ARDMORE, Pa. -- In the days leading up to the 2013 U.S. Open, many people thought Merion was going to be too easy for these players, that this little, old, iconic patch of land tucked inside a Philadelphia suburb was no longer fit to host a tournament of this stature.
Nobody told Merion.
Through the first round—which finished Friday morning after multiple weather delays halted play on Thursday—Merion is playing every bit like an Open course. A British Open course.
With the constantly changing weather, including damp conditions and gusty winds during much of the play Thursday and Friday, Merion Golf Club feels less like a course eight miles from the Delaware River and more like a course eight miles from the coast of the North Sea.
Ernie Els got a British Open feel from Merion on Friday morning as well.
"We have got that northwest wind blowing," Els told reporters after completing his first round early Friday. "It was really blowing a bit this morning. So probably a two‑club wind. And it's dead into you on 14, 15, 17. And then 18 is downwind. And it was raining a bit.
"So it was really more British Open, Open Championship stuff, should I say, so it was really difficult. You throw the rough in there, then the length of some of the holes, it's a tough finish."
What, exactly, happened to that pre-tournament buzz suggesting a score in the low 60s on a course that the players could easily attack? Can the weather be that much of a factor, or was Merion holding back during the days leading up to the first round, waiting until it mattered to show its teeth?
"I think everyone thought that as soon as the course got wet it was going to play easy," Luke Donald told reporters between rounds on Friday. "The scores certainly aren't showing that."
Donald shot a two-under 68 in his first round, one stroke back of the lead as he began his second round. He has been one of the few players able to consistently capitalize on Merion's scoring opportunities, playing five birdies on holes 11 through 13 through two rounds. As Donald knows, the difficult holes at Merion are just around the corner.
"The tough holes are extremely tough," he said. "It does give you a little bit of balance with some of those shorter holes, but you really need to play those tough ones well."
Donald finished his first round two over par through the last five holes, and he got through that stretch of holes in his second round on Friday—Donald began his second round on the 11th hole—at one over par.
Conditions improved into the afternoon on Friday, with clouds and a light rain being replaced by sun. Still, the wind is gusting at times and making tee shots—like the one at the par-three 17th over the quarry—very difficult to judge.
Eventually, players may get the conditions they expected into the weekend. That said, Merion has proven through the first day-plus of play, the conditions may not matter. This course is every bit as tough as any U.S. Open course should be.
Phil Mickelson was well aware that his first-round 67 was in the best possible scoring conditions players may get all week.
"Well, this was as easy as this golf course is going to play," Mickelson admitted on Thursday. "We had very little wind, there was some but very little. We had soft fairways, soft greens, and we no mud balls. So we had the best opportunity to score low. And we are all struggling because it's such a penalizing golf course."
There were many golf experts who balked at the USGA daring to bring the U.S. Open back to Merion after 32 years. The course was too small and too easy, and the surrounding logistics of hosting a tournament of this magnitude would be too much for organizers to overcome.
Through five days, including practice rounds and tournament play, the USGA is proving those detractors wrong. Sure, there are immense logistical issues, but there isn't much, even with course-wrecking weather—the mud is so thick in spots that I nearly lost a shoe in the 10th fairway crosswalk—the organizers haven't been able to overcome.
As for the course itself, it's the players who haven't been able to overcome Merion's unique challenges. For the USGA, and fans of the game, that is as big a compliment as they could want.
"It's a course that's withstood the test of time," Mickelson said, "and it's challenging the best players in the world this week."
The winner of the tournament won't be crowned until Sunday night, but the early winner this week is certainly the golf course.