For a change, Tiger Woods' pursuit of his place in history is not the only story heading into a major championship, or perhaps even the most compelling one. The U.S. Open this week will highlight Merion Golf Club, which has its own immutable place in history, and could affect the Open's future.
The decision to go to Merion, the revered club outside Philadelphia, is itself a change and a gamble for the U.S. Golf Association. There is no telling whether the relatively short course (6,966 yards), with its quaint wicker baskets rather than flags on the flagsticks, can withstand the power of modern technologically or advanced and athletically fit golfers.
"If it doesn't work out well, maybe it will be the last time we see it. I hope that's not the case," said Johnny Miller, the NBC analyst whose Open record final-round 63 (Oakmont, 1973) could be in jeopardy if Merion's greens are soft and receptive.
At stake is the future not only for Merion, but for other classic courses, which could be considered obsolete and become more like museums than championship venues. For now, though, the USGA is willing to take that risk, eschewing acres of extra potential corporate hospitality tents to pay homage to the course on which Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Amateur, Ben Hogan won the 1950 Open and Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff at the 1971 Open.
Despite the fact USGA executive director Mike Davis acknowledged there could be many birdies this year in a championship known for valuing par, the association believes it is high time to return to a course that has not hosted an Open since 1981. People who love other vintage courses are rooting hard for Merion.
"There is no question. I've always believed that the site is important to all majors," said Jack Druga, head pro at Shinnecock Hills and a native Pennsylvanian who has played Merion numerous times in the state amateur and open tournaments. He still includes it in his all-time top 10 courses. "Just the site alone makes a difference. You can see that when it is played at Oakmont or Merion or Shinnecock or Pebble Beach.
"I give the credit [to] the USGA for not throwing up their hands and saying 'We can't have the Open here,' " he said, adding that Merion can't be measured by yardage.
"It is a lot like Shinnecock because it is way more about strategy and angles than just length. Even on the short holes, where guys are hitting shots from 100 to 130 yards, the shot has got to be from the right angle," said Druga, adding that Shinnecock has built new tees on the fourth, sixth and 16th holes in preparation for hosting the Open in 2018.
A strong, interesting, competitive week at Merion would strengthen the case for Shinnecock and other stalwarts to remain in the Open rotation. As two-time Open champion Curtis Strange, who will work on ESPN's Open telecasts, said: "We're going to find out a lot this week what the USGA really can do in the future as far as venues and where they can go and where they cannot go.
"Are they going out on a limb? Possibly," Strange said. "It's a unique kind of setup, but I think it's going to be good. I think it's going to be interesting."
Challenges are in the narrow fairways (average 23 yards), thick rough and tight bends that will dissuade golfers from hitting driver. That is seen as a huge advantage for Woods, whose troubles usually start with his driver.
Oddsmakers have made him a clear favorite. This time the reasoning is that he has won four times on the PGA Tour this year and that he could repeat his strategic performance at the 2006 British Open, when he eschewed his driver.
But there often have been obvious reasons to say Woods was a virtual lock and still it has been five years since he has won a major, the 2008 U.S. Open. Andy North, another two-time Open champion who will work the ESPN telecasts, said, "I mean, he's in a position right now very much like a good player is when he hasn't won a major and he's trying to win for the first time."
So Woods has one thing in common with Merion: There is something to prove this week.
Of the latter, Miller said, "Who knows? A 63 could get broken. But I think [the course is] going to handle it just fine."