Merion’s 15th presents an infernal double-cross

K.J. Choi hits from the left side of the fairway on the 15th hole. Fans, who are all out of bounds, line the left side, only eight feet from the fairway.

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— If you want to know how hard Merion is, just set up shop at the par-4 15th tee and try to figure out this sleeper of a hole.

Not many people talk about it – not enough, anyway. Maybe because it’s not particularly scenic. Or maybe because on a golf course famed for its very long holes and very short holes, the 15th fits neatly into the middle. At 411 yards, it’s got something of an identity crisis out here. It’s not one of those 4-iron/wedge par 4s like the first, seventh, eighth, 10th and 11th. And it’s not one of those driver/4-iron holes, like the fifth, sixth, 14th and 18th (if you’re lucky). What it happens to be is simply masterful: a golf hole that makes use of its terrain and that shows better than anything else out here how angles can be mind-bending.

During Tuesday’s practice round, I watched Paul Casey hit a perfect drive down the left side, then play from a normal stance in which his heels were only 10 feet from out-of-bounds. Here’s a hole with no left side! It simply falls off, without a boundary fence, right onto a paved public road that is precisely 7 feet from the fairway.

OK, so maybe it would be smart to avoid the left side and play it down the right. Wrong. The hole turns steadily to the right, uphill, with three steep, nasty bunkers along that side, with some of the thickest, nastiest rough between the sand and running the length of the hole – instant bogey land. If you’re in that rough or sand on the right, all you can do is pitch back to the fairway.

As you stand on the tee, says 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, “you’re aiming at the road.” Not a pretty target for a PGA Tour pro.

The beauty of this hole is that it offers lots of options. Blast a drive over the bunkers, a carry of 295 yards uphill. Or play it safely with a 3-wood or utility club and give up distance for control. All of which presumes you can shape a shot left-to-right and not the other way around. If you hit it toward the road, it will roll that way, likely out of bounds.

Or you can just bail out completely with a long-iron away to the left, in which case you’re faced with an uphill second shot of about 185 yards to a green designed for a lofted approach, not a low-trajectory one.

The green? Like all the others at Merion, it's got its own character: a false front, some infernal interior rolls, and a distinct sense of fallaway towards the back -- all of it framed by steep bunkers.

I love this hole. I love how it forces players to commit. On a golf course squeezed into a confined landscape, the 15th hole is a great example of using the terrain, integrating with the boundaries of the property, making golfers think and making them worry about disaster. There’s a basic rule of world-class play: “no negative thoughts.” The 15th at Merion breeds all of the wrong ideas in a golfer’s mind

Maybe that’s unkind. Maybe that’s unfair.

After all, the 15th at Merion plays favorites. It favors a smart player.

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