Merion proved to be a perfect venue for the toughest test in golf

So contrary to everyone’s predictions,  Merion held up just fine, huh? Some claim scores were so high because the USGA was so worried about players firing record-lows that they decided to set the course up a little more difficult than in other years. I think the scores were so high because the majority of the field had never seen Merion before. I wondered whether a couple of practice rounds would be allow the players to get comfortable with Merion’s old, undulating greens and its array of blind tee shots and approaches. And I just don’t think they felt completely comfortable in those two aspects. So take that into account, plus the fact that it’s the U.S. Open and players are thus uncomfortable anyway and you have a recipe for a stern test.

Let’s take a look at the players’ reactions to golf analysts’ predictions that Merion would be a pushover.

Steve Stricker: “A 62 possible? I don’t see that number out there.  Personally. But not to say somebody else doesn’t see that. But it’s still a U.S. Open, they’re still going to set it up very difficult. With wet conditions like we have, there’s other challenges too. We may be able to drive it in the fairway a little bit easier, the ball may not run away on us in the fairway, but getting to some of these pin locations is still going to be difficult because now we’ve got to play for spin. So there’s still going to be a lot of challenges and it still at spots is a pretty long golf course. I’ve been saying this is the longest short course I’ve ever played. Everybody’s told me how short it is and I’ve been wearing out 3‑irons and utilities into some of these holes. So it’s fairly long and it’s still going to be very difficult, I think.”

Justin Rose: “There was talk of 62 earlier in the week and 4‑under par winning this golf tournament.  I thought 6‑under par would maybe be the winning total.  It surprised everybody.  This course held up amazingly well.  It’s been an intriguing course to play.”

Martin Laird: “Well, we were saying that if it was hard and fast, I would have taken 10‑over at the start of the week and with the same setup, the same flags and things we had this week, if they set it up this week with firm fairways and greens, I would have been sitting at 10‑over and I wouldn’t have been too far away, I bet.  And it’s a very, very tough golf course.”

Padraig Harrington: It was a surprising golf course to come to from what maybe had been portrayed in the media.  It was a big test.  Massive greens.  Real difficult.  Glad they weren’t firm and fast.  I think the golf course played super as it was this week.  Firmer greens would have meant you would have ‑‑ I wonder what it would be like with firm greens out there, it would really be interesting.  But they are starting to get a little firmer with this wind, so tough for those guys coming down the stretch.  But you can still virtually get up‑and‑down from everywhere out there, which is a big help. I think it was a great track, obviously the logistics of it was very awkward for us, there’s no doubt about that.  The range over where it is and all that stuff, it was difficult, but you know what, I would say it was worth it.  I, for one, would comeback.”

Ernie Els: “It’s been an unbelievable venue this week.  The course definitely held up.  Started the week with people saying there could be record scores.  I totally disagreed with that.  It was a great setup.  The rough was tough.  Yeah, everything about it was just wonderful. And the fans were unbelievable.  It definitely shouldn’t way another 32 years.”

And my personal favorite from Paul Casey: “It was cracking all the guys up at the beginning of the week, guys like Frank Nobilo saying it’s going to be 62s or 63s around here and we didn’t know which golf course he was talking about, because we knew this was going to be a brutal test. I love the fact that this is a short golf course, and it’s providing us with ‑‑ it’s making my hair go gray, that’s all I know. Golf courses don’t have to be long to be difficult. This is a wonderful example of that. Maybe the best hole out there would be something like 13, as well, the shortest hole on the golf course. It’s wonderful.”

They all were right. The low score as you know was a 67, turned in by four players: Phil Mickelson in round one, Billy Horschel in round two, Rickie Fowler in round three, and Jason Dufner and Hideki Matsuyama in the final round. The reason? The rain didn’t really soften the course enough to allow the players to fire at will at pins, but what it did do was 1) make the long holes play really long as tee shots hardly rolled out at all and 2) made the already gnarly rough even more gnarly. Combine those two factors with a course unfamiliar to the field, a course chock full of guileful greens and blind shots and what you get is a dream come true for Mike Davis and the USGA.

“Absolutely, like a lot of us thought, it stood the test of time,” said Davis. “Merion for those that haven’t seen ‑‑ that really studied Merion, it’s always been short relative to other championship sites, and it’s always, always held its own. It’s always a great test of golf. And we knew it would be. Our question all along is could we pull off the operations of this event. And it was never a question of would the golf course stand up. When we had the 2005 U.S. Amateur here, we played 312 players stroke play, and we play a lot of U.S. Open courses for the U.S. Amateur. From a stroke play average, it was the second hardest next to Oakmont. So we have known all along this golf course was going to hold its own. But it was just, it was a wonderful test of golf. It was great to have the world see Merion again, because there’s been so many great moments in time that have happened here. And it hasn’t ‑‑ the time hasn’t passed Merion by.

I’m not 100 percent sure if Davis really believed in Merion the whole way, but he seemed pretty genuine. He went on to say, “The last time we had a U.S. Open here was ’81. We were still using persimmons and balatas. And so much has happened since that period of time. Just how you play the game. So I think there was that natural tendency to say, well, Merion’s been passed by. And I really do think that in addition to the operations, I think a lot of people said there’s just too many short holes to test these players. But at the end of it, you have to still remember that it’s a four and a quarter inch hole that you have to get it into. And it’s not all about distance. I’m telling you, we could play an 8,500-yard course with straightaways, and these guys would have no trouble. It’s when you all of a sudden get holes that move different directions, unlevel lies, wind, some blindness, greens that undulate, that’s what tests these players. They can hit it a long way and they can hit it straight, but it’s this type of architecture that you really have to think your way around it.”

I concur.

Let’s look at what players had to say about the greens and the pins placements the USGA used to “protect the short holes.”

Tiger Woods:  There’s some difficult pins out there. A couple of them are on ridges or are very close, you got to really position your shots well.  If you leave yourself in the correct spots, you can be pretty aggressive with some putts and they’re not that fast uphill into the grain.  So if you put yourself in a correct spot, you can really take a pretty good run at it and be aggressive.  But if you put the ball in the wrong spots, yeah, it’s tough to make putts.”

Tiger Woods again: “They were tough.  They were tough.  I can understand what Mike and his staff are doing, because it’s soft out there.  And trying to protect par, even though they say they don’t.  But I understand what they’re trying to do.  The hard holes played really, really hard.  And obviously the short holes we could get after it a little bit.  But some of these pins, they were a step over some of the lumps.  And that’s a little bit tighter than we were all expecting going into the week.

Mike Weir: “And the greens are so difficult, so fast, they’re the toughest greens I’ve ever played.  But it kind of just goes to show that we could play a 6,900 yard golf course and make it very difficult and I think the USGA’s done a phenomenal job.”

Mike Weir again: “They’re very difficult.  I had a couple putts that were inside 10, 15 feet, to kind of get really more under par, but I was above the hole and you’re just putting defensively and hoping they creep in.  If not they go five or six feet by.  There’s some really tough hole locations out there.”

The U. S. Open is supposed to be the toughest test in golf, right? I’m glad it was.