Philadelphia, PA – The East Course at Merion Golf Club has a long and distinguished history of hosting USGA Championships. The biggest of those championships, the U.S. Open, returns to the club for a fifth time in June.
After the 1981 Open at Merion, there was talk the championship would likely never be back. The club has gone to extraordinary lengths to bring back the championship.
And after visiting Merion on Monday, I'll tell you the course is plenty ready.
Defending champion Webb Simpson is on the short list of players who has played Merion under tournament conditions. Simpson competed at the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion.
Simpson beat 2010 champ Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson by a stroke at last year's U.S. Open at Olympic. Ironically, Thompson beat Simpson in the first round of the 2007 U.S. Amateur, also at Olympic. Thompson was the runner- up to Colt Knost that year.
Along with Simpson, the short list of those already qualified for this year's Open who have played Merion in tournament conditions includes Kevin Chappell, '05 Amateur, and Rickie Fowler, 2009 Walker Cup.
Some other names from the 2005 Amateur who still could qualify for the Open include J.B. Holmes, Matthew Every and Nicholas Thompson, better known to some as Lexi's older brother.
Several players, including McDowell, have visited Merion to scout the course. McDowell did so last summer and felt the course was ready then to host this year's Open.
The par-70 East Course will be one of the shorter courses (under 7,000 yards) for the U.S. Open, but that doesn't mean it will be a pushover. There are just two par-5s, and they both come in the first four holes.
From there, it is all par-3s and par-4s. Outside the 13th, the par-3s are no joke. Forced carries, water and plenty of sand are just the start of the toughness of those holes. The third can play 220 yards, slightly uphill, while the 17th can be stretched to 250 yards and plays over a quarry.
There are several birdie chances between the seventh and 13th, but that is countered by a brutal closing stretch. The last five holes include the long 17th, as well as four healthy par-4s, including the 18th, which can be stretched over 500 yards and generally plays into the prevailing wind.
Three of the closing par-4s have out of bounds left of the fairway, while the 16th has an uphill second shot over a quarry.
"Potentially through 13 holes, if you drive it well, you can have nine wedge opportunities. That's kind of what I've calculated. Including 13, the par-3," Simpson said in Monday's press conference. "And then the last five are going to be some of maybe the hardest that we have ever had in the U.S. Open. So you kind of have the best of both worlds. And that's why I think this U.S. Open is going to be so unique in the sense that I don't think a long player or short player has an advantage.
"I think a guy with a good wedge game and a good mind will have the advantage because you'll have your birdie opportunities, but what I remember about Merion is the second that you think I got an easy hole, an iron and a wedge, is the second that you probably will make a mistake."
The course will challenge the players like all Open venues. The greens will be slick (13-to-13.5 on the stimpmeter) and the rough will be thick as always. The fairways, in some cases, maybe wider than normal for an Open, but after playing the course Monday, I found the one underrated challenge for the players will be the uneven lies.
Sloped fairways are going to lead to awkward lies on some of the easier approach shots.
The only thing that may be harder than playing the course, is walking the course for the fans. There will be areas fans can't access due to the small piece of land the course is crammed into.
As much as the USGA wants to accommodate the fans, its greater concern is testing the players to the fullest. And Merion will certainly do that.
HORSCHEL TURNS THE TABLES ON POINTS
Five weeks ago in Houston, D.A. Points closed with a 6-under 66 to beat Henrik Stenson and Billy Horschel by a single stroke. On Sunday, Horschel returned the favor and beat Points by a shot.
Horschel poured in six straight birdies at one point on Sunday to grab a two- stroke lead. Points matched four of those birdies to stay within reach.
After Horschel stumbled to a bogey on No. 15, the pair were tied at 18-under par. Horschel quickly atoned for that mistake with a birdie on the 16th.
Both players had birdie chances on the final green. Horschel never gave Points the chance to force a playoff as he poured in his 26-foot birdie effort for his first PGA Tour victory. Points made his putt, too, but it was a moot point.
"(D.A.) played great. You know, we both pushed each other," Horschel said. "He nipped me in Houston, but I think I got him back on this one."
The turnaround was easy to forecast, in a sense. Starting with his runner-up finish in Houston, Horschel hasn't finished outside the top nine in his last four events. He has picked up his first tour win, and earned over $2 million those tournaments.
I think we can all agree, that's some solid golf. This is second full year on the PGA Tour, and now Horschel can get comfortable playing on the big stage as he'll keep his tour card through the 2015 season.
Knowing where you'll be playing is half the battle. Now that he has locked up his card for two more seasons, Horschel can now focus on winning more tournaments.
As one of the fastest players on tour, he'll have to learn to control himself and slow himself down in these pressure packed situations.
Now that he's done it once, Horschel will have that experience to draw on, and that as important as having his tour card for two more years.
* This week's Well Fargo Championship should be an interesting watch. Two greens were completely replaced last week, and according to some reports, there are other greens that aren't in the best shape. The club is ripping all the greens up after the tournament anyway and putting in new greens with a different type of grass. Maybe that will help draw Tiger Woods back to the event next year.
* The Champions Tour's Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf format should be expanded to the PGA and Web.com tours. In the case of the Champions Tour, it's 33 two-man teams in an all-out birdie-fest. Fans want to see birdies. Pair two of the best PGA Tour players together in the right conditions, I wonder how low they could go?