By Bradley S. Klein, Golfweek
ARDMORE, Pa. – Only 6,996 yards long, under soft, wet conditions: You could not find golf holes riper for plucking by the world’s best golfers. So why is Merion Golf Club kicking serious butt? The first-round leader (Phil Mickelson) only 3 under, only five rounds completed in red, and an average stroke score for the field of 74.2.
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1. Merion isn’t short
These days, 6,996 yards sounds short for Tour players, but this is a par-70, and because two par-4s replace two par-5s, it’s playing the equivalent of a 7,250-yard course, which is nothing to dismiss as somehow out-of-whack with modern standards. Plus it’s wet, slow, and therefore playing longer than on paper. And if we break down how the holes play, it turns out that there are a lot of short holes, but also a lot of long holes, and nothing in between. Total yardage doesn’t betray that. This is a course without a middle ground. The holes are either relatively easy or really, really hard.
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2. The short holes are playing long
The six shortest of the par-4s average 357 yards. That would be driver/lob-wedge, except that few golfers are hitting driver on them – and when you tee off for safety with a 3-, 4-, or 5-iron in hand, the short hole suddenly plays a little longer, especially with the absence of roll out there.
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3. The long holes are playing really long
Meanwhile, those six par-4s averaging 470 yards are playing really long, because the driver isn’t rolling very far. Players who normally get 20-30 yards of ground roll are now finding themselves hitting middle-irons, long-irons and even utility clubs into par 4s.
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4. Lines of play are everything
This is a course where angles of play are crucial – especially because there’s an element of blindness to 11 holes where you can’t see your drive or approach shot land. That makes good golfers uneasy. On the tee of the par-4 15th hole, you line up out-of-bounds left. The tee on the par-4 sixth hole sets you up in the right rough. And on several holes, the ideal line of play was eliminated by USGA and Merion officials, who narrowed fairways and widened roughs – even where that intruded upon the ideal line of play to the green (for example, the right side of Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 18). So players have to learn target lines, which means a little bit of uncertainty. The more so with no indicators of wind available since there are no flags on the pins but wicker baskets.
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5. Practice rounds were not routine
There’s a reason they play practice rounds. But this week’s play lacked any rhythm, as play was halted midway Monday. The mile separation of practice ground and lockers from the golf course further disrupts routine and makes practicing on the course more of a complex undertaking than usual. There’s no way to confirm this, but based upon 20 U.S. Opens I’ve been to, this one had the fewest practice rounds I’ve ever seen.
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6. The par-5s are hard
Tour pros make their money off par-5s, yet the two here at Merion are both playing over par. The threat of out-of-bounds down the length of the 556-yard second hole has taken its toll on the risk tolerance of players at the tee, many of whom are laying up or playing safe on their second shot. The more so since the rough here is so punitive (see below). And with a stream short of the green on the par-5 fourth hole and the tee moved back to 628 yards, there’s little reason to play aggressively here. The result is that two normal birdie opportunities are playing more like par holes.
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7. The par-3s are harder
OK, the 115-yard 13th hole is playing easy. You still have three of the hardest par 3s in golf to deal with Nos. 3, 9 and 17, averaging 246 yards and playing in the first round to an average score of 3.34.
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8. Long-grass fairways take off spin
It’s also harder than normal to impart spin on the golf ball here at Merion because the fairways are kept to an unusually long length of mowing height – one-half inch, which is shaggier than most championship course fairways. There’s grain out there, which not only slows down the fairways and reduces ground roll (making the holes play longer), but also makes it harder to impart proper control and spin on middle- and long-iron shots.
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9. Rough is brutal
The rough here is like the mange of a mongrel mutt – messy, dirty, and long. There are so many different grass types out there. While U.S. Open rough is notoriously dense anyway, recurring rains that have plagued Merion for a week now constricted the ability to mow roughs. That makes for the kind of rough that the old, pre-Mike Davis USGA was known for, where the longest club you get on the ball is a short iron or wedge, and if you miss a fairway you have unpredictable lies and little chance to advance it more than 125 yards.
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10. Greens are hard to find
Green contours are tough enough. The real issue for players is that there’s basically only one way in. Forget about links golf out there – the bunker patterns, false fronts, and density of rough alongside greens all conspire to limit access to aerial approaches. You certainly can’t bounce the ball from the side; there’s so much rough alongside greens that the ball comes to a dead halt instead of rolling down side slopes.
Wet weather or not, Merion is holding up well. In fact, this is the relatively easy version. If it ever dries out – watch out.