• US Open

The Merion Masterplan: The strategy the pros will use

Alex Dimond at Merion June 12, 2013
Players have spent time trying to understand Merion's many nuances © AP

The conditions have changed the challenge the players will face at this week's US Open, but organisers and players remain adamant that Merion's fabled East Course will still pose a stiff test.

On Monday, there had been very real fears that soft fairways and greens would see the course record of 64 smashed - with Ernie Els, a two-time US Open champion, also pondering whether a new tournament low round of 62 would be set.

By Tuesday evening, however, with a day of sun and brisk winds in the books, Ian Poulter was led to ask "what people were smoking", having seen some who thought a 62 was still a possibility this week.

With that in mind, we have tried to assess how the professionals will try and plot their way around this week. There will be variances from player to player - Luke Donald has said he will likely hit just five drivers off the tee each round, while Rory McIlroy (a much longer hitter) expects to hit seven - but this should serve as a rough guide of the strategies (and challenges) in place.

1st hole

Par-four, 350 yards

A gentle opener, the first doglegs to the right - with organisers confident a sycamore tree in front of the green will prevent even the biggest hitters from going for it in one (although whether that also applies to Bubba Watson remains to be seen).

The tee-shot is the key, with players mere feet from members watching from the clubhouse veranda (something that has not changed for this event). Long irons or fairway woods will be employed by most, hopefully setting up a straightforward wedge shot to a green that pitches back into the players (and should be quite receptive in soft conditions).

Luke Donald: "Usually you see a first tee shot on a major championship, it's surrounded by bleachers. Here it's a row of people to the right side of the tee, and some people in the clubhouse."

2nd hole

Par-five, 556 yards

The second hole, and the second birdie opportunity for a lot of players. Not that it is without danger, with out-of-bounds stretching along the right of the hole. Players might well hit three-wood off the tee to take that risk out of play, but that will then make it very difficult to reach the slightly elevated green in two shots.

A cross-bunker a good 30 yards in front of the putting surface adds to the strategising. Nevertheless, expect the average-to-long hitters to go for the green in two, with the shorter (and more conservative) competitors hitting fairway woods off the tee and playing it as an honest three-shot hole.

Ernie Els: "In practice I hit a good drive and had 260 [yards] to the front. That's about the limit of my three-wood. There's a bunker there with what I call 'love grass', if you go in there it's almost a lost ball. The guys will be very afraid of going in there."

3rd hole

Par-three, 256-yards

A ludicrously challenging hole, one where the players will be praying the yardage is kept nearer 219 yards (the shortest it can play) than the 256 that sits on the card. A mini-depression between tee and green means it is a full carry to the putting surface, which is rated by the course supervisor as one of the most difficult to read.

Many players could feasibly aim for the same spot - slightly left of centre, the largest (front-to-back) part of the green - on all four days, regardless of pin position.

Steve Stricker: I've only played it once but the other day I couldn't even reach it with a three-wood. Hopefully they move us up there one tee. From what I understand they may do that."

4th hole

Par-five, 628 yards

  • "In practice [at the second] I hit a good drive and had 260 to the front. That's about the limit of my three wood ... At four, I can't see too many guys going for that green. Maybe the real super long guys."
  • - Ernie Els

The second (and last) par-five on the course comes and goes by the fourth. A gentle dogleg left, barely a sliver of the fairway can be seen from the tee, unsettling some players, while a brook runs in front of the green, dissuading players from taking it on from range (even though it is noticeably downhill).

Almost all players will play the hole as a regulation three-shotter.

Ernie Els: "It's very tough to hit that fairway, [and] you've got a blind second shot. So I can't see too many guys going for that green. Maybe the real super long guys."

5th hole

Par-four, 504 yards

Heading back from whence the fourth came, this may be just the second hole on the course where players will happily settle for a par. A stream traces the left side of the hole for its entire duration, with the camber on the fairway perhaps bringing it into play in firmer conditions.

Nevertheless, players will face a long iron into a devilishly contoured green with the ball hanging above their feet - not too dissimilar to Augusta National's famous 13th hole.

6th hole

Par-four, 487 yards

Another arduous par-four, which had a lot of players hitting fairway woods into the green when played from its tips in practice. Unlike many other holes on the course there is no hidden danger to the hole - it is all there in front of you. A bold drive - most probably with the driver - will ideally feed to the left side of the fairway, leaving another long iron into the green. Front is better than long, so expect many players to be conservative with their club selection.

7th hole

Par-four, 360 yards

The seventh is the first of a string of short par-fours at Merion © Getty Images

After the mixed messages of the opening six holes, a change of pace - the seventh kicks off a run of short par-fours that offer great scoring opportunities. An unsighted tee-shot means players will have to trust their swing with a mid-to-long iron in hand, before a wedge into a three-tied green.

The green is also well-protected, with a huge hollow front left a must-avoid spot. With the eighth tee mere yards left and long of the green, you may even see some players chipping back to the green from some unusually nice lies over the course of the week.

8th hole

Par-four, 359 yards

A front tee box may tempt players to go for the green but, on most days, this is another long iron and wedge combination (some players may be tempted into a two-iron or three-wood, but the fairway tightens considerably beyond the two fairway bunkers).

The green is the hole's best defence - raised slightly, wayward approach shots will leave horrible uphill chips from deep rough. But, with it being pitched back towards the players, there will be plenty of close birdie chances for those who can control their spin rates.

9th hole

Par-three, 236 yards

A truly beautiful golf hole - well, unless you are playing it with a major championship on the line, we guess. All the way downhill to a green that has a creek running in front of it, it may just about be possible for players to stop a long iron on the dancefloor if the course stays generally soft.

If it doesn't, however, less self-conscious players might even just lay up short and try to make their three with a pitch and a putt.

Steve Stricker: It's a really tough green. They put a back left pin location there, it's going to be almost impossible to get to, I think, if we're coming in there with some long iron - depending if it stays soft or not."

10th hole

Par-four, 303 yards

Hitting from an elevated tee position, most hitters could take a shy at the green - especially if, having teed off at the 11th on Friday, they come to the final hole of their round needing a birdie or eagle in order to make the cut.

Such an attempt would require a strong cut shot - so if you are going to watch anyone do it, it will be the aforementioned Bubba Watson. Most players will stick to their gameplan and look to find the fairway with as little as a five-iron, hitting yet another wedge into the green.

Tiger Woods: "I think that now, with the conditions, some of the guys will take a chance [at the green], because it's just going to plug out there. If you fly it on the green it's not going to be in a bad spot. If it flies short and right it's not going to be in a bad spot."

11th hole

Par-four, 367 yards

On Monday there were genuine fears that this hole, at the lowest point on the course, would become submerged as a result of the heavy rain in the Philadelphia area - rendering it unplayable for the tournament. Fortunately that now appears a very distant possibility, but players are likely to be faced with a sodden fairway.

Downhill to a green protected by two converging brooks, players will fire a long iron or hybrid to give themselves the most control into a green that gets thinner the further left you go (so expect to see the Sunday position somewhere over there). Birdies, again, will be on many players' minds.

12th hole

Par-four, 403 yards

A tee-shot, across the creek that fronts the 11th, leaves another undersized approach - but probably off a sidehill lie - to a green that slopes down and away from left to right. Players will be tempted to go directly at the pin but - especially if they go long - the penalty for missing the putting surface could be significant.

13th hole

Par-three, 115 yards

The 13th is a clear birdie chance for all players © Getty Images

With three monster par-threes on the scorecard, the diminutive 13th brings the average length for Merion's short holes down to a 'mere' 215 yards. A front bunker is ready and waiting to catch shots caught a bit fat - but for most players this hole will be like throwing darts, with twos being given up with impunity each and every day.

Rory McIlroy: You're going to need to make the bulk of your score [in the first 13 holes], because once you cross that road [Ardmore Road], from the 13th green to the 14th tee box, I don't think many guys are going to pick up too many shots on that final stretch."

14th hole

Par-four, 464-yards

A brutal par-four, but one that essentially just paves the way for even sterner tests to come. Hitting from what was once Merion's putting green (and over what remains of it), perhaps more drivers will be hit off the tee on this hole than any other (non par-five), even though bunkers intrude on the driving area.

That is because you want to be as close as possible for the approach to the green at this dogleg left. The green is not protected by any hazards; just a mown stretch of fringe to the left - encouraging balls to roll off into the course-side road (about 20 yards from the left side of the green) and out of bounds.

That is less likely in this week's conditions, but players will still struggle for a straightforward par-four as they chase a green in regulation with a mid-iron.

Graeme McDowell: "Fourteen is an incredibly difficult golf hole. If you miss it left off the tee, it's either lost ball or it's unplayable. These last five are as tough a finish … I can't think of a tougher finish that I've seen at a US Open."

15th hole

Par-four, 411-yards

Not usually pegged as one of Merion's toughest test, the 15th could be near the top of the hardest hole statistics come Sunday evening. The tee-shot is the issue - out-of-bounds (and a road) sits barely two yards off the fairway, forcing the fade (for right handers) to be very precise. Overdoing it (as many players did in practice) brings deep bunkers and thick rough into play down the right; an almost impossible approach shot.

A three-wood or even driver approach will leave around a seven-iron for most players, to a green that will kick back balls that don't make it all the way over the false front.

Graeme McDowell: "It's going to be an intimidating looking tee shot. You really have to try and pick your spot … You're aiming at the road. Guys are going to be hitting it out of bounds there for fun. The right hand side is deep rough and deep bunkers."

16th hole

Par-four, 430 yards

  • "I can't think of a tougher finish that I've seen at a US Open ... at 15, guys are going to be hitting it out of bounds there for fun."
  • - Graeme McDowell

Another beautiful hole, particular for the approach - which demands a carry over wasteland and bunkers to a raised green that is perched between some trees. Three-wood will be the choice for most players (although shorter hitters might feel they need to get as far down there as possible), with plenty of balls collecting on the right side of the fairway, alongside a well-positioned fairway trap.

From there, it is a controlled short iron (although probably slightly more than a wedge) to a green that has a pronounced depression to the front and right. With two treacherous holes to come, players may feel compelled to chase a final birdie to massage their score - although that might bring more harm than good.

17th hole

Par-three, 246 yards

The final monster par-three of Merion's great triumvirate, and every bit as spectacular as the others. A 240-yard carry over a quarry from an elevated tee shot is required, to a two-tier green that is surrounded by bunkers. Players will again be praying that conditions lead the USGA to keep the hole nearer its shortest yardage (195 yards) than its longest.

Steve Stricker: "It's probably one of the prettiest holes I've seen in a long time. It's like walking into a stadium because the stands are on the left and behind the green and the hole's kind of sunken down. But we were hitting three-wood into there."

18th hole

Par-four, 521 yards

As good as it gets in the game of golf. The site of Ben Hogan's legendary shot back in 1950, in 2013 competitors will likely be hitting from some way back of the plaque in fairway - though they still won't be hitting a one-iron in, but more like a four-iron.

Getting to that position is not easy, though, with a 250-yard carry over a quarry required (and the prevailing wind is often into) to find the short stuff. From there, a shot of over 200 yards is demanded to a green that is raised up above the player and slopes away from them, tempting balls to kick away into the long grass.

A five won't be a bad score … unless you needed a four to win the tournament on Sunday.

Tiger Woods: [In practice], from the back tee I hit driver and three-iron. I played the up tee with driver and four-iron, and I hit two good ones. It will be interesting to see where they put the tee markers on that hole."

Graeme McDowell: "I missed my drive slightly off the back tee [in practice last Wednesday], and I didn't reach the fairway."

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