The U.S. Open at Merion: Philly Loves Phil

Last weekend’s U.S. Open was the very essence of sports drama. By Sunday, the whole event seemed formulaic, written like a Disney Channel original movie that you love despite yourself. But it wasn’t a movie.

On Sunday when I watched Phil Mickelson, our chosen protagonist, walk down the 15th fairway toward a perfectly driven ball and noticed that there was a rainbow above him in the sky, I wasn’t surprised.

It was all so sickeningly romantic, especially in retrospect. Mickelson — the soft-spoken southpaw, the fan-favorite — would go on to bogey on 15, putting himself out of contention in what was one of the closest, most competitive US Opens in recent memory.

In the weeks leading up to the US Open, the USGA’s decision to hold the tournament at Merion was questioned heavily by the media. Designed in 1910 by a little-known Scottish immigrant named Hugh Wilson, Merion was built for a shorter game. The course is less than 7,000 yards total, making it hundreds of yards shorter than courses like Olympic and Congressional where the Open has been held recently. It was referred to as a “boutique open.”  As if the power and proficiency of the modern game makes it a cute, anachronistic showcase, something akin to the “it’s a small world” ride.

Even in 1981—the last time Merion hosted the US Open—the general consensus was that that would be the last Open the course would ever see, a farewell to what is widely considered one of the greatest courses in the United States.

But the USGA wanted to bring it back, wanted to prove something at Merion and the only way it was able to do this was thanks to Haverford College’s generosity, a union which brought about one of the greatest tournaments in the history of the Open. The course was brutal and exacting, devouring anything that strayed from the fairway, perplexing competitors with impossible putting greens and testing them with massive par three holes. The true winner wasn’t Justin Rose at all; it was Merion and a style of golf that is less about power and more about finesse and technique.

It was in the midst of this intense competition that Mickelson emerged as a clear fan-favorite. It’s hard to find the right words to describe the gallery at a golf tournament. There is a sense of closeness and names are called out with affection, encouragement given on a personal level. These crowds can lift you up or tear you down. Phil was met almost at every hole with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” on Sunday, while Sergio Garcia—who had gotten into a very public dispute with Tiger Woods and had made an unfortunate and racially-tinged reference to “fried chicken”—was booed in the first couple days of the tournament.

But the story of the weekend was the love affair between Philly and Phil Mickelson. Mickelson had made headlines by traveling back to California on the day before the start of the Open for his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation and having to take a red-eye flight back to Pennsylvania on Thursday morning. On Saturday he separated himself from the pack by managing a tough course well. Mickelson had come in second at the US Open five times before last weekend—always the bride’s maid and never the bride. These finishes were not just short of victory but, in more than a couple instances, total collapses.

At each hole the crowd seemed to will Mickelson to victory, and through most of Sunday it appeared as if it might be working. The chants of “let’s go Phil” that sprung up at 9 and the cheers that ripped through the entire course after he made eagle on 10 were indicators of an immanent apotheosis. Even as Mickelson faltered and tragedy struck on 15, the crowd’s still followed him to the very last. We stormed past the marshals on 18 and surrounded him as he aimed at the green with a shot that had to go in if he wanted to tie Justin Rose. Here was our protagonist on what was supposed to be his day. The ball came incredibly close and the crowd—which never held back its emotions once last weekend—gave its hero a well-deserved send-off.

What the USGA proved at Merion, what Haverford and Mickelson helped them prove, was that golf is at its best when making par is impressive, when each hole matters, when the leader board is inconsistent. No other place, no other course, no other community could have produced the competition we saw last weekend.

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