ARDMORE, Pa. — How low can they go? That's the buzz around Merion Golf Club as players finish up the last day of practice rounds before the 2013 U.S. Open.
Some think the lows could be record-breaking. There is always a buzz around a course in the days leading up to a major tournament—this course is too hard, that course has unfair rough, this course has greens that are too fast—but rarely in recent memory has so much buzz been about how the course might be too easy for the players.
The number 62 has been bandied about all week, and while some players don't think any U.S. Open setup will yield a score that low, others look at the short and wet conditions at Merion and see the history books in sight.
The record low-score total for the U.S. Open is 63, first set by Johnny Miller at Oakmont Country Club (outside Pittsburgh) in 1973, and matched three times—by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Vijay Singh.
Defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson may have inadvertently created the 62 buzz with his comments to the media on Monday. "You go through the first 13 holes and if you drive it appropriately," Simpson explained, "you can have, the way I figured it, nine wedge shots. And the last five holes you've kind of got to hang on."
Based on Simpson's assessment of the course, there is a chance—thanks to the soft fairways and greens—for a player to go out in 30, with a very short par-four 10th hole, followed by a difficult but accessible downhill 11th and another accessible par-four 12th. The 13th hole is by no means an easy task, but it is just 115 yards from tee to green. In theory, a player could come through the last five holes in one- or two-over par and still be in the conversation for a historic scoring round.
The rain has changed everything at Merion.
The weather on Tuesday and Wednesday has dried out the course a bit, but Thursday is slated to be very wet, leading to wider fairways—the ball doesn't roll as much on wet grass, allowing for players to get a better sense where their tee shorts will end up without a ton of roll—and softer greens.
Luke Donald echoed that mindset, suggesting, "In terms of the rain, I think it just makes everything around the green a little bit more accessible. ... It makes short game a little bit easier around the greens. It makes hitting those wedges and long irons into some of these greens a little bit easier as well. The ball is going to be holding."
Donald warns, "There's still going to be a premium on hitting fairways and hitting greens. But especially around the greens I think when it's softer it makes things a little bit easier."
Still, there's easy, and then there's 62.
Some players aren't necessarily buying into the hype. This is, after all, a U.S. Open.
Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell hasn't yet bought into the hype.
Everyone is saying that it's going to be 62's and 63's on this golf course, which I kind of disagree with at the minute. ... I think there's 10 or 11 of these golf holes on this course are as tough as any U.S. Open I've seen. ...So, like I say, I'm hoping it's not going to be score‑fest. I don't think it is going to be a score‑fest. I think it's tough.
Put Steve Stricker in the Merion-is-not-that-easy category as well, as he told the media, "A 62 possible? I don't see that number out there. Personally. But not to say somebody else doesn't see that. But it's still a U.S. Open, they're still going to set it up very difficult."
Both Stricker and McDowell feel that while the fairways may be more accessible, the back pin placements could be very hard for players to get near on the softer greens. With the greens hard and fast, players could run the ball through the back-to-front surfaces up to the hole. Without that roll, players will have to target the pins more directly, hoping to spin the ball to keep it close, putting the rough behind the greens back into play.
Rory McIlroy knows a thing or two about going low at the U.S. Open. His 16-under 268 at Congressional Country Club in 2011 is the best score relative to par in U.S. Open history, but even he doesn't think that record will be broken this weekend.
"I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and drier," McIlroy told reporters, "but I don't think you'll see scores like the scores that were shot at Congressional a couple of years ago."
Perhaps the bigger question than if a player can card 62 is how many players can score in the mid-to-low 60s, which could—if it happens Thursday or Friday—determine where the cut line will land. While Miller's 63 is the best round in U.S. Open history (his 63 was eight-under par; the other three were seven under), the 2003 championship at Olympia Fields had the lowest-ever 36-hole cut at 143 (+3). Where the cut line lands at Merion could be a more telling factor of how easy this course may play.
Still, is all this just mid-week buzz?
Tiger Woods questioned whether players will have the opportunity to shoot such a low score. With the weather changing by the day, Woods thinks that it may take until the weekend to truly get a feel for how Merion is going to play.
I don't think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we're going to have to do and what we're going to have to shoot. The conditions keep changing. We haven't dealt with teeing it up in a tournament yet with it raining and drying out for a couple of days and the mud balls appearing. That's going to be interesting.
Mud could be the great equalizer to the soft conditions. When the fairways begin to dry out, mud could collect on balls landing in the short grass. McDowell went so far as to preemptively suggest the USGA consider a lift, clean and place situation. Others, like Woods, stopped short of that, but did acknowledge the issue is of some concern.
Woods explained that the 18th fairway could provide the biggest chance for mud balls, with players teeing off over the quarry and into the face of the hill on the other side. Imagine a player sitting in the 18th fairway with a chance at 62, and he gets saddled with a mud ball. Hell, imagine a player in that situation with a chance to win the tournament.
The truth is nobody has any idea what the scores will be until the players tee it up on Thursday. There have been past championships where players complain during practice rounds about a course being too hard, and the tournament proved to be anything but that. Others courses were set up to attack, only to fight back.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els has some perspective on the suggestion that someone could shoot 62. "Well, 62? Anything can happen. I don't want to feel against anything. But I'm not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a U.S. Open."
Els later put the whole idea in greater context, reminding media, fans and players buzzing about 62 that, "It's still a U.S. Open, I don't care if you play the easiest course in the world. Put U.S. Open in front of it everybody gets nervous, especially over the weekend."
The only sure bet this weekend is that weather will be a factor, and the ability to go low should level the playing field. Nobody is positive 62 is out there, but the buzz surely is electric.