In preparation for the 113th United States Open I thought it would be prudent to look at the history of US Open Champions at Merion Golf Club. This is the first US Open that Merion will host in my lifetime, and the fifth overall.
Last year at the Olympic Club in San Francisco there was talk of the “upset” winners that venue produced: Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan in ’55, Billy Casper over Arnold Palmer in ’66, Scott Simpson over Tom Watson in ’87 and Lee Janzen over Payne Stewart in ’98. Webb Simpson kept that “streak” going by holding off Graeme McDowell (and Michael Thompson) with Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington among those who had legitimate chances to win.
The point is that it is not uncommon for different venues to produce similar types of winners. Merion, in my view, will be no different. Therefore we must uncover what the profile of a “Merion Champion” is.
1934 champion Olin Dutra was known as a fantastic wind player, having grown up on the Monterrey Peninsula. He was also quite precise with his irons. Trailing Hall of Famer Gene Sarazen by 5 shots after 54 holes, Dutra put together a 72 in the final round to beat Sarazen by a shot and win his second major championship (1932 PGA Championship).
The US Open coming back to Merion was not the comeback story of the 1950 Open. 38-year-old Ben Hogan made his return to major championship competition after a near-fatal car crash in February of 1949 with his legs heavily wrapped to prevent swelling. Hogan is perhaps the epitome of precise ballstriking in the history of golf, and his 1-iron to the 72nd green set up a par to get into a playoff with 54-hole leader Lloyd Mangrum (whom Hogan trailed by 2). Hogan won the playoff capping perhaps the most improbable comeback victory in golf history for his fourth major (1946 and ’48 PGAs and 1948 US Open).
Undoubtedly the most memorable US Open at Merion was in 1971. Trailing amateur Jim Simons by 4 through 54 holes Lee Trevino fired a brilliant 69 in the final round to force a playoff with Jack Nicklaus. In the playoff Trevino, one of the great shotmakers of all time, bested Nicklaus by 3 to take his second US Open at 31. (1968 was the first)
The last go-round at Merion saw Australian David Graham fire a near-perfect final round 67, hitting every green or fringe “in regulation” to hold off Bill Rogers and George Burns. Burns held the 54-hole lead; three shots over 35-year-old Graham. It was Graham’s second major also, he previously won the 1979 PGA Championship.
Here is what we established in a Merion champion:
- Precise ballstriker – this fits at narrow Merion
- Average age 34, but between 31 and 38.
- Trailed by multiple shots entering the final round
- Already a major champion (Goodbye Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, etc)
- That major was either the US Open or PGA Championship (Goodbye Adam Scott and Zach Johnson)
- The previous major win was between two and three years before the win at Merion (Goodbye Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk)
- No Merion winner had won a major the previous year (Goodbye Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson)
- Except for Graham, all had a hall-of-famer finish runner-up.
It seems clear that one player stands above the rest. He is 33 years old, a precise ballstriker (currently leading the PGA Tour in driving accuracy) and won the US Open within the last three years, but not last year.
Yes, it’s Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion at Pebble Beach. If history is an indicator, GMac will trail by between three and four shots going into Sunday. It’s likely that a hall-of-famer will finish runner-up. There is a 50/50 chance that McDowell will prevail in a playoff (it might be on Tuesday, though, because of the less-than-stellar weather forecast.
But most of all, if McDowell prevails, there will be one hell of a party at his Restaurant, Nona Blue, in my hometown of Orlando.