One of the best things about major championships is that discussion about them starts weeks in advance of the event. That's true every year for the Masters, the first major, as some players file in early and in private to check out the Augusta National Golf Club and any changes. And it's certainly true for the U.S. Open, which will be played June 13-16 at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.
There's so much interest in the U.S. Open that it appears discussions at this week's Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio have been more about it than the tournament that Jack Nicklaus is hosting at the Muirfield Village Golf Club, which he designed. Nicklaus himself was asked many questions about U.S. Opens that he's played at Merion. Best remembered, perhaps, is the 1971 U.S. Open there. Lee Trevino beat Nicklaus in their 18-hole playoff.
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, 2000, 2002, and 2008 U.S. Open champion, played Merion Tuesday this week. Adam Scott, this year's Masters winner, has played the course twice. Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, has been to Merion. Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship winner, will visit Merion next week. It's a coming-in party, as players try to prepare for the upcoming "examination" in golf, as the USGA likes to think of its major championship.
The players can expect high and perhaps thick rough, that's for sure. Merion will play under 7,000 yards, which is extremely short by today's bloated standards. The course is on only 115 acres, so it's not like the powers-that-be can elongate it. This is one reason the USGA, which has moved away from framing every fairway and green in the U.S. Open with high rough, is allowing it to grow for this year's championship. And grow. And grow.
Now, I'm not normally a fan of a course being set up in such a penal manner. I prefer the width that 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy likes to see in a course. Ogilvy grew up playing the sand belt courses of Melbourne, all of which give a player room to drive the ball and introduce angles into the game. The U.S. Open has done more of that in recent years. The same principle will apply next year when the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst #2 in North Carolina. The U.S. Women's Open will also be played there. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have brought width back to the course in their recent inspired work there.
As for Merion, it will need the nasty stuff around fairways and greens. It's been stormy around the area recently, so the rough is very thick. Scott said at Muirfield Village that he hopes the course dries out, so that the rough won't be quite as brutal. Woods played the course about as long as it could play, given that it rained while he made his way around. The course was soft. He doesn't expect it to be that way in two weeks.
Still, the rough will be, well, rough, no matter how much the course dries out. This U.S. Open is shaping up as an old-time U.S. Open, one where accuracy is the most important factor. One question more than any will be asked of the golfers: Can you put the ball in play? And if so, a second question: Can you put the ball on the green from the fairway? If not, you will suffer. You may have to hack the ball out of the rough.
It doesn't hurt the U.S. Open competitors who are playing the Memorial that Muirfield Village's rough is nasty, high, and brutish. Scott said, "Having a week of playing out of it here can certainly just get you set for what you're in for going to Merion."
Woods said that the USGA at Merion will give the players some room off the tee here and there, although that doesn't mean those fairways will be wide. They'll still be more like landing strips. And Woods knows that he'll need to hit them if he's going to win his 15th major. His last win in a major was five years ago, in the 2008 U.S. Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Club's South course in La Jolla, Calif.
"If you miss those spots," Woods said of the landing areas even on the wider fairways, "you will be paying the price."
That's a good thing once in a while. The USGA has gone to graduated rough in U.S. Opens of the last few years, where a golfer is penalized to the extent he misses a fairway. The player who misses a fairway by a little would be in rough, but the rough wouldn't be as high as it would be further off the fairway. This year at Merion, however, graduated rough will be a thing of the past. Will that make things unfair? Shouldn't the penalty for missing a fairway or green be proportional to the degree of the miss?
That way lies the notion that golf should always be fair, and I stress " always ." There's room for a U.S Open course that offers little room to move the ball. There should be space on the calendar for a U.S. Open that offers little space to fit the ball.
The U.S. Open that will be closed to all golfers who can't control the ball starts in 14 days. I'm looking forward to the rough ride at Merion. Then again, that's easy for me to say. I'm writing about the U.S. Open, not playing it.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein