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Wednesday, June 12, 2013
U.S. Open goes down memory lane

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

ARDMORE, Pa. -- The famous photograph, known throughout the golf world, would not be so epic if the subject did not go on to win the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion.

None other than Tiger Woods pointed out that very simple fact this week, noting that the iconic Hy Peskin picture of Ben Hogan's 1-iron approach to the 18th hole would have been simply good, not great, had The Hawk not then followed up with a 2-putt for par and gone on to win an 18-hole playoff the next day.

That Woods is aware of such history makes it even more special that the U.S. Open has returned to Merion, one of the great American treasures that will host the championship this week for the first time since 1981 and the fifth time overall.

Back then, in 1981, when David Graham hit all but one green in regulation on his way to victory, it was deemed that the classic layout was too short by modern standards, that Merion had been passed by in the growing, expanding world of major championship golf.

Ben Hogan plaque
The site of Ben Hogan's famous 1-iron at the closing hole in 1950 has become a popular attraction.

So it was that Graham, the first Australian to win the U.S. Open, was thrilled to see the Open return to Merion, expanded by some 400 yards but still the first course since Shinnecock Hills in 2004 to come in at less than 7,000 yards for the championship.

"Hopefully the powers that be will continue to find these traditional great courses like Oakmont and Oakland Hills and figure out a way that logistically they can host a major championship," said Graham, 67, who is spending this week at Merion. "I think it's great that you have a Tiger Woods walking the same fairways that a Hogan walked. What's that, 70 years ago?

"So here you've got the greatest player in modern-day golf playing a golf course Hogan played. I think that's fantastic. I think that's great for the game, and it's great that we as players have the ability to watch how they played today compared to the way we used to play."

Of course, many of those comparisons are washed away because of enormous advances in technology that all but render such venues obsolete for the modern game. A plaque in the 18th fairway at Merion marks the spot some 217 yards from the middle of the green where Hogan hit the famous 1-iron shot.

Today, it is littered with divots, players dropping balls there to recreate the special moment -- most of them using 4-irons to approach the green.

And for there to be even a possibility of a player having a shot to the green from there this week, the hole has been stretched to 520 yards. When Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus battled in a playoff here in 1971, the hole measured 460. Using that tee, even the most modest of drivers would blow it past the plaque.

All of which makes for a very interesting 113th U.S. Open at Merion's East Course.

The Hugh Wilson design, which opened in 1912, is on just 111 acres, squeezed into a Philadelphia suburb that in no way could have envisioned the modern expanse of a U.S. Open. Even with all that is going on here, things have been scaled back, with just 25,000 tickets sold for each day and the United States Golf Association expected to take a rare loss on the event.

For the players, there are logistical issues, such as having to change their shoes and warm up on Merion's West Course -- which is a mile and a half away. But more importantly, they will face an unusual golf course, one that has five par-4s under 400 yards and a 115-yard par-3 but is offset by four par-4s measuring more than 500 yards and three par-3s that are more than 235.

"There is the potential for nine wedges [for approach shots] in the first 13 holes; and then you have to hang on for dear life those last five holes," said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach who has won twice this year. "I can't think of a tougher finish that I've seen at a U.S. Open."

McDowell was among several players who tried to get a jump on U.S. Open preparation by playing the course in the weeks leading up to the tournament. He had been here a year ago for a corporate day, then again a week ago.

"

Els You're going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues.

" -- Ernie Els on what to expect at Merion.

"It's going to prove invaluable from a preparation standpoint," he said.

Then again, determining a strategy for the course is difficult because it is not playing as hoped. Merion has received more than 6 inches of rain since Friday, necessitating a course closure on Saturday and again for parts of Monday. After two days of sunshine, the course had dried out to a good extent Wednesday, but it was still soft -- and more poor weather is in the forecast for Thursday's opening round.

Typically, anything around par is a good score at a U.S. Open. Last year, Webb Simpson's winning total was 281, 1 over par at the Olympic Club. McDowell shot 74 in the final round in 2010. The mindset at an Open is different than the weekly tour event. Pars are OK; patience is key. But it is unclear whether that strategy will work this week.

"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," Woods said Tuesday. "The conditions keep changing. We haven't dealt with teeing it up in a tournament yet with it raining and drying out for a couple of days and the mud balls appearing. That's going to be interesting. Especially the longer holes.

"The shorter holes, if you catch a ball that's got a little bit of mud on it ... you can't be as precise. I don't know how they're going to get the fairways down or if they're going to cut the rough at all or if they're going to have the greens up to speed. It's going to be interesting to see what the players end up doing the first few days and getting a feel for what the number is going to be."

The way the course is configured leads to some simple conclusions about where most of the scoring will take place. The first six holes have both par-5s, including the 628-yard fifth, as well as the 504-yard par-4 fifth.

For those starting on No. 1, getting to the seventh tee in even par or better would be a good start. Then the seventh through 13th holes present the red-number opportunities. There are four par-4s under 400 yards, plus the 115-yard 13th.

Then comes the brutal finish starting at No. 14, which includes the 245-yard par-3 17th and the 520-yard par-4 18th.

"I can see pin placements are going to be quite tough to protect the course," said two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els. "You're going to see a lot more birdies than ever at U.S. Open venues. But the finish is still very strong. The par-3s are very strong. Obviously 18, and 14 [a par-4] is a very strong hole."

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods
The fairways Ben Hogan once walked will now be graced by today's stars as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and others take aim at Merion.

The general consensus seems to be that players won't need to hit many drivers off the tee. Woods said he expected a few per round -- he's likely to use a 5-wood often off the tee -- while Rory McIlroy said he might hit as many as seven.

"I'll still play quite aggressively off the tee, but it's funny, there's seven drivers and then there's a lot of irons. There's not really many where you're hitting 3-wood or 5-wood. It's sort of like driver or iron, and that's sort of weighing on how most guys will approach it this week."

The USGA has taken a risk in bringing the Open back to a place that 32 years ago was deemed too short, too small. It has gone from 6,500 yards to 6,996 yards, with the most of the yardage added to the long holes. The U.S. Open is the organization's cash cow, but logistics prevent a financial windfall this year. Spectators will be crammed in; players shuttled from another course; par could quite possibly be assaulted.

"Merion has stood the test of time as well as any," said USGA executive director Mike Davis, who set up the course. "The challenges are similar to what Jones, Hogan and Trevino faced."

And yet, the persimmon woods and the balata balls used in the Trevino-Nicklaus era are long gone and, so too, the 1-iron with which Hogan was photographed all those years ago. Heck, when Chick Evans captured the 1916 U.S. Amateur at Merion -- becoming the first player to win the U.S. Open and Amateur in the same year -- he used seven clubs, and they had hickory shafts.

It's a different game, but at least it can be played at the same place where all the greats traversed all those years ago. Tiger can walk where Hogan walked, and the object of getting the ball in the hole in as few strokes possible remains the same.