In the space of 24 hours Merion’s weather upgraded from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur. Saturday’s flawless dawn was as gorgeous as Friday’s was grim.
There was, however, no commensurate upswing in generosity from the course when a total of 68 players were called to Merion at 7.15am to complete second rounds pushed back by Thursday’s weather delays. For them Merion was the same parsimonious adversary, with day-two pin positions as welcoming as thumb screws.
It was little better when the third round eventually began five hours later. That said, pin placement had no influence over Sergio Garcia’s double digits at the 15th, where, after smashing three successive tee shots out of bounds, he racked up a 10. The only players in red overnight, leaders Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel, had surrendered that status by the par-three third, were both missed the green.
Birdie starts were no great harbingers of joy for either Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods, who began the day four off the lead on three over par. The former bogeyed three of his next four holes and Woods two. Up and down swung the pendulum, one player’s delight balanced by another’s gloom.
After five holes it was the turn of Luke Donald, playing in the final group, to take his turn in red at the top of the leaderboard with Australia’s John Senden. They were like a pair of high- wire artists hovering over Cheddar Gorge without a safety net. Insecure.
Ian Poulter recorded his first birdie at the sixth to bring him back to two over par. As a victim of the disrupted schedule it had already been a long day for him, and it did not start well. Poulter had been left to sleep on a 20-footer for birdie at the 15th when the hooter went late on Friday. In retrospect he might have had a pop when he was loose. The green is a nuanced brute and yielded no joy first thing in the morning. The final three holes can be golf’s equivalent of a career down the pit, propelling the unfortunate into a dark and dismal place.
This is the part of the course that traverses an old stone quarry, its steep banks overgrown with nettle and scrub. It is the kind of terrain that in the imagination of children is home to trolls and associated grotesques dwelling in the deep. The 16th borders it, the 17th flies right over it and the 18th tee invites the players to clear 250 yards of it before escaping towards the Elysian Fields of Hogan’s plaque.
Poulter was in the fairway bunker on 16, where doom resides, and through the back at 18, which is no fun either. Bogeys resulted on each occasion. That is the nature of Merion under US Open conditions. It is designed to test the psyche as much as technique. It knows it isn’t fair and doesn’t care. It is up to the golfer to deal with the bad breaks and get on with it.
Poulter is particularly adept at this. He walked off the course shortly after 8am with six hours to kill before his third round began, enough time to compute the significance of his two over total.
As he noted, 36 holes at this championship is an eternity, and three shots back is no distance at all. This is what he made of his morning’s work. “I hit it into that fairway bunker on 16 and had a really bad lie. I had a massive lump of sand behind my ball and you don’t want to be short coming out of that bunker with that canyon. I tried to almost thin it, it lands just on the green and dribbles off and it leaves me a nightmare chip shot. I make bogey then played a lovely shot into 17 and made a two-putt par.
“I think 18 is probably the hardest hole in golf right now. I played a lovely 3-wood and 3-iron and it ran just off the back edge of the green and I didn’t get up and down.
“So, albeit I had two bogeys in the last three holes to finish round 2, I’m right there, I’m right in position. I’m three off the lead in the US Open. And that’s a difference of one hole. You can make birdie and someone can make double. I’m right in position and right there where I want to be. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”
Every golfer has his tale of woe this week. Lee Westwood, crashing into a wicker basket on the 11th hole to trigger what turned out to be a 10-shot reverse over the next 25 holes from three under to seven over, is perhaps the most obvious example.
Merion has proved a formidable foe. For some the course has erred on the harsh side of the line between what is fair and what is not.
While it is acceptable to make the world’s best golfers sweat, it is surely not the point of the game to punish good shots.
Last year’s host, San Francisco’s Olympic Club, was absurdly difficult, shaving cambered fairways already stiffened by nature into landing strips too small for marbles. The width of the fairway is not so much at issue here, though they are not generous, it is the lack of compromise. Only 18 inches of first cut separates the fairway and some greens from the dense thicket of rough.
Woods fired his approach to eight feet at the seventh green on Friday, the ball checked then hopped off the putting surface into a thatched roof where a fringe should be. An exquisite shot became an encumbrance. His skill was tested. It met the challenge set by the course, yet it beat him up unnecessarily. His chip flopped on to the fringe and a shot was gone.
Yes it is the same for all, but when caprice is given too much of a say in outcomes, there is a danger that the event might not get the winner it deserves. The US Open champion ought to be the best player, not the luckiest.