The US Open returns to Merion Golf Club for the fifth time in its history this year, having hosted three memorable championships in the modern era.
In 1950, the great Ben Hogan won his second US Open at Merion only 16 months after his horrific car accident which nearly cost him his life. At the time of the accident doctors thought he would never walk again, let alone play golf. Saturday saw 36 holes being played, the final day back then, and, as Hogan left the 13th green during the fourth round, he instructed his caddie to take his bag back to the club rack. Hogan’s legs were still weak from the near-fatal accident.
He had been using a collapsible chair between shots to rest them. His caddie reportedly turned to Hogan and said, “No, Mr Hogan. I don’t work for quitters. I’ll see you on the next tee, sir.” Hogan went on to force a play-off which he subsequently won the following day. It was one of the most inspirational sporting performances of all time and a display of immeasurable desire fired by a love of the great game. Looking at the players today you can see that kind of desire burning within a chosen few.
Phil Mickelson is one. The definitive crowd pleaser, Phil finished majestically at the St Jude’s Classic on Sunday there, attempting to hole his 150-yard approach at 18 in pursuit of a play-off. He could be seen mouthing “get in” as it flew in the air only to narrowly miss. This wasn’t arrogance – he truly thought he could sink that approach, such was his desire. Whilst coming into form nicely ahead of the week’s US Open, I think Phil may be too gung-ho for a course that will require a more strategic approach.
Tiger Woods is another whose desire to win seems to burn eternally. This major provides another staging post for his juggernaut of a comeback. People may point to his flaky front nine in the third round at Ohio a couple of weeks ago when he shot 44, the worst outward half of his professional career, as a sign of fragility. My own view is that everyone has an off day and I’m sure that aberration will be shown to be a mere speed bump on the road to domination this season.
Indeed, I think the fact Tiger performed so badly at The Memorial will have motivated him even more to prepare as best he possibly can for the US Open and that is the sign of a great champion. For me Tiger comes in as favourite – he has the ability to approach golf as if it were a game of chess. This course will require a considered approach and Tiger has demonstrated the requisite levels of patience and strategy before to win, most notably at Hoylake in 2006 when he was taking 5 and 6-irons off the tee because he knew it was the smart play in the grand scheme of the tournament.
In 1981, Australia’s David Graham won the US Open at Merion with one of the greatest closing rounds in championship golf. Graham himself remarked that it was as well as he had ever played in his life. The reason for such acclaim? He kept the ball in play. Aside from missing the first fairway by a couple of inches, Graham never missed another and he never needed anything other than his putter in and around the greens. He came from three behind to win by three with a magnificent closing 67.
So, when we look at what is a very strong field, we should immediately look at those with a reputation for accuracy off the tee. Kuchar, Donald and McDowell are three players I fancy to do well here. The track is relatively short for a US Open course at under 7,000 yards, the shortest since 2001, so it brings into the mix players with less length off the tee – Steve Stricker for example.
Like all US Open courses, it is set up in a similar way. The first, second and third cut of the rough will all be uniform, the greens will be cut to the same length as previous US Opens and the fairways will be of similar width. Basically it is a very fair set up, rewarding good play and punishing bad play in equal measure and, for this reason, I really like the US Open as a major.
However a more unique aspect of Merion will be the lack of familiarity with the course among the field. Since Graham’s victory, it has only hosted the US Amateur in 2005, won by Eduardo Molinari, and the Walker Cup in 2009, when Ricky Fowler starred in a US win. Consequently, this may make it more interesting.
The recent weather at Merion has been very wet and this should help players with a long carry. Rory plays a lot of his game in the air and so these conditions should suit him. I don’t think his scoring is a fair reflection of how well he is swinging right now so I hope he does well this week. Another who has not featured of late is Masters Champion Adam Scott, who has limited his play since Augusta to focus on and build specifically for the majors. He will be meticulous in his preparation.
All players prepare differently, however I don’t think anyone would follow Lee Trevino’s example when he won the US Open here in 1971. He was standing on the first tee of the US Open play-off with his opponent Jack Nicklaus when he pulled out a three-foot rubber snake from his bag and threw it at the feet of the great man. It got a laugh from everyone including Nicklaus. Ever the comedian, Trevino remarked after his victory “I love Merion, and I don’t even know her last name”.
Hopefully the players will fall in love with her all over again this week.
• Sam Torrance spoke exclusively to The Scotsman in his role as Caledonia Best Clubhouse Captain. For more information on the brand visit www.caledoniabest.com