US Open: Merion stands test of time

U.S. Open - Round Four
The fans wanted Phil Mickelson, but cheered Justin Rose Sunday as he claimed his first career major championship.

 

It was quite a week at the little golf course in Ardmore that many counted out to host a major like the U.S. Open. Not only did Merion Golf Club deliver on its promise — it had many scratching their heads to see if it were conceivable for the East Course to host again.

There was even a scene on the tournament’s first day where Phil Mickelson grabbed the ear of USGA executive director Mike Davis just to tell me how amazing the course and crowds were at the tiny gem in suburban Philadelphia. The Open champion, Justin Rose, shot a 1-over, par-70 to claim the championship.

So, would the USGA consider returning to famed Merion?

“Well, we have to be invited back by the club,” Davis said. “So I mean, I would think we would all want to sit down and digest this. But the club would have to invite us and think about it, it’s usually 10,12,15,20 in this case, 32 years. So I think that’s really what’s got to happen is that we would assess things, they would assess things. But ultimately we’re very reactive. They got to invite us and then at that point is when we start to look.”

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the Open came late Sunday, when the final pairing walked the fairway on 18. Rose was already in the clubhouse, with Mickelson needing a birdie to force a playoff, much like Ben Hogan in 1950. Spectators started inching beyond the roped-off area as soon as Mickelson hit his drive, a clunker which found the deep rough and trees. Mickelson made a great save and actually put himself in better-than-anticipated position as he setup for about a 40-yard chip for birdie.

No sooner had he launched that second shot when the fans stormed the fairway and created a makeshift human wall around the green. The chants of “Let’s go Phil” were probably audible all the way out in Conestoga. Security guards just threw their hands up, unable to stop the rush, prompting one to smile and say, “Only in Philly.”

Mickelson’s chip raced by the cup unsuccessfully as he took second place for the sixth time at the Open. That wasn’t important, not to the fans who were just happy to witness a small piece of golf history. They posed for pictures next to Mickelson’s divot and Hogan’s plaque. They scooped up and pocketed pieces of the famed course. They went home talking about the week that was, an exciting four-day thrill ride that even rain couldn’t put the brakes on.

“Philadelphia is one of the most historic golf cities in the country and they put on a great show,” said Davis. “Great spectators, great golf course, and marvelous. You celebrated history, you celebrated one of the great architectural sites. You celebrated a great championship site, so it was really worth it, I thought.”

 

What we saw at Merion

Stood the test of time » Perhaps the USGA could have been a little nicer in the course setup — that 266-yard, par 3 on hole No. 3 was brutal — but at the end of the day the East Course reminded everyone that newer isn’t always better. Birdies were few and far between, especially on 18 — no one birdied the hole in the final two days.

The atmosphere » The torrential rains early in the week produced an intoxicatingly disgusting stench of manure in the Spectator’s Village, but the fans didn’t mind, muddy shoes and all. Beers were selling fast, even at $7 a pop, and the smell of cigars permeated the sticky and humid air.

Gearing up » I went into the Merchandise Tent last Wednesday to buy a friend a visor, then decided to wait until later in the week. Bad idea. The store was cleaned out by Sunday, with people stripping down mannequins for items. The entire hat section looked like it had been robbed. Official polo shirts, going for $65 each, were the only things left.

Happy birthday » Phil Mickelson celebrated his 43rd birthday Sunday, and everyone knew it. The gallery serenaded him early and often by singing “Happy Birthday” and following him up and down the course like lost puppies. He smiled and tipped his cap after an extra boisterous serenade on the sixth green.

Celebrity sightings » Unless you count the talking heads at ESPN as celebrities — and I don’t, sorry Rick Reilly — then star power appeared to be slightly lacking at the Open. We did see Olympic champion Michael Phelps walking around with some nice blonde arm candy.

Out of the Woods » Tiger Woods just wasn’t a factor in this one. Even the crowds that had been stalking him for the first few days had subsided by Sunday. He can point to his putter after recording 11 bogeys, along with a slew of three-putts, over his final 36 holes. Woods praised Merion and apologized to fans. “I’m sorry that the golf wasn’t what I would like to have it,” he said.


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