Merion Golf Club’s fifth U.S. Open might be another record-setting event.
Rory McIlroy’s record 16-under-par score of 268 set two years ago at Congressional Country Club might be in danger of falling after torrential rains softened the greens at Merion, a 117-year-old layout in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
“It’s a real shame,” England’s Luke Donald, the world’s No. 6-ranked player, told reporters. “It just makes everything a little bit more attackable. As a top player you want the place to play as tough as it possibly can.”
The U.S. Golf Association’s decision to return after a 32-year absence to Merion, where Bobby Jones in 1930 became the only golfer to win four majors in the same season, was considered by some golf enthusiasts and players to be risky.
At 6,996 yards, Merion is the shortest U.S. Open venue since New York’s Shinnecock Hills played at the same yardage in 2004. And with rain-softened greens in the mix, the number of birdie chances might rise and the list of contenders will get longer.
“You could see a lot of different names in the mix come the weekend,” said Curtis Strange, who in 1988 and 1989 became the only player to win consecutive U.S. Opens.
Nine years ago, Retief Goosen won at Shinnecock with a 4-under total on a dry course that teetered on the edge of being unplayable. Two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els shot 80 in the final round. While the total yardage of Merion and Shinnecock are the same, that’s where the similarities end this week, players said.
Strange, 58, is among those who applauded the decision to return to Merion, a course that has hosted 17 previous USGA championships, the most of any course.
“I commend the USGA, I really do,” Strange said. “Are they going out on a limb? Possibly. It’s going to be interesting.”
Through the course’s opening 13 holes, players could hit as many as nine wedge shots into the greens, defending champion Webb Simpson said. He said he plans to hit 4- or 5-iron shots off the tee on the 360-yard 7th and 8th holes.
“It’s so different from what we’re used to,” Simpson said.
With the first two days of practice rounds affected by the rain and soggy surfaces, many players, including three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods, said it has been difficult to understand how the course will play when the first round is scheduled to begin tomorrow.
“I don’t think we have an exact feel for it yet,” said Woods, who last won the U.S. Open in a 2008 playoff at Torrey Pines. “The conditions keep changing.”
Putting could prove to be the most difficult task to master on slow, wet greens.
“The mindset coming into a U.S. Open is they’re going to be hard and fast and crusty,” the 37-year-old Woods said. “But that’s obviously not going to materialize this week.”
Woods and 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland are among the few players who have visited the course in the past. While McDowell said his previous rounds were played under sunny, calm conditions, Woods was greeted with rain and wet fairways and greens when he came to Merion on May 28, two days before the start of the Memorial Tournament.
“I’m hitting the ball in the same spots now,” Woods said when comparing his scouting trip to current conditions. “I thought it might be totally different, that the ball would be running out and we would hit different clubs and different shapes. But it’s going to be the same as what we played.”
The lowest score shot for a round in one of golf’s four majors is Johnny Miller’s 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Online sports book Bovada.lv has 25-1 odds that a player will break Miller’s mark.
McDowell, who had yet to hit any practice shots before speaking in a news conference yesterday, was among the few players not yet willing to declare this year’s event an impending birdie barrage.
“There’s 10 or 11 of these golf holes on this course that are as tough as any U.S. Open I’ve seen,” said McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with an even-par score. “I’m hoping it’s not going to be a score-fest.”