COMMENTARY | Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy top a long list of potential favorites as the U.S. Open returns to Merion Golf Club this week for the first time since 1981.
But who really has the advantage on a course no one in the field has ever played in competition?
Woods won the first U.S. Open ever to be contested on a municipal course when he captured his second national championship at Bethpage State Park's Black Course in 2002.
The late Payne Stewart edged Phil Mickelson for the crown when the Open made it to Pinehurst No. 2 for the first time in 1999.
While the 32-year gap between Opens at Merion may seem like a long one, the longest break occurred at Olympia Fields outside Chicago. After conducting the 1928 U.S. Open won by Johnny Farrell, the course waited 75 years until 2003 for another Open. Perennial contender Jim Furyk claimed his only major that year.
So the trend of unfamiliar territory would seem to favor veteran winners.
Finally the Year for Phil?
Could Merion, located just 10 miles outside the City of Brotherly Love, finally show some U.S. Open love to five-time runner-up Mickelson? A second-place showing in his final prep at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, where Lefty never took driver out of the bag, would seem to bode well.
Or could this be the year Steve Stricker finally cashes his major ticket? A limited schedule of events should have Strick well rested to flex his silky putting stroke on a waterlogged course that Ernie Els predicts will "see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues."
The past three U.S. Open champions at Merion - David Graham, Lee Trevino, and Ben Hogan - were out-of-this-world ball strikers. That's no surprise for an Open winner but two of these guys are Hall of Famers and the third, Graham, definitely should be.
So who in this week's field possesses a Hall of Fame worthy tee-to-green game?
Precision Trumps Power
Masters champion Adam Scott owns perhaps the game's sweetest swing but in practical terms, Justin Rose is tops when it comes to finding fairways and greens. Others that score well in keeping the ball in play include a streaking Boo Weekley, Brandt Snedeker and believe it or not, McIlroy.
Merion will be a quintessential Open layout with pinched fairways and punishing rough. Although he's striping the ball solidly - or at least he was until struggling at the Memorial Tournament in his final Open tune-up - Woods doesn't excel on tight Open layouts. Tiger has won his three U.S. Opens on courses known more for their unpredictable weather than trouble off the fairway: Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, and Bethpage Black.
Accuracy will be at a premium but equally important will be an ability to dial back on full shots. In an era where players are hitting 7- and 8-irons 200 yards, the artists who can create shots to find the right spots on Merion's small greens should excel.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for the New York Post, FoxSports.com, Greensboro News & Record, and Burlington (N.C.) Times-News. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.
- Sports & Recreation
- Merion Golf Club
- Tiger Woods