Simpson hopes experience at Merion will help him defend U.S. Open title
By Dan Gelston, Associated Press
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Webb Simpson has already played for an amateur championship at Merion.
He's ready to win a major there on his next visit.
Simpson is one of the few active PGA Tour members to play at the suburban Philadelphia course, competing at the 2005 U.S. Amateur. When he returns in June, Simpson has a grander goal in mind for his return visit than finishing 72 holes: Simpson wants to defend his U.S. Open championship.
''I tell people all the time it is my favorite golf course in the world,'' he said at Media Day. ''What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses, and it seems like most golf courses now are evolving to be bombers paradise. Every par 4 is 500 yards, and you hit a driver on every hole. Merion's the opposite.''
The U.S. Open is set to return in June to Merion Golf Club for the first time since 1981 -- and the U.S. Open at Merion will be the shortest course for a major championship in eight years.
The U.S. Open was played at Merion in 1934, 1950, 1971 and 1981. Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur there in 1930, and tournaments from the Curtis Cup to the Walker Cup also have been played at the course.
With a shorter course, birdies could become more expected. USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said Merion will play at 6,996 yards on the scorecard. The last major course that was under 7,000 yards was Shinnecock Hills for the 2004 U.S. Open, which played 6,996 yard. Merion will be the shortest since Southern Hills, which was 6,973 in 2001.
''There's going to be more birdies made at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history,'' said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. ''There's just some holes out here that lend themselves to it. Which is wonderful. Then there's some holes that are very tough. I would contend that you've got this balance of some of the easiest holes for U.S. Opens that you'll see in the modern era, yet at the same time, they have got some tough holes.''
Davis and club officials spoke on a rainy Monday at Merion that certainly didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the return of major golf to the Philadelphia area. Simpson, who Skyped in for the event, had his championship trophy by his side.
''It's even more of an honor at a place I love,'' he said. ''I can't wait to get there.''
Simpson emerged last year on a fog-filled final day at The Olympic Club in San Francisco with four birdies around the turn and a tough chip out of a hole to the right of the 18th green that he converted into par for a 2-under 68. He outlasted former U.S. Open champions Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell and finished at 1-over 281.
Aside from the boost in his bank account and tour ranking, Simpson has been noticed more because of the win.
''When I used to sign autographs, the kid would ask the mom who I was, and sometimes she would say, 'I don't know who that is,''' he said. ''But now people know who I am more.''
The USGA decided to cut down on tickets because Merion is not a big piece of property like Bethpage Black or Pinehurst. The USGA will take a financial hit compared with other venues, but it felt it was worth it. Merion expects about 25,500 fans during the peak days of the tournament.
''We don't look at this as a one-year financial exercise,'' said USGA Vice President Tom O'Toole. ''We look over a period of years, and we're perfectly comfortable that we could come back and have a less financially significant Open.''
Merion's famed wicker basket flagsticks will be in place. So will an increased focus on pace of play.
''We want to make sure that the pace-of-play policy is consistent with what the challenge is here at Merion,'' O'Toole said. ''We'll be looking at it closely.''
All eyes will be on Merion, which opened in 1912, for a weekend. Ben Hogan won the second of his four Opens at Merion. Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. History is all around the famed course. It's time to make some more.
''When we closed up in 1981, it's not as if the course didn't play well, but we really thought this was the last time, at least at a national Open Championship, you would ever see Merion played on TV,'' Davis said. ''It had nothing to do with the golf course in terms of how it played, in terms of a test of golf. But it had everything to do with, how do you fit a modern day U.S. Open on this 111 acres?''
Simpson and the rest of his PGA Tour competitors can't wait to find out.