Philadelphia, PA – The 113th U.S. Open Championship returns to the East Course at Merion Golf Club for the first time since 1981.
And that makes the course the great unknown.
Rickie Fowler, Morgan Hoffmann and defending champion Webb Simpson are among the few players in the field that have played Merion in tournament conditions. Fowler and Hoffmann were teammates at the 2009 Walker Cup and Simpson played in the 2005 U.S. Amateur.
That being the case, the course itself could be the star of the week. The USGA is taking a risk returning to a smaller venue, where tickets will be limited and bleacher seating will be the way to go.
Several players visited Merion in the past few weeks to scout the course, and what they found was a mix of short and long holes. There are five par-4s under 370 yards and four par-4s of 460 yards or longer.
The East Course has just two par-5s, the second and fourth. Though both could be reached in two, the second features out of bounds down the entire right side of the hole, while the fourth has a small creek just in front of the putting surface.
So maybe the par-3s are the gettable holes? Not so much. The 13th will yield plenty of birdies, and maybe more than a few aces, as it plays about 115 yards. The other three 'short' holes are all over 230 yards, and all have carries.
Between the tee box and green on the third is a large drop off, then the ninth is downhill and features water short and sand left. The 17th is a long carry over a quarry.
If players can score on the shorter par-4s, that could spur them on to a good round, but if they struggle there, it'll be tough to get those strokes back on the back nine, which plays to a par of 34 with seven par-4s and a pair of par-3s.
Merion, thought to be obsolete when the 1981 Open left, has been stretched out since then, but will still play under 7,000 yards. That won't lead to lower scores though as the sloping fairways lead to undulating, tricky greens, which make scoring tough. There are several greens that players could putt off if they are not careful.
With the Open returning to Merion, this will mark the 12th straight decade and 18th USGA Championship to be played on the famed course dating to the 1916 U.S. Amateur.
All that being said about the course, what player will come out on top is the real question heading into the season's second major. Last year, there were several top names entering the U.S. Open that were at the top of their games.
The same can't be said this year. Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar and Matteo Manassero are among the few players playing well heading towards the Open. Woods has won four times this season, while Kuchar has two wins and six top-10s and Manassero is coming off his fourth career European Tour victory and a fourth-place finish in Sweden.
Woods has played only eight events, but has five top-5 finishes. Kuchar's six top-10 finishes are tied for most on the PGA Tour, and he hasn't missed a cut in 14 starts this season.
Brandt Snedeker and Keegan Bradley also have six top-10s. Snedeker has been up and down since a hot start. After winning at Pebble Beach, he took time off with a rib injury that is still bothering him. Since returning, he has two top-10s and three missed cuts. He has the short game to do well at Merion, but will his ribs be healthy enough to deal with the thick rough?
Bradley has made 12 cuts in 15 starts and has four top-5s. In his last five starts dating to the Masters, the 2011 PGA Champion has missed two cuts, finished outside the top 50 twice and finished second at the Byron Nelson.
Getting back to the defending champion, Simpson has three top-10s in 14 events. In his last six events, he has three missed cuts and a runner-up finish at the Heritage.
Since winning last year's Open at Olympic, Simpson has five top-10s in 22 events. Having played Merion under tournament conditions, Simpson has an advantage over many players in the field. But history isn't on his side as Curtis Strange in 1988-89 was the last player to win back-to-back U.S. Opens.
Fowler, who went 4-0 at the '09 Walker Cup at Merion, hasn't finished inside the top 30 in his last six events after posting three top-10s in his first seven starts of the year.
Hoffmann, who was 2-0-1 at the Walker Cup, is in his first season on the PGA Tour and he has missed the cut in six of 11 starts. He shared fifth at the Byron Nelson and took second in one of his four starts on the Web.com Tour. Hoffman has played the Open as a qualifier two of the last three years. After missing the cut in 2010, he shared 29th last year at Olympic.
After Woods, Kuchar and Snedeker, here's a quick look at the remainder of the top-10 players in the world.
Rory McIlroy, the 2011 champ, has missed two cuts, but also has four top-10 finishes worldwide. It seems like he's playing worse than that, so it is hard to tell what to expect from him.
Masters champion Adam Scott has made the cut in each of his seven starts. Scott has only played twice since winning his first major championship. he is among the tour leaders in putting, which will help on Merion's tricky greens.
Justin Rose is having another strong year with a pair of runner-up finishes already. He is among a group of Englishmen that are long overdue to win a major. He's having a strong season with his wedge game, but has struggled with the putter. Rose will need a solid putting week to contend.
Luke Donald, like Rose, is long overdue to win a major. Donald has a pair of top-5 finishes this year. He has good putting and scrambling numbers, but he'll need to keep his ball in play to contend as he ranks 102nd in total driving (distance and accuracy combined).
Another tough player to figure out is 2010 winner Graeme McDowell. He has won two of his last four starts, but missed the cut in three of his last five, including at the Masters. He hasn't shot worse than 74 in his last 18 U.S. Open rounds and has good putting numbers that will help at Merion.
Louis Oosthuizen won early in the season in South Africa, but has just two top-10s since. He has plenty of game to contend, but will be even show up? His wife is expected to give birth any day now so he may not even start the championship.
Phil Mickelson won in Phoenix, but has been up and down all year. His start in Memphis was just his third event since the Masters. His creative short game will serve him well at Merion, but with Mickelson it's more often about the long clubs. If he keeps them in play, he should be in the mix for his first U.S. Open title.
With so many top players far from the top of their collective games, the season's second major is as wide open as ever. Additionally, a general lack of knowledge of Merion could keep players from going low.
Could we have a Corey Pavin-type winner this week? It is certainly possible as length is a must have at Merion. What is needed is an outstanding short game. If you are looking to pick a winner, go outside the box a little and you'll have just as good a chance as you would with the big names.