Going low at Merion? History doesn't back it up

Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., is the site of the 2013 U.S. Open.

Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., is the site of the 2013 U.S. Open.

ARDMORE, Pa. – Scoring was the biggest topic coming into the U.S. Open at Merion. Now that everyone – with the exception of Phil Mickelson – has arrived, scoring remains the predominant topic.

Many in the media have written or verbalized that the length of Merion at 6,996 yards, the first course under 7,000 yards since the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, would be a launching pad for breaking scoring records.

When more than 5 inches of rain fell on Merion during the past week, the drumbeat for low scoring got louder.

Of course as player after player is asked about the low-scoring potential at Merion, no one talks about a potential 62, one shot better than the Open record of 63 held by Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Vijay Singh – or the 268 that Rory McIlroy shot at a wet Congressional Country Club in 2011.

Two-time champion Ernie Els is playing in his 21st U.S. Open. Although he’s smart enough not to say a 62 can’t happen, he is not suggesting it will happen this week.

“I'm not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a U.S. Open,” Els said. “As I said, you've got more birdie opportunities than ever. So guys who have never played a U.S. Open, they might be lulled into, 'Hey, this is not all that bad.' I'm playing my 21st U.S. Open, so I've seen a lot of trouble out there.”

Since World War II, the scoring record has been eclipsed only four times. The first time was when Ben Hogan shot a 276 in 1948 at Riviera Country Club. That broke Hall of Famer Ralph Guldahl’s record of 281 (7 under) at Oakland Hills, where Guldahl was 11 under on the par 5s.

Hogan didn’t utilize the three par 5s on the par-71 layout, but was solid, with three rounds below 70. That included an opening-round 67, the low score of the championship.

Hogan’s record lasted 19 years, until Jack Nicklaus took Baltusrol’s Lower Course to its knees, capped by a final-round 65 that included a 2 and nine 3s on his scorecard and a total of 275.

It would take Nicklaus 13 years to eclipse his own record, which he did by three shots with a 272, again at Baltusrol. That year, Nicklaus didn’t wait until the last round but shot an opening-round 63, again with a 2 and nine 3’s on his card.

Lee Janzen in 1993, Tiger Woods in 2000 and Jim Furyk in 2003 matched Nicklaus’ record of 272, but that was as far as they could go.

It wasn’t until 31 years later that a young Northern Irishman, Rory McIlroy, would open with a 65 and never look back with a 66-68-69 in the final three rounds to break the record by four shots, shooting a 268.

During the past 75 years, the U.S. Open scoring record has gone from 281 to 268. In that same period, only Hogan, Nicklaus and McIlroy have set new marks, and those came over 11, 19, 13 and 31 years, respectively.

Why is it the record is now in jeopardy just two years after being set?

Many point to Merion itself. Of its four U.S. Opens, the winning scores were Olin Dutra in 1934 at 13-over 293; a playoff win by Ben Hogan in 1950 at 7-over 287; a playoff win by Lee Trevino in 1971 at even-par 280 and David Graham in 1981 at 7-under 273.

In 1981, Merion’s scorecard was 6,544 yards, the shortest course since the 1947 U.S. Open at St. Louis Country Club.

Of the field of 156 in 1981, only five players broke par, and 10 shot par or better.

Merion was not an easy test in 1981, at more than 400 yards shorter than it will play this week.

It's true that low scores have been shot at Merion. Tom Creavy shot 66 in the final round in 1934; Lee Mackey Jr. shot 64 in the first round in 1950; Jim Simons recorded a 65 in the third round in 1971; and Ben Crenshaw shot a 64 in the third round in 1981.

Yet in the four Opens at Merion, there have been only 103 rounds in the 60s.

Is it possible that scoring records could fall this week and a 62 could be shot? Absolutely. But is it likely? No.

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