U.S. Open forcing golfers to play out of comfort zone at Merion

Rory McIlroy reacts after missing a putt on the 10th green during the second round of the U.S. Open...

Rory McIlroy reacts after missing a putt on the 10th green during the second round of the U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., June 14, 2013. (ADAM HUNGER/Reuters)

JON McCARTHY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:39 AM ET

ARDMORE, PA. - Maybe Tom Hanks can help the players figure out Merion.

Yes, Tom Hanks.

For those who aren’t cultured theatre aficionados like myself, Hanks was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in a play called Lucky Guy on Broadway.

Fine, I heard him say it on Letterman last month. But the point is, one of the biggest movie stars in the world left his comfy big-screen life behind and brought his talent to a slightly cramped old theatre not knowing what to expect. And he delivered.

Here at this year's U.S. Open, the USGA has left familiar confines such as Pebble Beach or Pinehurst behind for the historic Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, and the players weren’t sure what to expect.

They were supposed to light up Merion, weren’t they?

The club hadn’t hosted a U.S. Open since 1981 when David Graham (look him up, no time to explain) shot seven-under par to win.

At the time it was thought that pro golf and the U.S. Open had outgrown the venue.

This year, even if the course played hard and dry, the Open was being looked at as a test to see whether a sub 7,000-yard classic course could handle the modern game. Then the rain came and softened up the course. It was supposed to be like Christmas. Isn’t that what all the golfers were saying?

“I didn't hear any of the golfers saying that,” McIlroy said after completing play Friday. “It was you guys.”

Whoa! C’mon, Rory. You’re going to make readers think they can’t believe everything we write.

“You must be very good golfers,” he added “There was people saying 63, 64, that was never going to happen.”

For the record, I can’t remember what I wrote yesterday, let alone before the tournament.

Back to Mr. Hanks.

It couldn’t have been easy going from big-budget sprawling movie sets to New York’s Broadhurst Theatre. In 1917, the theatre was built using cheap bricks so it would fit in with the neighbourhood. Yet, nearly 100 years later, Hanks walks in from Hollywood and blows the roof off the joint.

I know what Rory is thinking. Well, Tom Hanks didn’t have to deal with the rain.

Actually, when Tropical Storm Andrea’s leftovers drenched Merion, it also drenched Broadhurst. The theatre sprung a leak last Friday in the middle of a performance of Lucky Man. Hanks was soaked but the show went on, better than ever.

Is there a lesson there? Probably not.

But Broadhurst Theatre has a lot in common with Merion.

Broadhurst witnessed classic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Woody Allen; Merion witnessed performances by Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan.

Broadhurst has plenty of dings and dents, Merion has plenty of divots and ball marks on the tight landing areas of holes No. 7 and 8.

Hanks told Letterman that the theatre audience can be distracting. Maybe he should talk to Tiger Woods about this week at Merion.

“You have to wait for other players to hit off all their tees, some of the crossovers, at (holes No.) 3 and 6, it takes its toll on you,’ Woods said. “It's long days.”

Woods was talking about the logisitcs of the course, particularly players having to walk across the sixth tee on their way to the third tee.

On Friday, after Tiger made it to the tee at the third and was ready to hit his shot, he was forced to step away and regroup when crowd noise from another nearby hole -- the sixth -- distracted him.

Before the tournament started there were plenty of people saying that Merion wouldn’t play like a regular U.S. Open. They were right. It’s harder.

USGA executive director Mike Davis likes to keep players constantly off balance with his course setups. It was once remarked that his setups make you feel as though you are playing the round with a stone in your shoe.

Well, he may have found his perfect course.

With its mix of long and short holes, Merion seems to suit nobody’s game.

“The short holes are short, but if you miss the fairway, you can't get the ball on the green,” Woods said. “And the longer holes are brutal and this is probably the stiffest (test) of par-3s that we’ve ever face.”

Short hitters are going to pay dearly on Merion’s long holes and long hitters won’t have enough opportunities to take advantage of their length.

Whatever type of player you are, you better hit fairways because nobody will be scoring from the rough on the weekend. It’s made up of a bunch of different strains of grass that resembles a terrible case of bedhead. Standing up here, laying flat there. It’s to be avoided at all costs.

If the greens dry out over the weekend, Davis might have to go easy on the pin placements or it could get ugly.

Mix in the cramped setting, long days and the fact it takes 20-30 minutes for the players to get to the first tee from the practice area and it becomes clear that this U.S. Open is a stern test.

Former USGA president Sandy Tatum once asked whether they were trying to embarrass players at the U.S. Open.

"No," Tatum famously answered, "we're trying to identify them."

By Sunday evening, Merion will do just that.

And the audience is sure to see a spellbinding performance on this old stage before it’s over.


Videos

Photos