Any player stepping to the 17th tee at Merion Golf Club late Sunday afternoon needing two pars to win the U.S. Open might do well to reach deep into the side pocket of his bag and tug down a tall Starbucks latte. He’ll need the extra boost.
It will be a lonely assignment standing on that 17th tee, enduring the long wait just to place a little white golf ball on a tee and take aim at a little red wicker basket nearly 250 yards away. A tall, steep grandstand of thousands will be filled near the green, creating an arena-like atmosphere that will inject extra electricity to the surrounds.
Bring on the gladiators.
Scott Stallings stomached the long wait in his Tuesday practice round and, holding a long iron in his hand, turned and summoned his caddie when it finally was his turn to play.
“Oh, do you need a pellet?” his caddie asked, reaching into his bib to grab his player a shiny new orb.
“No,” quipped Stallings, “I think I need a cannon.”
Steve Stricker calls Merion the “longest short course” he’s ever played, and there’s reason for that. The par-70 layout may come in at under 7,000 yards (officially, it measures a “mere” 6,996), but this is no weakling at the beach. Merion’s brawn is delivered in scattered doses, much of it coming on three stout par-3 holes. There’s the 256-yard third (“a drivable par 4,” Tiger Woods called it); the 236-yard ninth, protected by a creek; and the 246-yard 17th, its tiered green sitting beyond a false front and protected by a lineup of rugged, jagged bunkers with wild fescue protruding around the edges.
You’ve heard of Charlie’s Angels? Well, these three strapping par 3s are Merion’s Devils. Even if they appear stunning on a canvas.
“Seventeen, it’s probably one of the prettiest holes I’ve seen in a long time,” said Stricker, who is competing in his 18th U.S. Open. “It’s like walking into a stadium, because the stands are on the left and behind the green and the hole is kind of sunken down. It’s just a pretty hole. But again, we were hitting 3-wood into there . . .”
Tom Watson, the 1982 U.S. Open champion, isn’t competing this week, but he was standing on the 17th tee Tuesday to greet and chat with players who would love to join him as an Open champion.
“Geez,” Watson said with a grin as Germany’s Marcel Siem stood on the tee in front of him, “do all you guys that play today stand 6 foot 4?”
Many do, of course, and they’re strong as oxen and hit it a mile, too. That’s why we see traditional golf courses such as Merion exhibiting their stretch marks as they are adapted and reconfigured to fit the modern game. When Watson played the last Open staged at Merion, in 1981, he played from a tee about 50 yards forward and had a little less club into the 17th green. But the times they are a changin’, and the club of choice for many as a brisk wind kicked up into the players’ faces Tuesday afternoon was 3-wood or 5-wood.
Said Watson, “Well, like Jack (Nicklaus) said to Hootie (Johnson, the former Augusta National Golf Club chairman) a few years back when Tiger was hitting 9-irons and pitching wedges into so many of the greens all over Augusta, he said, ‘You had to do what you did.’ That’s the equipment issue we have today. The ball is going far, and players are bigger and stronger and swinging the club with more speed.
“Jack said, ‘You had to do what you did – and it’s still not long enough.’ That’s where we are.”
Still, at nearly 250 yards, and with the pressure of an Open weighing heavily on one’s shoulders when Sunday evening beckons, the length at 17 could prove to be plenty. Several players bounced errant 3-woods into the left grandstands, and there are perilous lies to be found for those not hitting the green. Harsh sentences of bogeys and doubles await.
There’s a likely chance the U.S. Golf Association will implement a mix of using the back tee and a more forward tee (where players dropped balls and hit long irons and hybrids Tuesday) at 17 during the tournament.
“It’s kind of in their hands,” said Stricker, a medium-length hitter who failed to even reach the putting surface with a 3-wood at the par-3 third during one of his practice rounds. “If you can play these par 3s this week in even par, you’re going to do well.”
Shortly before Watson was to head off to Tuesday night’s prestigious Champions Dinner inside the Merion clubhouse (the first such one assembled since 2000 at Pebble Beach), he stayed to watch Stewart Cink come through. Cink, you’ll remember, is the man who stood in the way of what might have been not only the best golf story of all-time, but one of the best stories in all of sports as a nearly-60-year-old Watson made a run at the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry in Scotland. Only a bogey at the final hole would derail Watson from winning his sixth Open Championship.
After the two men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and with Watson standing watch, arms folded, Cink stepped up at 17 and ripped a 3-iron that pierced through the air, the ball bouncing some 10 feet in front of the back-left flagstick and nearly ducking into the hole before settling just behind it.
“Best shot I’ve seen all day,” Watson told Cink.
“Hey, I always turn out my best for you,” Cink told Watson.
As Cink walked off the tee, Watson retorted, “You always did.”