ARDMORE, Pa. – The affection was genuine. Even better was beating Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. So when Lee Trevino got his hands on the U.S. Open trophy in 1971, the man who never lacked for one-liners gushed, "I love Merion, and I don't even know her last name."
For this generation of stars, Merion is more like a blind date.
No other course with four U.S. Opens had to wait such a long time – 32 years – for another chance to test the world's best players. Even with Tiger Woods back to No. 1 and winning at a ridiculous rate, so much of the talk at this major championship has been about Merion.
For years, it was considered too small to handle such a big tournament and the big hitters with their modern equipment. And with soft greens from more than 6 inches of rain in the last week, the question is whether the course will yield the kind of scores rarely seen at the toughest test in golf.
On Thursday, the mystery of Merion will start to unfold.
"It's been how long, 32 years? And with all the technology since then?" Steve Stricker said as he headed to the first tee Wednesday for one last practice round. "Someone asked me the other day about someone shooting a 62. And what I wanted to say was, `You're crazy.' But you just don't know. We don't know what's going to happen. And in a way, that's kind of cool."
Not so cool was the weather expected for the opening round.
Merion already took a beating last Friday when more than 3 inches of rain sent water over the edges of some bunkers and left small streams on fairways and greens. More rain on Monday caused the course to be closed three times.
The forecast called for increasing clouds, gusts and showers Thursday morning, with stronger storms likely to arrive around noon.
"Sure, we want it firm and fast," USGA Vice President Thomas O'Toole said Wednesday. "We happen to play a sport that's played outdoors. We received significant rain over the last week, and some tell us that we'll have even more significant rain tomorrow. So it's not a perfect world. It's not a perfect game. But we take what we're dealt with."
Whether a golf course is big or small, soft greens typically are a recipe for low scores. Then again, Merion is not a typical golf course.
It measures 6,996 yards on the scorecard – the shortest of any major championship in nine years – and has a stretch of seven holes in the middle that are short even by yesterday's standards. Compare those holes with the scorecard from when Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, and four of those holes were actually longer by a few yards in Hogan's day.
Players typically reach for the wedge to chip out of the rough around the greens at the U.S. Open. At Merion, they could be hitting wedge into the green for their second shot on at least six holes. That's what has caused all the clamor about low scores.
And with the rain, it's reminiscent of how Congressional was vulnerable two years ago, when Rory McIlroy shattered U.S. Open scoring records at 16-under 268.
"I've been reading about how many scoring records are going to be broken," Nick Watney said. "I've been around here once. And I think that's insane. It's funny to me. People look at the yardage and think it's going to be easy. Even if it's soft, the greens are sloped. The rough is thick. OK, we'll have wedges into some of the greens, but that doesn't mean you make birdie on all those holes. There's enough tough holes to counteract that."
Even so, the winning score has gone down in each of the four previous U.S. Opens at Merion, from Olin Dutra at 13 over par in 1934 to David Graham winning at 7 under in 1981, the last time this major championship was here.
"Where did David Graham shoot 7 under? From there?" Nick Watney asked as he pointed the end of his driver to a spot some 30 yards from where he was standing. "Because he didn't do it from here."
Watney was standing in the middle of the putting green. He took three steps to his right and was standing on the 14th tee. As an example of longer holes being made more difficult, a new tee on the 464-yard hole is where members practice putting.
The biggest fear with rain on the horizon is what will happen the rest of the week. The forecast is reasonable after Thursday, but in soft conditions, balls start to pick up clumps of mud as the sun starts to dry the course. And while players often are allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway in muddy conditions on the PGA Tour, they don't do that at the U.S. Open.
The USGA famously referred to the local rule as "lift, clean and cheat."
"We wouldn't be adopting that rule this week," O'Toole said.
It all begins with Cliff Kresge hitting the opening shot of the 113th U.S. Open at 6:45 a.m. local timeThursday – weather permitting, of course.
Woods, McIlroy and Masters champion Adam Scott play Thursday afternoon in the power grouping of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world. Sergio Garcia plays on the opposite side of the draw, teeing off Thursday morning. So does Phil Mickelson, who left Philadelphia on Monday when the weather was bad to practice in San Diego. He planned on being home, anyway, so he could watch his oldest daughter graduate from the eighth-grade. Mickelson was scheduled to arrive about 4:15 a.m. Thursday, just three hours before his tee time.
Stricker called Merion the "longest short course I've ever played." Graeme McDowell is another guy who isn't buying into the fear over low scoring.
"Everyone is saying that it's going to be 62s and 63s on this golf course, which I kind of disagree with at the minute," McDowell said. "I think 10 or 11 of these golf holes are as tough as any U.S. Open I've seen."
The lowest score in major championship history is 63, and it has happened only four times in the U.S. Open – Johnny Miller at Oakmont in 1973 on a soggy course, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf on the same day at Baltusrol in 1980 during a wet week, and Vijay Singh on a rain-softened course at Olympia Fields in 2003.
"You've got more birdie opportunities than ever," Ernie Els said. "I'm playing my 21st U.S. Open, so I've seen a lot of trouble out there. But this is one where you can get on a run. You can make some 3s. That's not a number that's really familiar in the U.S. Open. But as I say, you start missing shots, the rough is as bad as I've ever seen it."