US Open: Golfers get short end of the stick

‘They need to respect course. It’s brutal’ says Poulter as there is a reality check for players and critics who said lows scores would prevail at Merion Golf Club

Luke Donald during Round One of the 113th US Open at Merion Golf Club.
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ARDMORE, Pennsylvania // They said it could be harmed and humiliated, but in the end it was Merion Golf Club that did the bullying in the first round at the US Open.

At 6,996 yards the shortest US Open test in nine years and softened by three days of heavy rain over the past week, all the talk before the tournament began was whether major championship golf history would be made with a round of 62.

To date, 25 players have shot 63s in one of golf’s four major tournaments – the Masters, US and British Opens and PGA Championship – but no one has gone lower.

Not only did Merion, in suburban Philadelphia, avoid the fate of being the first major course to give up a 62, it also left some of the world’s best golfers battered and bruised.

Of the 156 first-round starters, only five managed to better the par of 70, Phil Mickelson leading the way with a three-under 67 set on Thursday before darkness fell and left half of the field with their first rounds incomplete.

That would have been seen as inconceivable a few days ago when such a golfing sage as Ernie Els was saying of the prospects for scoring at Merion this week that: “You’re going to see a lot more birdies than ever before.” The reality was that the course, though short on size, has large and sharp teeth in the form of punitive rough, deep bunkers and some wickedly deceptive risk/reward holes.

England’s Ian Poulter, who settled for a first round of 71, was scathing of TV commentators whom he said had mocked Merion in the build-up to the tournament.

“They were joking around, laughing at 63s and 62s and just look at the board,” he said. “I mean, they need to respect this golf course. It’s brutal. The long holes are severely long. Yes, we’re making birdies on those short holes, but look what we have to contend with out there on those long holes. It’s not easy.”

Thursday’s muggy, stormy weather, which brought two play suspensions that totalled about four hours and 15 minutes, was replaced by equally damp but colder conditions yesterday as the wind direction switched from south to north.

The result, though, was the same as players struggled to make pars.

The Englishman Luke Donald, who completed an excellent round of 68 to stand in joint second place, agreed that Merion, hosting a US Open for the first time in 32 years, had taken many players by surprise.

“I think everyone thought that as soon as the course got wet it was going to play easy. The scores certainly aren’t showing that,” he said. “The tough holes are extremely tough. It does give you a little bit of balance with some of those shorter holes, but you really need to play those tough ones well.”

Tiger Woods, who injured his left wrist on Thursday when trying to extract his ball out of Merion’s deep rough, said that the changing conditions had quickened the green speeds. “It’s unbelievable how much faster they were this morning,” said the world No 1, who settled for an edgy 73. “It should slow up a little bit by this afternoon, but there’s still quite a bit of moisture in them so I think that the uphill, into-the-grain putts are really slow and then, obviously, the downhill, down-grain putts are really quick.”

Several top players had very difficult first rounds, including the world No 8 Graeme McDowell, who shot a 76, and the world No 12 Keegan Bradley who recorded a 77.

With sunnier and warmer weather forecast for the weekend, Merion could become an even tougher test. What seems highly unlikely is  any repeat of two years ago, when Rory McIlroy won at Congressional Club in Washington with a record 16-under par total.