Column: Merion, the little course that could, did.
ARDMORE, Pa. (AP) — Merion Golf Club did more than just hold its own.
Called too short, too cramped and too much of a pushover when the U.S. Open teed off, it nearly stole the show by the end.
It crowned a worthy champion in Justin Rose, slid a banana peel beneath Phil Mickelson and sent Tiger Woods packing with his tail tucked between his legs.
It forced every player in the field to pull every club in the bag at one time or another, and left nearly all of them second-guessing throughout. There were more bogeys and bent clubs, hosel rockets and self-inflicted head slaps in the first two hours of the final round than you see some seasons in all four majors combined.
Between the limited space for the galleries and corporate tents, the payoffs to neighbors and Merion members for commandeering their lawns and clubhouse, the U.S. Golf Association may leave with a smaller haul than usual. But if it came here in search of grand theater, the USGA got a steal.
“At the start of the week everyone thought we were going to rip it up,” Jason Day recalled ruefully, after tying with Mickelson for runner-up at 3 over, “but I just knew that somewhere around even par was going to win it.”
Advances in technology and better-conditioned athletes have made the ball fly farther and were supposed to make 7,000-yard courses obsolete.
Mother Nature dumped buckets of rain through most of the four days to further soften up Merion’s first line of defense — its devilishly sloped fairways and undulating greens.
But like every one of the game’s great venues — old and new — Merion struck back by getting into the players’ heads. Its quirky sightlines and blind shots left golfers doubting their aim even as they pulled the club back.
The mix of tough holes and easy ones — in the last round, one par-3 required a driver, another par-3 a wedge — toyed with their nerves and lulled the players into relaxing at all the wrong moments.
“I found that was the toughest thing,” said Rose, whose winning score was 1 over.
“Because you could make birdies, you could get ahead of the card, around the middle of the course you could be 1 or 2 under. No round was safe until you played 18 holes. I think we learned that yesterday, the way I finished. I finished bogey, bogey. (Charl) Schwartzel, bogey, bogey. Luke (Donald), bogey, double bogey. Hunter (Mahan), bogey, bogey.”
Because of the treacherous course setup at some places, the USGA has said its goal is to identify the best players, not embarrass them.
If so, despite the high scores and sometimes-amateurish shots, nearly every player in the field walked off looking more respectable for all the struggling — and none more-so than Rose.
The resolute Englishman was supposed to be golf’s next big thing after finishing fourth in the 1998 British Open as a 17-year-old. Instead, soon after launching his pro career, Rose missed 21 straight cuts and lost his father.
When he tapped in for par at No. 18, he looked up at the sky in tribute to his father, kissed the golf ball he pulled from the cup, doffed his cap briefly and then waited to see whether Mickelson, playing in the final group behind him, could birdie a hole that hadn’t yielded even one the last two days.
But in a nice bit of serendipity, a few moments earlier as he stood in the 18th fairway, Rose was only five paces behind the bronze plaque embedded there to recall the famous 1-iron that Ben Hogan hit here in 1950 to earn a spot in a playoff he won the next day.
Six decades later, for all the things that have changed in the game, the demands on a champion were the same: one solidly struck iron shot, two putts.
“It’s hard not to play Merion and envision yourself hitting the shot that Hogan did,” Rose recalled. “And even in the moment today, that was not lost on me. When I walked over the hill and saw my drive sitting perfectly in the middle of the fairway, with the sun coming out, it was kind of almost fitting. ...
“So I felt like I did myself justice,” he added, “and probably put enough of a good swing where Ben Hogan might have thought it was a decent shot too.”
Endorsements flowed in from other quarters, too. Rose, Mickelson, Woods, Day and just about every other contender interviewed Sunday said they would welcome the chance to come back for another major, stand in Hogan’s spikes and see if they measured up.
Many in the golf community viewed this visit to Merion as a referendum of sorts on whether some of the game’s other grand old venues — perhaps Chicago Golf Club, Riviera and The Country Club — would get the chance to face the test of time as well.
Standing alongside the 18th green just ahead of the trophy presentation, Tom O’Toole, chairman of the USGA’s championship committee, wasn’t prepared to commit to any site beyond those already awarded through 2020.
“The question with Merion was always whether the other things that go into staging an Open — infrastructure, logistics, those things mostly — would work out. It took a lot of creativity,” he said.
“The naysayers dominated the early part of that conversation,” O’Toole added. “But they’ve gone by the wayside now.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.