ARDMORE, Pa. -- Imagine if they held the Super Bowl at your local high school football field, or shut down the streets of your town for an international Grand Prix. Much of the drama would come from the venue, not the event itself. Would the participants adapt? Would the neighborhood survive? Would the whole affair make a mockery of major sports?
The USGA took just such a gamble when they held the U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club, so we now have the answers to those three questions. Yes, the players will adapt, and the fittest will survive. Yes, an upper-middle class neighborhood can survive a week of traffic closures and blimp sorties. And no, the venue did not make a mockery of sports, though the grand old dowager of a course did shine an unflattering light on what we have let major sports become.
Justin Rose won the U.S. Open, the first major victory of his career, by surviving. He finished even on Sunday, +1 for the week. The score says it all: Rose succeeded by not failing. He reached the 18th hole before Merion could pick him off the way she took down the other leading players. "No round was safe until you played 18 holes," Rose said of a course that spent Sunday shaking names off the leaderboard like rejected suitors.
Merion took down Charl Schwartzel on Sunday with four bogeys and a double bogey on holes three through seven. She took down Hunter Mahan with a double bogey on the 15th. She took down Luke Donald with five bogeys and a double bogey on seven holes on the front nine, Steve Stricker with a triple bogey on the second hole. And they had been the week's survivors. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, and other big names had already been defeated by the indomitable old course.
Merion tried to take Rose down, as well. He three-putted on the 16th Quarry Hole, his approach finding one of Merion's steep slopes of green and rolling to nowhere. His putt for birdie on the 18th, when he needed a stroke desperately to gain some distance from a lingering Lefty, stopped on the precipice of the lip. But someone had to win, and Merion chose an ardent admirer. "I think that was a big part of my week, to fall in love with a girl named Merion," Rose said after his conquest. "I just didn't know her last name."
Phil Mickelson was the one superstar who respected Merion all week, and the golf legends flirted all afternoon on Sunday. Three of Lefty's putts for birdie lipped out, a few other putts missed by inches. An inspiring wedge shot for eagle on the 10th kept him among the leaders, but Merion grew bored of toying with the soon-to-be six-time runner up. Lefty teed into the rough for a bogey on the tiny 13th. He faced so much hilly green on the 15th that he replaced his putter with a wedge, missing long for a bogey.
The 16th brought another tease of a putt, up a hill and down again, that forced Lefty to settle for par. He faced a miracle on 18th, a third-shot approach from the middle of the fairway that he needed to hole out to tie Rose, and Merion allowed the superstar a measure of dignity, his ball rolling close enough to the basket to draw gasps. Lefty tied Jason Day for second at +3 on a leaderboard full of championship-caliber golfers clinging by their fingernails. "For me it's very heartbreaking," Lefty said of his sixth second-place finish at the Open. "This could have been big."
Overall, there were 23 rounds under par in four days. The scores were a far cry from the numbers thrown around during early-week press conferences, when players were peppered with questions about completing the course in 62 strokes, eight-under par. Graeme McDowell threw a bucket of cold water on the speculation, though a bucket was hard to notice as the course absorbed inches of rain. "It's certainly going to be an under par shot, but I don't see 62's or 63's being shot at this course. I think I'd certainly take 8-under par right now and take my chances, you know?"
McDowell shot 13-over across two rounds and failed to make the cut. Merion conquered the players. She won over her neighbors, too.
Merion is not a Pop Warner football field, neighborhood drag strip, or putt-putt course. It has hosted the U.S. Open four other times, most recently in 1981. The course is historic, traditional, and horribly out-of-date. It is beautiful, but Franklin Field and the Palestra are beautiful, traditional, historic, and a 15-minute mass transit ride from Merion. Neither will host a Super Bowl or Final Four anytime soon.
"Out-of-date" is not as terrible as it sounds. Modern sports venues are supposed to be cavernous engineering wonders surrounded by foreboding asphalt no-man's-land parking lots, with luxury boxes and hospitality tents for VIPs … and seven-dollar bottled waters and a mile's walk to the main gate for everyone else. They are supposed to create traffic snarls for hours before and after each event. They accommodate the players, television cameras, high rollers, and seagulls who feast on postgame garbage, not the fans, and certainly not the neighbors, because no one wants to live near a major venue. This, we call "progress." Golf courses fare slightly better than stadiums, of course, but even they are laid out like airports so sponsors and vendors can spread out and spectators can get winded between holes.
Around Merion, neighbors rented out their backyards for bleachers and tents. The media shuttle cut through a residential driveway. Kids sold lemonade on street corners. Spectators walked through town to get to the course. Mickelson was among those who took notice of the community spirit. "Look at the members and what they've done and the homeowners, what they've sacrificed to allow this tournament to come back," he said on Sunday. "The community has wanted this and supports this tournament, more so than just about any place we've ever been."
Yes, there was some incongruous profit seeking: the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a local convent, charged $50 to park. Yes, there were traffic headaches, particularly on rainy Thursday. Families were inconvenienced and flower beds were no doubt trampled here and there. But the U.S. Open felt like an organic part of this comfortable suburb. You cannot have a fireworks display or 10K run, after all, without some litter and closed streets. The traffic was nothing compared to what Foxboro deals with every Sunday. And the golf powers-that-be were paying over $20,000 to turn backyards into pleasure zones for the week. For that kind of money, you can park a blimp in my backyard for a month.
The Merion venue gave the U.S. Open a "let's put on a show in the old barn" appeal. Errant Rory McIlroy drives reached backyards. Hedgehogs sprinted across the fairway while Mickelson prepared approach shots. Players huddled in minivans parked on spectator walkways during rain delays. Logistics became part of the drama, as players had to be escorted through the neighborhood to get from practice ranges on the West Course to the main event on the East. McDowell admitted that his caddie worried about him being late for his early tee times. It would be like a player missing kickoff at the Super Bowl because the locker room was a mile from the field.
Tee times arrived on time. Logistical nightmares, like eight-under scores, were much ado about nothing. Heavy rains forced the first and second rounds to spill into Friday and Saturday mornings, and they also forced players to race against sunset to complete holes, play into other groups, and be a little flexible and adaptive. They had to play golf the way everyone plays golf.
Imagine again that Super Bowl at the local high school, or the Grand Prix on your morning commute. The field does not drain too well, the grass gets high when the custodian's lumbago acts up, the afternoon sun blinds the team moving south to north. The local roads have tight turns and bumps. The conditions hurt athletes who train for idealized environments like domed stadiums or raceway ovals. They favor participants who improvise, who grind, who can plod through mud or pass on an uphill during rush hour. The conditions favor athletes whose game is a little like your game.
Merion did the same thing. For three rounds, she favored Mickelson, who left his gunslinger habits at home and played for par on holes that dared top players to attack. Merion favored up-and-down specialist Stricker until the need for perfection took its toll. It favored Mahan, who fit his drives into skinny, oddly shaped fairways. And it favored Rose, who played within himself, avoided bunkers, and never double bogeyed. Merion favored the careful and conservative.
The course punished everyone else, particularly the mashers of 300-yard drives onto wide fairways, a useless skill in this Open. Merion punished Tiger Woods and McIlory. Sergio Garcia … the 15th fairway, with private homes on the left, deep dunes on the right, and a narrow dogleg of well-known lawn in between, became Garcia's purgatory, and he atoned for many sins while taking 26 shots on that par-4 on the week.
Merion provided many human moments on Sunday. McIlroy bending a club in frustration after two shots into a creek. Luke Donald removing a shoe and sock so he could step into a water hazard to play his ball … directly into a sand trap. Fans singing "Happy Birthday" to Mickelson, some of them equipped with actual cake. There was a hole-in-one by Shawn Stefani on the 17th, but there were far more moments of frustration, the kind you see on an afternoon at the municipal course. A Stricker approach on the second sliced into the trees. Jason Day, very much on the pace at the Quarry Hole, hit one shot from the gallery to the rough at a cameraman's feet. And the most human moment of all: Tiger Woods looking like just another guy, the spotlight far away from him as his round ended.
Human moments. What an odd thing to have to say. Sometimes, it feels like major sporting events exist so precision-tuned androids can manufacture television product under optimal profitability parameters. Major sports become something qualitatively different from what mortals do. This U.S. Open gave fans the spectacle of golfers golfing on a golf course: in the neighborhood, in the drizzle, at odd hours, after hustling to reach the tee on time, with scores we can relate to.
Justin Rose won the U.S. Open, and I am not the only sportswriter who crowned Merion the real champion this week. But the biggest winner this week was a notion: the idea that sports can be brought back into our backyards without embarrassment or disaster. The Super Bowl cannot really be held at a high school, or even Franklin Field. But venues can be a little smaller, ballparks a little closer to human habitation, the trip to an event a little less like a journey to the moon. Profitability won't collapse as a result. The Rolling Stones can play theatres once in a while without going bankrupt, and the change of scenery usually does their reputations a world of good.
Even on the biggest stages, smaller can be better. Merion proved that the neighborhood touch can bring humility and humanity back to human drama.