Tiger Woods, golf nerd, understands all this as well as anybody. His first tour of Merion came in a practice round on a rainy Tuesday last month when he was the only player on the course. He played the first, a drivable par-4 with a cozy veranda right beside the tee. He played the second, a par-5 he will likely reach in two. He made the short walk to the third hole, a 256-yard par-3 (one of three wildly long par-3s), and teed off with a five-wood and then a three-wood. He said, "Can you imagine what this hole was like for Hogan?" Exactly.
He wanted to know how many fairways and greens Graham hit in his final-round 67 in '81 that to this day is regarded as one of the great shotmaking exhibitions ever. (Thirteen of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens, both misses settling on the collar.) A young assistant pro from Merion, Sean Palmer, walked with Woods and his caddie, Joe LaCava. Palmer told LaCava about his plans to have some buddies come over for pizza and beer and to watch a replay of the '71 Open. (Trevino wins, every time.) Woods, walking a few yards ahead of them, said, "That's cool."
Come Father's Day and the grand finale, it will be surprising if Woods is not in contention. For one thing, driver is the most unreliable club in his bag, and he won't need to use it too often. For another, Merion relentlessly tests thinking and strategy and patience, and in those subject areas Woods's golfing IQ is in the genius range.
On the other hand, Woods has won his three U.S. Opens at public courses—Pebble Beach in 2000, Bethpage in '02, Torrey Pines in '08—and that might not be a coincidence. As a matter of recreation, Woods never goes out of his way to play the elite, old-line clubs, such as Merion, where his father, Earl, could only dream about teeing it up for most of his life. On that rainy Tuesday, Woods arrived in a cloak of secrecy, played with a purpose and left. No chitchat with the staff, no visit to the clubhouse, nothing like that.
Phil Mickelson, as you might imagine, had a different approach. He stayed for two days two weeks ago; played twice, once with the head pro, Scott Nye; took a bunch of people out for dinner, including the club archivist, John Capers; and had himself a good time. He told everybody how much he loved the course, with its canted fairways and dozen or more blind shots.
The U.S. Open, of course, is the gaping hole in Mickelson's résumé. (He has five seconds.) His birthday falls on U.S. Open Sunday. He turns 43. That's not old anymore at regular Tour events, but it is at a U.S. Open. The oldest Open winner is Hale Irwin, who won in 1990 at 45. The winner next week, based on Merion's history, will almost surely be a name player.
Last Monday, 10 days before the first shots, Justin Rose, an English golfer who lives in Orlando, was playing Merion for the first time. The heaving land and unpredictable greens reminded him of the courses near London. "It's nice to be out here early, without 10,000 people around sticking Sharpies at you, and getting a chance to fall in love with the course," he said. His words brought to mind what Trevino said upon winning in '71: "I'm in love with Merion, and I don't even know her last name."
Rose stopped in the middle of the 18th fairway to play a shot from the plaque that commemorates a one-iron Hogan hit into the green in the fourth round of the '50 Open. That's what Mike Davis, from the USGA, was hoping would happen, that today's golfers would connect the past, the present and the future. In golf, as in life, you have to know where you've been to know where you're going.
Hogan would sometimes walk holes backward, to better understand their demands. Woods did something similar during his visit, on each hole taking a long look behind him, toward the tee, to process the whole thing. Woods is chasing Nicklaus, but his approach to the game brings Hogan to mind. "I'm not one of those swing fanatics who is obsessed with Hogan," Rose said. "But it is amazing—you come here and Hogan is in the conversation. He's in the air."