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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk

  • US Open

Manipulated? Maybe, but Merion the same for everyone

Alex Dimond at Merion June 15, 2013

ESPN will have all the news, views and features from the US Open this week - along with an in-depth GolfCast from all four rounds

Asking around on Friday evening for the players' opinions on how Merion was playing, the answers you received seemed to depend significantly on how the golfer responding had fared over the opening two days.

Funny, that.

Zach Johnson - mentioned in some circles as a possible tournament winner this week - carded rounds of 74 and 77 to miss the cut by three shots. The former Masters champion was far and away the most strident in his criticism of the East Course.

"I would describe the whole golf course as manipulated," Johnson told the Golf Channel in an early evening interview. "It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how it manipulates golf courses.

"I think Merion is a great golf course, she's a beauty if you let Merion be, but that is not the agenda."

Yet Phil Mickelson, the halfway co-leader, reiterated his Thursday comments that this is one of the best US Open setups he has ever seen.

"I think that what I love about Merion … is they made the hard holes even harder," Mickelson said on Thursday. "They moved the tees back on the more difficult holes, which made it even tougher pars. And I love that because if you're playing well, you're going to be able to make pars and you're going to be able to separate yourself from the field."

On Friday, he added: "Every hole at Merion you're just fighting for par, fighting for par, and then there are some birdie opportunities. I think this golf course provides a chance to shoot a low round, even though not many players have done it and it's difficult."

It's easy to dismiss Johnson's rant as the sour grapes of a perceived contender with high hopes who spectacularly failed to deliver. But then again, Mickelson's assessment should not be necessarily taken as gospel - the American is almost everyone's favourite this week after arriving late at the course to be with his family, and is savvy enough not to diminish that good PR with some sniping about course setup that, frankly, the average fan is never going to take kindly to.

It was perhaps interesting to note how some other players, high on the leaderboard, reflected on Friday's conditions. Luke Donald euphemistically described the pin placements as "a lot more tucked … a few were on little hills or slopes."

"They moved the tee up on 17, but they put the pin in a place that's virtually impossible to get to. I felt like I hit a career shot and hit it to about 60 feet."
- Rory McIlroy

Tiger Woods, when told specifically about Johnson's "manipulation" comment, did not dismiss the assertion out of hand. Far from it.

"It's hard with the wind and the pin locations - they're really tough," Woods said. "We knew they were going to be in [tough] areas, but we didn't think they were going to be as severe as they are.

"A lot of guys are missing putts and blowing them by the holes and of that nature because obviously it would be a little more difficult trying to protect par."

Woods then suggested the pins would not have been where they were if the course had not been so soft, essentially a well-veiled agreement that the USGA is indeed manipulating the course to keep scores around par.

He said: "Maybe it [the pin placements] were a step, step and a half harder than if it would have been drier."

Rory McIlroy chimed in with a story about his play at the 17th, one of the three prodigiously long par-threes at Merion.

"They moved the tee up on 17," McIlroy recalled, "but they put the pin in a place that's virtually impossible to get to. I felt like I hit a career shot and hit it to about 60 feet."

Speaking on the Golf Channel late on Friday evening, USGA executive director Mike Davis again denied that organisers were preoccupied with keeping the best scores around par. But certainly the players seem to have found that hard to believe, based on the second round setup.

"I thought Merion played beautifully," Davis said ('beautifully' has been his favourite word this week, whether it comes to drainage or course setup). "Sure, some of the short holes have challenging pin locations. But this is the US Open, that's how it should be.

"Contrary to what many people think, we don't use the winning score as a barometer for success. We just want the course to play right. We thought it would be tough all along."

The USGA has identified 18 potential pin locations for each green this week on the East Course - six 'tough', six 'moderate', and six 'easy' (what passes for easy in a US Open, anyway). Organisers planned to use just six of each across the 18 holes during the four competitive rounds - but they don't have to disclose which category each individual pin spot falls into on any given day.

On the course setup guide handed out to members of the media, 10 of the pin positions were described as being near to trouble - whether it be a bunker, a false front, a "spine" in the green or a "bowl".

(The pin position at the 17th, McIlroy's nemesis, was described as "in the front right portion of the green, just above the false front.")

Tiger Woods admitted to struggling on the greens © AP
Enlarge

Consider that, and the fact the greens were beginning to show wear from over 150 players trampling on them non-stop for two days, and Friday saw more missed short putts than almost any tournament in recent memory.

Mickelson, who could not hole anything until the 18th, said: "Quite honestly, after we had two waves of players going through, the greens weren't like they were yesterday morning.

"When the greens are very fast like this and you have soft greens that get indentations and spikes and so forth, it's very hard to make putts because you can't hit them firm enough to hold the line. I struggled with a lot of short putts today. And I've been putting really well."

If the USGA truly is not fixated on trying to make par the winning score, then it really is some coincidence that two players, both one-under, are leading this tournament (or that one-over won it last year).

Then again, the challenge is the same for everyone. As Johnson himself acknowledged, "I'm not saying the best players don't still rise to the top."

The players' frustration seems to stem from the fact that Merion does not need any such "tricking up" - once you factor in the lack of graduated rough, even at 6,900 yards it remains a prodigiously tough test, without any messing about on the putting surfaces.

With the course expected to be harder and faster over the weekend, do not be surprised to see the wicker baskets find some slightly less demanding spots. But don't expect a player to stock up on birdies and suddenly run away with the tournament.

"I don't know how anyone is going to separate too far from the field," Mickelson concluded. "They might be a hot round tomorrow and they might get a hot round on Sunday, but it's unlikely to be the same player."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk