ARDMORE, Pa. – Somewhere, Bobby Jones is laughing. So is Ben Hogan. So are all the golf ghosts brought to the brink of exasperation by this little devil of a golf course outside Philadelphia.
The ghosts of old Merion Golf Club are surely cackling at those who underestimated this place. Skeptics said it was too short, too small, too easy for the U.S. Open. They said its sub-7,000 yards couldn't contain the big hitters of today.
Well, any of those who fretted about the teeth and heft of this course should spend Friday parked by the fifth hole. That's the one that gave up all of two birdies on Thursday against 56 bogeys and 17 double bogeys. That's 88-over par.
Start at the tee box and look out at what the players are facing: bunkers and a creek on the left, rough on the right. First shot into the wind, second shot uphill (ball above feet) 200 yards (if you're lucky) to a green that ripples like a fresh bed sheet in the breeze.
Chandler Withington, who was a pro here for six years before moving to Hazeltine in Minnesota, knows all the nastiness the fifth can offer. On Thursday he took a photo of Bubba Watson from the apron and tweeted it with the message, "Can't be short right on 5, Bubba." Bubba bogeyed.
Withington knew the worry about the place was overdone. He was here in August of 2009 when torrential rains basically flooded the course. Initial panic gave way to calm, as the course drained quickly. If Merion could deal with that, Withington knew, it could deal with whatever's left over from Tropical Storm Andrea.
That's because of the rough, creeping in on every fairway, threatening a certain bogey or worse. Leave the driver at home (which early leader Phil Mickelson has done in order to bring five wedges) because far is frightful when the thatch is in play. And the thatch is always in play. So a string of birdies, and any momentum, is at risk when a player gets a little loose with his aim and ends up in the tall stuff.
Tiger Woods missed the fairway on the very first hole Thursday, landed in the right rough, and tweaked his wrist trying to escape it. He tweaked the wrist twice more before play was called due to darkness. He's 2-over, facing a 5-foot par putt at 11. The No. 1 player in the world might be in trouble.
Truth is, everyone might be in trouble. Merion will grab at the heels of any golfer who threatens to run away with this tournament. After Thursday, only six players had a score of better than 1-under; and of those, only Mickelson is in the clubhouse with in improbable 3-under 67 after flying through the night from his home in California.
"The golf course is playing about as easy as it could and yet Merion is really fighting hard," Mickelson said. "We are all struggling because it's such a penalizing golf course. It's penalizing if you miss the fairways, very difficult if you miss the greens, and it's not a given to two putt on these greens. … It's a course that's withstood the test of time, and it's challenging the best players in the world this week."
The rest of the leaders still have holes to play in Round 1. That includes leader Luke Donald, who is 4-under through 13 holes. Donald, along with Lee Westwood (-1), leads the conversation of best players never to have won a major. Well, he's in contention, for now anyway.
For now because the final stretch of golf at Merion is the toughest, leading up to the 18th, which has yielded two birdies against 47 bogeys and 14 doubles. So even if a leader heads to the final hole on Sunday with a shot or two as a cushion, well, good luck.
There have been whispers all week about the risk of playing here at Merion, and that the U.S.G.A. might never come back with its biggest tournament.
A lot of weary pros are going to quietly hope so.
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