ARDMORE, Pa. – When I won the media lottery to play Merion the day after the U.S. Open, I didn’t know whether to accept congratulations or condolences.
Henrik Stenson hung in my mind: “If the general public played a course like this, they'd probably all quit within a week ... You constantly get beaten down. “
Making matters worse, I trekked to downtown Philly late Sunday night to sample the city’s two most famous cheesesteaks. Pat’s had the more flavorful beef, making Geno’s the Phil Mickelson of this competition.
My stomach was angry with me Monday morning, but there was another factor at play: If former U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover could shoot 82 here, if Rory McIlroy could get frustrated enough to bend a wedge out of commission, if Sergio Garcia could hit not one, not two, but three consecutive balls out of bounds, what was in store for a 13-handicap?
The round began on the 16th tee – nothing is easy at Merion, where a 20-minute shuttle ride separated the competitors from the East Course’s first tee – and I was paired with journalists I’d never met from California, Ireland and Denmark.
The Irishman, Greg Allen, asked to borrow my long putter, explaining: “I’m afflicted.”
He four-putted the 17th green, providing an early challenge to his mental well-being. “It’s gonna be fun today,” he told himself. “You’re smiling. You’re playing Merion.”
I can barely break 100 on a Putt-Putt course (OK, slight exaggeration), so I was expecting the Merion greens to torture me. And they did.
As one U.S. Open competitor put it: “I struggled with the speed, especially right around the hole.”
You and me both, Tiger Woods.
To imagine what it’s like to putt on some of the Merion greens, place a golf ball on the top of your windshield and try to get it to stop before it hits the wipers. The few times I had the speed right on a long putt – it would pass by the hole with minimal pace – the ball would still roll out 4-5 feet.
Desperate for backspin, Mickelson and Bubba Watson chipped from the putting surface on 15. Didn’t work either.
But tee to green, Merion was manageable. Of course it helped, make that HELPED, that we played the middle tees, making this a par-70 of 6,159 yards, shaving some 800 yards from the Open layout.
The 18th hole played to 530 yards on Saturday. Mickelson, without a driver, had some 270 yards in on his second shot.
We played it from 430, and I caught the fairway slope, scooting past Hogan’s plaque. I had 155 in. Different golf course.
I got hole-high with a 7-iron and then tried to do something that not one of the 73 competitors could on the weekend – make a birdie on the home hole. I blew my attempt 10 feet past the Sunday pin.
We got some comic relief on the first tee when my caddie, an Aaron Rodgers lookalike named Luke Lyons (he wore No. 12 and played quarterback in high school), told the group: “You don’t need your driver here. Just hit something 230-240.”
Allen shot back: “That’s what I hit my driver.”
I missed my second shot to the right and asked Luke if the rough was bad there.
“Wouldn’t say there’s much good rough out here,” he replied.
My approach to second green was, well, memorable. I hit a shank and immediately yelled: “I Stricker-ed it!”
It’s the first shank I’ve hit in years, and it was struck within about 20 yards of Stricker’s. Weird.
Several pros detested how USGA officials set up the third hole Sunday. They stretched the par-3 to 274 yards. And the green is elevated, so short is awful. Luke Donald hooked his driver, beaning a young woman. Mickelson made double-bogey, and a microphone caught him saying: “274? That’s terrible. Can’t even reach it.”
I hit a 5-iron to the fringe from 178 yards. Now that’s a par-3.
Fast-forward a bit ... after six holes, Merion exchanges her teeth for dentures. She goes from playable to gettable.
Or, as champion Justin Rose put it – far more eloquently, I should add: “What I first love about Merion is how one of the local caddies described it: 'The first six holes are drama, the second six holes are comedy, and the last six holes are tragedy.’ Like a good play, a good theatrical play.”
Holes 7-12, from the friendly tees, measure 352, 349, 165, 293, 350 and 352. I used my hybrid off every par-4 and made three pars. The highlight: A pitching wedge to the famed 11th green (where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930) that landed one foot behind the hole.
On our final hole, the par-4 15th, I saw why Garcia pumped all those balls out of bounds (though no one forced him to hit driver over and over again). A draw or even straight drive hits the road. A big fade ends up in a deep fairway bunker. Brilliant design.
I sliced one to a matted-down area between the 15th and 16th fairways. Wedged to the fairway, wedged to the green. And that’s when I finally figured out how to hit a 30-foot downhill putt at Merion: Stub it.
My blade hit the turf on its way to the ball. The putt died at the cup but still ran 4 feet below the hole. Missed that one for an appropriate ending.
The final tally: 94 with eight 3-putts (picked up some two-footers to save some time and my sanity),
7 fairways hit, 8 greens in regulation, 43 putts, 1 O.B. shank. And one helluva great time.