Golf fans walk along a cart path behind the 17th green as rain falls at Merion… (Gene Puskar/AP )
ARDMORE, Pa. — This is Merion Golf Club, where the buzz in advance of this week’s U.S. Open was supposed to surround the flagsticks — which have no flags — and revisiting Ben Hogan’s 1-iron to the 18th green here, an image that has been indelible since it was struck back in 1950. The U.S. Golf Association’s decision to bring its signature event back to this classic setting, a course shorter than 7,000 yards, promised to make this a fascinating — if quirky — national championship.
And then Friday, the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea blew through, and Merion absorbed three-and-a-half inches of rain. On Monday, the entire field received a flurry of text messages — “It’s open, it’s closed, it’s open again, it’s closed again,” according to 2010 champ Graeme McDowell — as another series of storms dumped another inch-and-a-half of rain on the course. Practice schedules stood in disarray. The squeegee replaced the sand wedge among the most popular tools on site. Fans replaced golf spikes with galoshes. The 11th green became an island.
The entire field of 156 was left to wonder: What, exactly, are we in for?
“I don’t think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we’re going to have to do and what we’re going to have to shoot,” said Tiger Woods, who first practiced here two weeks ago, then returned over the weekend to try to figure it out again. “The conditions keep changing.”
The Open likes to bill itself as the “toughest test in golf,” a potentially pretentious label. But given its recent history — and likely what lies ahead this week — such unmatched difficulty is no guarantee. The last two Opens played on the East Coast, at Bethpage Black on Long Island in 2009 and Congressional Country Club in Bethesda two years after that, have been all but defined by the soggy, course-softening weather.
There was so much rain at Bethpage that the final round took place on a Monday, and the 18th hole was shortened so significantly to avoid a flooded landing area that champion Lucas Glover hit 6-iron off the tee. At Congressional, heat that knocked down the rough preceded downpours that softened the course, and Rory McIlroy savaged it, recording an un-Open-like score of 16-under 268, a record for an event that began in 1895.
Yet the perception of the tournament remains.
“I think we all see the U.S. Open as a hard, firm, fast event,” said Steve Stricker, playing in his 18th Open.
Except when it slows to a slog. USGA executive director Mike Davis said there is a “10,000 to 1” chance organizers would have to use a hole or two from the adjacent West Course to complete play. Rather, with more rain forecast for Thursday’s first round, they’re more likely to end up with the tournament conducted in precisely the conditions they hoped to avoid.
“Literally, I played this golf course 12 months ago; it was phenomenal, ready to go,” McDowell said. “I played it last Wednesday; it’s phenomenal and ready to go. And then we get here, and it’s disappointing.”
For the first time since 1981, the Open is back at Merion — a course where Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur to complete the first “Grand Slam” in 1930, where Hogan struck his 1-iron to force a playoff in 1950, where Lee Trevino outdueled Jack Nicklaus in 1971 — and in some ways it’s remarkable it could return. The East Course, on which the Open will be played, sits on just 126 acres. The Open is a massive logistical undertaking, and in order to pull it off here, the USGA has used the backyards of some neighbors for some of its infrastructure.
So the setting is unique, a fact that’s further emphasized by the wicker baskets that replace flags on the pins — a tradition that is said to come from the course’s architect, Hugh Wilson, and his trips to England, where he saw shepherds who carried their lunch in such baskets. Perhaps more distinctive: It will play at 6,996 yards. Shinnecock Hills, in 2004, was the last major championship course to play that short; Southern Hills in Tulsa, three years before that, was the last to play shorter.
So the expectation was that Merion, had it been firm, would be forced to present other challenges, and the toddler-high rough is one indication of that. Yet Luke Donald, the former world No. 1 who is tied for 155th on the PGA Tour in driving distance, said he would hit driver at just five holes here. Webb Simpson, the defending champion, said he would take 4- or 5-iron off Nos. 7 and 8, both par 4s, yet still have only wedge into the greens. Indeed, Simpson said he could have wedge into nine of the first 13 holes.
Then comes the change.
“I’ve been saying this is the longest short course I’ve ever played,” Stricker said. “Everybody’s told me how short it is, and I’ve been wearing out 3-irons and utilities into some of these holes.”
That is particularly true down a punishing five-hole finishing stretch. The 18th stretches to 521 yards, 63 yards longer than when Hogan pulled out his 1-iron and sent his shot more than 200 yards to an elevated green. When he two-putted for his par, he forced a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, one he went on to win by shooting 69.
There is a plaque in the 18th fairway to mark the spot of Hogan’s shot. And in the photo of Hogan’s swing, one of the most famous images in golf, the sky beyond the green appears clear apart from a few puffy, white clouds. How that sky looks throughout this week, six decades later, could be as significant a storyline — and have as big an impact on how Merion is remembered — as any player in the field.