, now on Scott’s bag, will be reunited for only the second time since their acrimonious parting. It also marks the first time — but hopefully not the last — that Woods and McIlroy will be paired at a major. The group will tee off on Thursday at 1:14 p.m. Eastern from tee No. 1 and then at 7:44 a.m. on Friday from tee No. 11. We’ll be watching.
Is Rory Ready?
Former World No. 1 Rory McIlroy has been underwhelming in 2013, to say the least. He missed the cut in his only two European Tour appearances this season, and aside from a runner-up at the Valero Texas Open, he hasn't contended in the U.S. either. His ballstriking has been better than you would think; he ranks fourth on Tour in Greens in Regulation. If he can get a few putts to drop and avoid too many trips to the knee-high rough, he'll contend.
What About the 40-Somethings?
At last year's British Open, Ernie Els, then 42, proved that 40 is not a death sentence for golfers, winning his fourth major. Can another 40-something kiss the trophy this week? Merion doesn't require the prodigious length that eliminates some older players before they start, giving hope to the aged this week. Els himself is a candidate to win his third U.S. Open after a respectable T13 at The Masters, although his British Open win is his only victory since 2010 and may have been an outlier. Jim Furyk seemed primed to win his second U.S. Open last year at age 42 before a disappointing final round left him T4. But the guy we're watching this week is Phil Mickelson. This tournament owes something to Lefty, who celebrates his 43rd birthday on Sunday. What a birthday and Father's Day it would be for Mickelson if he got over the hump at a tournament where he's finished second a record five times. His runner-up finish at the FedEx St. Jude could bode well.
Will the Drought Finally End?
It's been a full five years since Tiger Woods' one-legged U.S. Open win. Who knew at the time that it would be his swan song for the foreseeable future. Tiger seems primed to end the drought, winning four tournaments before the end of May for the first time in his career and posting his first win at the Players Championship since 2001. He ranks first on Tour in Adjusted Scoring, All Around and FedExCup points. Once again, he's the undisputed best player in the world. A poor putting performance at the Memorial could have been a red flag, but we think it's a mere blip. We expect him to be the last man standing, this time on two good legs.