• 2013 US Open: Preview

Today's stars line up to plunder historic golfing site

Alex Dimond at Merion June 11, 2013
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ESPN will have all the news, views and features from the US Open this week - along with an in-depth GolfCast when the action gets underway on Thursday.

The US Open Championship heads back to a familiar haunt for its 113th iteration, a nostalgic return to the site of some of the defining moments that made the tournament what it is today.

Merion's place in golfing lore is long assured - it is a course intrinsically linked to the story of Ben Hogan, one of the game's all-time greats. The one-iron the Texan hit at the 18th in 1950, helping him into a US Open play-off he would subsequently win, was immortalised both in print and in plaque; with the photograph of his follow-through becoming one of the most iconic in sport, and the commemorative marker added to the fairway attracting thousands each year to try and replicate his feat.

Most courses would be happy to have that one such shining moment, but Merion has had many more. In 1971, Lee Trevino famously 'spooked' Jack Nicklaus with a rubber snake on the practice range before their play-off (one he would win), while the 11th has an understated monument noting that perhaps the greatest feat in golfing history - Bobby Jones' 'Impregnable Quadrilateral' (the grand slam) - was completed there in 1930.

A shot of genius

Ben Hogan's shot at Merion is iconic
  • Ben Hogan's famous one-iron at the 18th in the 1950 US Open is perhaps golf's most revered shot.

It is for those reasons, among others, that the United States Golf Association has returned the US Open to Merion's East Course after a 22-year absence.

The course is longer now, albeit marginally at 6,996-yards. Still dangerously short by modern standards, the hope is that a course that was first unveiled in 1912 will prove this week that good design is timeless.

The problem with the future - for the past, at least - is that it invariably has a complete disregard for what has come before. Just as Tiger Woods showed little consideration for the sport's history as he tore Augusta National asunder in 1997 and ushered golf into a new era, there is a real fear that the players this week will expose Merion in a similar fashion, consigning it to history as a major championship venue.

In firm and fast conditions, with a bit of wind, Merion was set to provide a stern, different test for the professionals. But heavy rain in the area for the best part of a week before the tournament means the course will be soft and receptive for most of, if not all four days - improving final scores by as much as 20 shots, according to USGA chief Mike Davis.

"You're not going to see a firm US Open this year, I'm sorry," two-time US Open champion Ernie Els warned on Monday, after another spell of heavy rain. "I don't care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it's not going to dry up.

"It means that if you're on your game you're going to have a lot of birdie putts. I'm not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a US Open. But through my careers, this is the one where you can get on a run."

Conditions may conspire against organisers, ruining their carefully laid plans for an old-school test of course management and poise, but that does not mean that the tournament will be a catastrophe.

There are plenty of holes to test the best players, even in ideal scoring conditions.

The Course

Merion's East Course has been variously described as a play in three acts; with the first six holes providing the 'drama', the middle six holes the 'comedy', and the closing stretch the 'tragedy'.

Two par-fives in the opening four holes (the second and fourth) give players a chance to score well early on, even if the fourth is unlikely to be attacked in two by most players. Around the turn is where players are likely to do the most to boost the scores but the final run-in is brutal - with the 14th one of the finest par-fours in the world and the 18th an intimidatingly testing finishing hole.

Requiring a 260-yard carry over a quarry to start, players will then need to fire a three- or four-iron from around the spot Hogan's marker resides to an elevated green that slopes away from them. A five might be a good score on that hole, let alone a par-four.

The par-threes are also likely to infuriate players, with the 115-yard 13th essentially a concession for the other three, which all can be made to measure over 250 yards. Soft conditions may force some players to hit driver if they want to get all the way to back pin positions in certain circumstances.

Merion's wicker basket pins are perhaps its defining feature © Getty Images

Merion is not a uniformly long course, however, and the majority of the yardage is given away in a series of undersized par-fours. Some are barely longer than the biggest par-threes, and few will require players to hit more than a five-iron off the tee, if that is how they decide to plot their way around.

"Through 13 holes, if you drive it well you can have nine wedge opportunities," Webb Simpson, the tournament's defending champion, noted earlier this week. Nevertheless, the North Carolina native credits Merion as his favourite course in the world.

Players will hope to make their scores in the early part of the round and hold on over the final run-in. Conditions may well make it easier for them to do so this week, but only marginally.

The History

This year's US Open will be the 18th significant USGA event to take place at Merion; five of which have been US Opens. The previous winners were Olin Dutra, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino and David Graham - all multiple major champions, an indication that the course invariably identified worthy winners.

Merion hosted the Walker Cup in 2009, having staged the US Amateur - an event it has strong ties to - four years prior. Bobby Jones won the Amateur at Merion in 1924 (his first Amateur of five, his second 'major') and then again in 1930 to complete his grand slam, while he also made his first sizeable impression on the sport at Merion when he reached the quarter-finals of Amateur as a 14-year-old in 1916.

Built at the behest of the Merion Cricket Club around the turn of the 20th century, no-one has conclusively pinned down the origin of perhaps the course's biggest idiosyncracy - the wicker baskets that serve as pins at each of the 18 holes.

Speculation was that the course architect, Hugh Wilson, gleaned the idea from an unidentified British course after going on a tour of English & Scottish layouts for inspiration, but that was never proven beyond significant doubt. More recently, it has been revealed that the course's first superintendent, William Flynn, patented the wicker basket design in 1915 - although where he got the inspiration from is still unknown.

Regardless, the wicker baskets give Merion a defining element - even if they remove one tool from players for assessing wind speed and direction around the greens.

The Contenders

Conditions have led a number of the more experienced players to predict a tightly-bunched leaderboard come Sunday. Considering Merion's record - two of its last three US Opens produced 18-hole Monday play-offs - that could well mean extra holes are required.

With that in mind, we look at some of the prime candidates to contend this week:

Tiger Woods watch

The world No. 1 enters this event in prime form - he has won four times already this year, an almost unprecedented run of success, even for him. But he is coming off a shocking display at the recent Memorial Tournament, while his form at majors has not been consistent over the last 18 months - even as he has picked up regular event wins with the frequency of old.

Tiger Woods has been in winning form in 2013 © Getty Images

Merion should suit Woods - it has been set up as a tactical test, and nobody thinks their way around a golf course like Tiger Woods. But the damp conditions will diminish the need to be so precise in your course management, eroding most of any advantage Woods might have had, while he still has a few lingering issues with hitting a draw that tends to become more of an issue in majors.

His putting, too, has tended to come and go in the majors - and it could end up something of a putting contest this week. Woods, like many players in the field, has not played Merion in competition before - but he did make a fact-finding trip to the course last month, and has been out in the worst of the weather this week in order to familiarise himself with the test.

It is hard to see Woods not being a factor this week, but it is still difficult to see him beating the field. Many of Woods' recent wins came at courses he knows intimately, as did two of his three career US Open wins (at Pebble Beach in 2000, and Torrey Pines in 2008). With Merion not fitting that bill, it may take until Muirfield for Woods to win his long-awaited 15th major.

Other likely challengers

Adam Scott is the only player in the field capable of completing the grand slam in 2013 and, having finished in the top-15 (with an opening round 76) at Olympic Club last year, is far from a bad bet to contend this week - even if conventional wisdom suggests back-to-back major wins is unlikely.

The same goes for defending champion Webb Simpson, even though he is one of the few men in the field to have played Merion in competition and his strengths (putting and wedge play) are likely to be pivotal this week.

Big hitting could give Keegan Bradley a big edge © Getty Images

Rory McIlroy has been out of form for much of 2013 - but he did win this event back in 2011, the last time the host course was similarly welcoming. McIlroy's compatriot, Graeme McDowell, had been hotly tipped in many quarters after some stellar results so far this year, but perhaps the soft conditions have robbed G-Mac - a true grinder who knows how to find fairways - of his usual US Open edge..

The conditions may play into the hands of the bigger hitters - with the power to cope with Merion's selection of long holes, while overpowering its shorter, fiddlier numbers. That may be music to the ears of the likes of Nicolas Colsaerts, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley - and particularly Dustin Johnson, who is surely destined to win a major as soon as he gets his head together. Could that be this week?

Some to watch out for

The US Open invariably sees a few unlikely names hit the top of the leaderboard come Sunday. Rickie Fowler is far from an unknown, but he knows the course from the 2009 Walker Cup and has a game that traditionally fares well at attritional, frustrating courses (Memorial, Royal St Georges). He could well contend this week, along with a couple of other up-and-coming Americans like Kevin Chappell, Russell Henley and Morgan Hoffmann.

Don't ignore Jordan Spieth, a teenager who was the low amateur last year at Olympic Club. The Texan has made a bright start to life as a professional, and has the game to be there or thereabouts over the course of the competition.

Purely from a betting perspective, there are a lot of (recent) past champions at long odds to catch the attention - with Geoff Ogilvy and Lucas Glover both offering huge returns despite recent flickers of good form.

A British winner?

This might finally be Justin Rose's time © PA Photos

The aforementioned McDowell and McIlroy are perhaps considered the best hopes of a British winner this week, while Lee Westwood may again be a better prospect of English success than either Luke Donald or Ian Poulter.

Perhaps the best chance of all might be a Scot who regularly plays on the PGA Tour - Martin Laird should feel very comfortable in conditions this week. The same may go for Padraig Harrington, who contended strongly in this event last year - and has seemingly found some form in recent weeks after transitioning to a long putter.

But maybe it is finally Justin Rose's time to shine. The South African-born golfer has been in great form for over 12 months now and, as one of the straightest drivers on tour, should be in a lot of good scoring positions at Merion. Watch out for his progress come Sunday.


All this talk would mean little without a few equally meaningless predictions also thrown in...

Winning score: Eight-under
Winning margin:By 18-hole play-off
Lowest round: 64

Low amateur: Chris Williams

Top European: Justin Rose
Top American: Kevin Chappell
Top Rest of World: Ernie Els

Winner: Justin Rose

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Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk