Tom Watson: Merion as tough as ever

Tom Watson greets tour golfer Josh Teater on the 17th tee at Merion during practice for the U.S. Open. "It's a great test of golf," Watson said.    CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Tom Watson greets tour golfer Josh Teater on the 17th tee at Merion during practice for the U.S. Open. "It's a great test of golf," Watson said.    CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 12, 2013

Tom Watson came out Tuesday to Merion Golf Club, where he last competed 32 years ago in the U.S. Open, and welcomed the Open's return to the East Course.

"Certainly, it was a great test of golf then, but it's a great test of golf right now," Watson said. "It is something special. No. 17 is 240 yards from the back tee. We didn't play it at 240; we played it around 200. The ball goes further and the guys are stronger, and they're pretty much hitting the same club in as we did."

Watson, 63, stood 4 shots off the lead through 36 holes of the 1981 Open but posted a 73-73 finish to tie for 23d. The next year, at Pebble Beach, he seized the Open championship thanks to a chip-in from the rough on the 71st hole.

That was the only time Watson competed at Merion, but he always has admired the tradition of the golf course.

"It's always had a great heritage with Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam and Ben Hogan winning the Open in 1950," he said. "You had that great duel between [Jack] Nicklaus and [Lee] Trevino, and David Graham's great final round of 67. It's got a wonderful history of great golf. It has a heritage that's second to none in Open history."

The course will play softer this week because of rain that fell Monday and is forecast again for Thursday's opening round. Though he expects the scores to be low, Watson believes that the ability of a player to think his way around Merion will be "the most important part of the tournament - how they manage the golf course for 72 holes."

"It takes a little understanding of where to put the ball off the tee, where you can miss with a shot," he said. "Over 72 holes, a lot of players are going to hit the ball in the rough, but it's where you can get it out of the rough so you can make a par or at worst a bogey.

"You have to put the ball in the fairway. If you do that, you have a pretty good opportunity to make a par on a long hole. In the rough, you have less than a 50 percent chance of making par, and some holes that can be as low as 20 percent."

The forecast calls for steady rain and wind Thursday, and Watson thinks that whoever deals successfully with the elements will have a significant advantage.

"Thursday is going to be a very interesting day to see what the field does," he said. "That's going to be the toughest day. It will be a very critical round for the winner because you're going to have some pretty high scores."

Watson believes that Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1 player, will do a good job of thinking his way around Merion and should be a player to beat. He said soft conditions will bring other players into contention because the ball won't roll off the fairways and into the rough, and present multiple opportunities for birdies, particularly on the short par 4s.

"Hitting short irons in soft conditions, you can get the ball close enough to where you're getting good looks at birdie," he said. "So if you're playing the longer holes at 1 or 2 over, you're going to score if you can make enough birdies on the shorter holes.

"I'm thinking some players could have as many as seven or eight birdies in a round. But you still have to play the long holes well, and they're going to play extra long."

Contact Joe Juliano at Follow on Twitter @JoeJulesInq.

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