The United States Open returns to historic Merion Golf Club just outside Philadelphia after 32 years, and already talk has begun about how it can never return.
Why? Because it is the shortest Open layout in almost a decade, and it will likely take the driver out of the hands of many of the players. And with Tropical Storm Andrea dumping inches upon inches of rain upon the already short course, there is speculation that – gasp – the U.S. Open might have a champion that finishes well under par.
I saw this happen a decade ago at historic Olympia Fields in the south suburbs of Chicago. It was deemed too short (even back then) and wet weather allowed the players to post some nice numbers.
Jim Furyk wound up winning that championship, but he was hardly a "fluke" champion crowned on a "vulnerable" venue. If not for some late Sunday collapses, he could’ve (should’ve) won the Opens at Oakmont (2007) and Olympic (2012). He even had a real shot at getting in the playoff at Winged Foot in 2006.
Those are classic tracks, which is why it is no wonder an old school grinder like Furyk won and contended at them. And it’d be no surprise if he found his way up on the leaderboard again this week at Merion, which counts the funky-swinging Lee Trevino and ultimate grinder Ben Hogan as a past champions.
The score isn’t what matters at Merion – it’s shot making.
Even in wet conditions, players will still have to shape the ball off the tee, hit accurate shots into greens, and above all else – make putts.
Merion is an American classic, a venue where Bobby Jones and Chick Evans won U.S. Amateurs.
It’s why there will be a classic champion.
It’s not to say a young player won’t come through – a talent like Rory McIlroy’s is transcendent – but heading into this tournament I tend to favor a veteran who has tasted the winner’s circle.
This week marks the fifth anniversary of Tiger Woods’ last major championship, the classic playoff victory over Rocoo Mediate at Torrey Pines, and he is the clear favorite having already won four times on the PGA Tour.
But no longer can you take Woods over the field. He may be the best in the world (again), but too many have closed the gap.
Woods headlines the group of past major winners who should contend, a gathering that should include Furyk, two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and yes, McIlroy. For all the talk of McIlroy’s struggles, he has four top 10s in just nine PGA Tour starts.
I have a feeling he’ll play well, and I do think he’s a throwback. While he may not possess the same single-mindedness of a Hogan or Snead (or Woods), his ability to hit golf shots would play in any era.
As for the group of players without a major that could be poised for a breakthrough, Matt Kuchar has to head that list with six top 10s already. Brandt Snedeker would be second, a smooth putter who has five career wins and has contended in several majors now. My dark horse is Midwesterner Kevin Streelman, who won for the first time this spring and has four other top 10 finishes.
Then, of course, there is Madison’s Steve Stricker.
It seems like we say it every June, but the "Savage" should make a run at his first major title. He has surprisingly only posted three top 10s in U.S. Opens – and none since a tie for sixth way back in 2006 – but there is no more an old school guy for an old school layout like Stricker.
He has remained sharp despite reducing his schedule this year, posting three top 10s and two runner-up finishes in just six events.
Stricker, 46, has joked often about watching the younger generation of players dominate golf courses with their length, but that advantage has been taken away at Merion. That brings more players into the mix, veterans who know the game, and know how to hit it close and make putts.
"That's what I've learned over the years; just do the things that I do well, play to my strengths," he said at The Players Championship. "I can watch them and have fun watching them, but then pay attention to what I need to do and I do best."
Merion Golf Club will force players to do just that, and the winner will be the one that – over four days – managed to mind their own game, and execute every shot. The result should leave us with a champion as iconic as Hogan, and as memorable as that incredible 1-iron over six decades ago.
Steve Stricker as "The Savage"
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.