US OPEN '13: After 32 years, Merion returns as a mystery to most players

Few other American courses have the kind of history found at Merion.

Two plaques commemorate signature moments 20 years apart. One is on the 11th hole, where Bobby Jones completed his "impregnable quadrilateral" — more commonly known as the Grand Slam — when he won the 1930 U.S. Amateur to sweep the majors of his era. The other is in the 18th fairway, where Ben Hogan famously hit 1-iron into the final hole to set up a playoff that he won in 1950 to complete his comeback from a near-fatal car accident.

The flag sticks don't have flags. They have red wicker baskets, the symbol of Merion, though its origins remain a mystery.

Equally mysterious to Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and the rest of the stars at the 113th U.S. Open is Merion itself. The course in the Philadelphia suburbs has held a record 18 USGA championships dating to 1904, a testament to its stature.

But when David Graham left town in 1981 with the U.S. Open trophy, the prevailing thought was that Merion was history when it came to hosting golf's toughest test.

The U.S. Open had become too big. Merion was considered too small.

It measures 6,996 yards, the first major championship in nine years on a course under 7,000 yards. More troublesome was that Merion is situated on 111 acres, leaving little room for corporate hospitality, TV compounds, family dining, merchandise tents and all the other bells and whistles that have turned golf into an entertainment mecca.

Too small?

Turns out it was too good to ignore any longer.

"When we closed up in 1981, it's not as if the course didn't play well, but we really thought this was the last time — at least at a national open championship — you would ever see Merion played on TV," USGA executive director Mike Davis said. "And really, it had nothing to do with the golf course in terms of a test of golf. But it had everything to do with, 'How do you fit a modern day U.S. Open on this 111 acres?'"

Davis and his staff found a way by capping ticket sales to about 25,000 a day, well below the average of 40,000 daily tickets at most other venues. Some of the corporate hospitality will be at neighboring Haverford College, used as a parking lot in 1981. The most remarkable feat was getting a dozen or so homes along the perimeter of the course to give up their yards for more tents.

It paved the way for Merion to host a U.S. Open for the first time in 32 years. It might seem like a gamble to take the modern power game to a course that has five par 4s under 400 yards. Davis said there might be more birdies than at any U.S. Open. And if conditions are soft, scoring records could be shattered.

But if there is a question about Merion, it's not why the USGA is going back. It's what took it so long to return.

"I thought they had skipped over Merion, and I didn't know why, because I thought Merion was a great course," said Jack Nicklaus, who lost a playoff there to Lee Trevino in 1971. "I don't think it's all about what you shoot. It's about who's the best player on that golf course. And I think Merion is a wonderful golf course."

If there was an experiment, it was the U.S. Amateur in 2005. The USGA was convinced Merion was still a stout test when the average score in qualifying was 75.16. Golf is not always about distance. Merion has always been about precision. It was like that for Olin Dutra when he rallied from eight shots behind on the 36-hole final day in 1934. It was like that for Hogan, Trevino and Graham, who missed only one green when he shot 67 in the final round.

"You've got to make pars on the tough holes, and you've got to make birdies on the easy holes," Phil Mickelson said. "And you have that chance now."

This is a U.S. Open no one wants to miss, much like when it goes to Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Oakmont or Pinehurst No. 2.

"It's obviously historic," said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "It's buried in a really nice neighborhood in Philadelphia. It has the basket pins. It's one of the courses all the architecture aficionados talk about. It's nice when you play an Open where they take you to a place you want to play."

Ultimately, the U.S. Open is about identifying the best player — and that appears to be Woods.

Woods already has won four times this year on the PGA Tour, and he is back at No. 1 in the world. But it has been five years now since he last won a major — No. 14 — in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Nicklaus was in his mid-40s when he had a drought that long.

Even so, no other player looks more capable. Woods ran off three wins in four tournaments — the exception was a tie for sixth in the Masters — so when someone asked Lee Westwood if Woods was on the verge of another big run, the Englishman looked rather perplexed.

"I think he's on one, isn't he?" Westwood said. "He's obviously playing very well at the moment, and whenever he tees it up, you're going to expect he's going to win, which is how it was 10 years ago."

The difference now is that his chief foil at the moment is not McIlroy or even Mickelson, but Sergio Garcia. And the battle has not been inside the ropes but in front of a TV camera or in front of a dinner party. Their public feud turned ugly in England when Garcia jokingly said he would invite Woods to dinner every night during the U.S. Open and then added, "We'll serve fried chicken."

Garcia apologized the next day, though they have not seen each other since that racially charged remark. Garcia once complained after losing a British Open in a playoff that he was competing against "more than the field," suggesting the golfing gods were against him. This time, he could face a hostile gallery, though at least a slightly smaller one than crowd of New Yorkers who got on him at Bethpage Black in 2002.

"This is going to be tough for him now," Ernie Els said. "I wish he didn't say it. He wishes he didn't say it. This is something that's going to stick with him."

McIlroy, meanwhile, is among several top players who have yet to win this year. The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland gets the most attention because he finished the year at No. 1, because he already has won two majors by eight shots, and because he switched equipment.

But he's not alone. Fifteen of the top 20 players in the world at the start of the season have yet to win on the PGA Tour this year.

And now throw the mystery of Merion into the mix.

"There are probably more players that can potentially win this U.S. Open than in any other U.S. Open venue we go to," Davis said.