The 120th U.S. Open starts at sunrise Thursday, and for the sixth time, the challenge will be the West Course at Winged Foot, the golf godchild of the New York Athletic Club located in the leafy suburb of Mamaroneck.
The coronavirus moved the event from mid-June to mid-September, causing a pair of dramatic changes:
A — The usual 156-player field with 75 or so local/sectional qualifiers is now an all-exempt field of 144;
B — The position of Earth in its orbit of the sun.
There are 15 hours of daylight in the New York area in mid-June. There are 12½ hours this week. A sunset that would’ve been 8:30 p.m. three months ago is just after 7 p.m. this week.
“Our group is last off [2:11 p.m.] on Friday,” Troy Merritt said. “We’ll be the ones fighting sunset. I’d rather have that than playing real early in the first round Thursday.
“I teed off for a practice round around 6:30 and the course was brutal. Cool, windy … the ball not traveling when you hit it, and the rough moist and extra heavy.”
There are Opens when a Minnesota long shot makes it through qualifying and offers up the local underdog story. Not in 2020, with no qualifying.
Merritt, 34, a former Spring Lake Park basketball standout, and Erik van Rooyen, 30, the former Gopher from South Africa — that’s the Minnesota contingent, and it’s a stretch.
Merritt started his college golf career at Winona State, transferred to Boise State, did extra-impressive winning there. His wife, Courtney (Achter), was a Broncos gymnast.
They live in Boise and have two sons: Scout, 9, and Dodge, 6.
“I’ve been on the road for 11 straight weeks,” Merritt said. “I saw them a couple of times when they were visiting relatives — one when I was in Minnesota for the 3M Open — but, mostly, it’s a lot of FaceTime.”
Merritt made it to the PGA Tour in 2010 by leading throughout in the 108-hole qualifying tournament the previous fall. He’s won twice, surfaces as a contender a few times a season, and has career earnings on the PGA Tour of $9.3 million.
He had surgery to remove a footlong blood clot from his chest down an arm in 2018, and had a rib removed because of thoracic outlet syndrome in 2019. His surgeon was Greg Pearl, option A for pitchers needing the outlet surgery.
The problem Merritt will be facing Thursday, when he tees off with England’s Eddie Pepperell and Finland’s Sami Valimaki, is getting the ball back in the fairway.
“Not hitting fairways last week at the Safeway [in Las Vegas] cost me a cut,” Merritt said. “And if you don’t hit fairways here — I think 60 percent will be above average this week — you can start packing bags.
“Rough is thick, fairways are narrow, greens are fast. Different time of year, but it’s still the U.S. Open.”