Father’s Day week means the toughest test in golf in the calendar year. The U.S. Open returns to historic Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia and to a course that doesn’t mirror the norm when it comes to what a major tournament looks like.
The course itself is unique in the sense that is measures under 7,000 yards. It will pay at 6,996 yards. Will Merion still pose a challenging test or will it look outdated by Sunday? A typical U.S. Open site requires 250-300 acres for the golf course, infrastructure, range and maintenance. For Merion, everything is being squeezed into 175 total acres.
The grounds of the East Course are so small that players will be set up on a practice range a mile away at the club’s West Course. Spectator tickets will be capped at 25,000 per day, significantly less than a relatively large event such as at Olympic Club last year, where 35,000 tickets sold daily.
Because of limited spectator room within the grounds, USGA officials have devised an Open Championship-like system of perimeter fan viewing and circulation, with stands holding 15,000 seats available, including a stadium-like temporary structure behind the par-3 17th green. The course and grounds will certainly look out of date with “modern standards” if very low scores start coming in. The USGA values par in this tournament and the wet weather as of late in the Philadelphia area is probably not going to help the USGA’s goal of having the winning score scores at or near par.
Merion Golf Club, with the skyline of Philadelphia in the distance.
This course certainly has the history to warrant having the U.S. Open back on its grounds. Merion has hosted 18 USGA Championship tournaments, more than any other course. The first two, the 1904 and 1909 U.S. Women’s Amateurs, were held at the original Haverford course. The first USGA men's tournament held at the East Course was the 1916 U.S. Amateur, won by Chick Evans. This was also the first time Bobby Jones appeared in a national championship; he was 14 years old. Jones would win his first U.S. Amateur in 1924, also held at Merion. The last two U.S. Opens that were played here were in 1971, when Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff and in 1981 when David Graham won his second major.
Things to watch for: -Wicker baskets: On the East Course, all pins are topped with wicker baskets instead of the usual flags. As one story goes, when course designer Hugh Wilson was in England studying their golf courses, he happened upon local sheepherders and their flocks. These shepherds held staffs that they used for herding, and the staffs all had wicker baskets at the top. In those baskets, they kept their lunch for the day so that no animals could get into it. Wilson decided to use the idea at Merion, though the exact origin has never been fully verified. One effect is that the baskets are visible no matter which way the wind is blowing – but they do not give the golfer any indication of wind direction at the green. They have been used since at least 1916 and are featured in the club's logo.
The wicker basket on top of pins won’t help the players gauge the wind.
-Great groupings: The USGA always has fun with its groupings and it hasn’t disappointed again this time around. The world #1, #2 & #3 are all together (Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott) which puts the focus on this group which still has some spice with former Tiger Woods caddie Stevie Williams now on the bag of Masters champion Adam Scott. Europe will be watching the trio of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood & Martin Kaymer (don’t forget it’s Kaymer who has the only major win among the three—PGA 2010). The “Big Bomber” group includes Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson & Nicholas Colsaerts. The defending champion Webb Simpson is paired with Ernie Els (British Open champ) & Steven Fox (U.S. Amateur champ).
Webb Simpson, the defending U.S. Open champion.
-Analytics: Brandt Snedeker, Kevin Streelman & Steve Stricker: Since WGR is all about analytics, here’s some stats as to why I put these golfers as three to watch. PGATour.com looked at five major statistical categories in 2013, all of which are quite important for this week at Merion. Using driving accuracy, rough proximity, greens in regulation, scrambling and strokes gained-putting; Snedeker ranked first, Streelman ranks second, Stricker ranked third. Stricker hasn’t played much this year but still is one of the best putters in the world when he’s on his game.
Players I like to contend: -Tiger Woods: He doesn’t have to hit driver with the shorter setup and I think he’s the best from the fairway to the cup. Also, this is the first time since 2000 that Tiger has won four times on the PGA Tour before the U.S. Open. He won the U.S. Open that year by 15 shots at Pebble Beach.
-Matt Kuchar: Kuchar is steady, a good putter and just won at the Memorial so his confidence is high coming in. He and Tiger are the only multiple winners on Tour this year.
-Graeme McDowell: Two wins in last four starts, including the Volvo World Match Play Championship, Bulgaria's first-ever European Tour event. He's 7-for-7 in making cuts at the U.S. Open with a win in 2010 and a T2 last year. Would lead TOUR in fairways hit if eligible.
-Prediction: Graeme McDowell
Send me your pick @BrianWGR on twitter.
For a full hour of golf talk, including full discussion of the U.S. Open, tune into to the Tee 2 Green Golf Show Saturday morning with Brian Koziol, Kevin Sylvester and PGA Pro Jeff Mietus from 7-8am and a re-broadcast from 9-10am.