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Wide Open at Merion?

Tiger Woods plays from a bunker on the 17th hole during a practice round at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (Copyright USGA/Joel Kowsky) So what’s it going to be? A thoroughbred major winner with  killer course management and length to spare? A major virgin with a hot putter and an even hotter wedge? How about a straight-hitting gut-player with a laser-like long game and a brain?

Whatever the weather happens to throw at storied Merion in Philadelphia’s northwest suburbs this week, it’s unlikely to be a place of brotherly love, despite all the doomsday predictions of record US Open scoring.

Soft as a Christmas pudding she might be but Merion, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Murray believed, is no pushover.

“Whatever else she is,” Murray wrote, “Merion ain’t no lady.”

The championship may well settle the distance debate for good and for all. Can a course measuring “just” 6,996 yard resist the modern player who is capable of driving the ball 350 yards? In dry conditions the USGA believed it could keep the winning score around par, but while the course softer than an Irish bog in spots, beating Rory McIlroy’s record 16 under par total from 2011 will take some serious golf.

When it last held the US Open in 1981, Merion’s compact East Course gave up a seven under par winning score. It wasn’t the lowest in US Open history by any means. After all, Jack Nicklaus had won with eight under par total at the more muscular Baltusrol the previous year.

A wicker basket during a practice round at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. on Monday, June 10, 2013. (Copyright USGA/Darren Carroll) The fact is that while Merion measures less than 7,000 yards, making it the shortest course to host the US Open since a hard and fast Shinnecock Hills (6,996 yards) in 2004, it’s not going to be a pushover.

Tiger Woods is the overwhelming favourite to end his five-year drought in the majors and claim his 15th grand slam title. But even Woods knows that he isn’t going to score at Merion if he doesn’t put the ball in play.

“I’ve won the Open in both conditions, which is nice,” Woods said. “At Torrey it was dry.  Pebble was dry.  And Bethpage was soft and slow.

“Either one, the execution doesn’t change.  You’ve still got to hit good shots and get the ball in play, especially now with the rough being wet. It’s imperative to get the ball in play so that we can get after some of these flags and make as many birdies as we can.”

There’s the rub. Merion’s lack of overall length is deceptive. Yes, there are five par-fours that measures less than 400 yards and there’s even a 115-yard par three. But that’s just six of 18 holes and if you want to shoot record numbers, you are going to have to play the other 12 exceptionally well.

The remaining three par-threes - the third, ninth and 17th - average out at a whopping 246-yards. The fifth is a 504-yard par four and the 18th an uphill slog of 521-yards with zero run on a sodden course.

Then there’s the narrow fairways, the Amazonian rain forest rough and the fringe topped bunkers, some of which have little islands of rough or elephant grass. There’s out of bounds everywhere. And then there’s pressure.

“I’ve been saying this is the longest short course I’ve ever played,” said Steve Stricker. “Everybody’s told me how short it is and I’ve been wearing out 3‑irons and utilities into some of these holes.  So it’s fairly long and it’s still going to be very difficult, I think.”

Hiroyuki Fujita and his caddie walk to the 17th green during a practice round at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (Copyright USGA/Michael Cohen)The bookies have made Woods the 6/1 hot favourite ahead of Matt Kuchar, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Phil Mickelson with Masters champion Adam Scott and the English pair of Justin Rose and Lee Westwood not far behind them.

That’s eight players with one great strength, they all have either stellar US Open records or are imperious ball-strikers.

But with the likes of Brandt Snedeker and Luke Donald just outside the pool of favourites, it’s easy to understand why the likes of Kuchar or Pádraig Harrington find it so hard to pick the archetypal winner this week.

“I kind of think that that is the beauty of the game of golf,” he said. “Unlike a sport like tennis where you get to the French Open and you kind of know it’s Rafael’s tournament to win or lose.  Here, it’s really anybody’s tournament to win.”

Playing the first 13 holes well so that you have credit in the bank for the fiendishly difficult final five is the key this week.

Given his pedigree, it would be foolish to rule Harrington out of the  equation, especially now that he has injected some confidence into his game by turning to the belly putter.

Woods is rightly the overwhelming favourite given his three US Open wins and four PGA Tour victories from his last eight starts.

With McIlroy not quite firing on all cylinders, it will take something special for the Holywood star to light a spark in the damp while McDowell’s lack of real length stopped him contending in soft conditions at Bethpage and Congressional in 2009 and 2011.

Woods’ biggest rival is himself and the history books and if he can putt as well as he did at Doral this year, he may be unstoppable.

Jack Nicklaus once said: “Acre for acre, Merion may be the best test of golf in the world.”

Woods is the game’s greatest active player. It appears to be a match made in heaven.