So the U.S. Open starts Thursday at Merion Golf Club in suburban Philly; and by the looks of things, this isn't going to be like the U.S. Opens of years past. The USGA usually tries to make this tournament insanely, wickedly difficult. They want the course long, firm and fast, which Merion will not be. But that doesn't mean it will be easy.
Friday's and Monday's heavy rains have Merion's East Course soaked, like, so soaked that officials have a plan to use two holes from the neighboring West Course if the East's Nos. 11 and 12 are flooded. More rain is expected Thursday, but the course will be playable—the superintendent and army of groundskeepers will make sure of that. The question, then, is how the course will play. The answer: slow.
All the rain has the course softer than memory foam, making it easier for players to hit greens. (Soft greens make it less likely than a shot will land on the putting surface and run off.) A soft course is the USGA's nightmare. Slow greens mean low scores, which isn't what the USGA wants at a tournament where—aside from Rory McIlroy's absurd performance in 2011—the winner is usually within a few strokes of par (or often above it). With sunny skies forecast for the tournament's final three days, it's possible the course could dry out for the weekend rounds and scores could rise. How would players adjust to faster conditions after having only practiced on a soggy course?
Merion is also a short course by U.S. Open standards. At 6,996 yards, it's the first U.S. Open to play under 7,000 yards since 2004 at Shinnecock. The course has been lengthened considerably since it last hosted the U.S. Open in 1981, when it played at 6,544 yards, but is significantly shorter than Congressional was in 2011 (7,574 yards) or Bethpage Black was in 2009 (7,426 yards). The course is a par-70, with only two par-5s (Nos. 2 and 4). The par-4s are generally fairly short; only four of the 12 are longer than 450 yards. The par-3s, though, are quite long. No. 13 is only 115 yards, but the other three are 256, 236 and 246 yards.
Still, despite the course's length and condition, don't expect a score like McIlroy's 16-under at Congressional in 2011. Merion will be a challenge. The course's tight fairways will emphasize accuracy. A missed fairway will be especially punitive given how thick the rough is. Ernie Els called it "as bad as I've ever seen it."
The short par-4s and sharp dog-legs will force longer hitters to hit 3-wood or a long iron off the tee and leave them unable to take advantage of their length. The pair of creeks which meander around the property will come into play on several holes—preventing a bump-and-run play on No. 4 and coming dangerously close to the green on the par-3 sixth, for example. The patches of fescue that dot the course could also prove treacherous, especially when they border Merion's deep bunkers. And oh yeah, there's a damn quarry in front of the green on No. 16. If you hit it in there, you're screwed.
The winner this weekend will be an accurate, conservative player with a hot putter. You aren't going to pick up strokes hitting par-5s in two or par-4s in one. Birdies are going to have to come from tight approach shots and one-putts. For some reason, Tiger Woods is the favorite in Vegas at 9-2, even though his game is more about power. My money would be on Phil Mickelson and his excellent short game.