ARDMORE, Pa. - Defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson can't wait to defend his title at Merion Golf Club's East Course from June 13-16.
Although he has played just about every top-rated golf course, he always enjoys teeing it up at Merion, which is located about 10 miles from Villanova University in the Philadelphia suburbs.
"I tell people all the time that it's my favorite course in the world," Simpson said Monday via Skype from his home in Charlotte, N.C. "What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses. It seems like most golf courses now are evolving to be bombers' paradises, where every par 4 is 500 yards and you hit driver on every hole. Merion's the opposite. You have to remain patient all day.
"For me to try to defend such a big title is an honor, but it's even more of an honor to do it at a place I love."
The charm, tradition and location of the course has proven quite popular with the country's professional and amateur golfers. The USGA announced Monday during a news conference at Merion that a record 9,960 players have entered the local qualifying segment of the tournament, topping the previous mark of 9,086 in 2009, when golfers were trying to earn a berth in the U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park's Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y.
This year's hopefuls include several local standouts such as Wildwood Country Club head golf instructor John Appleget, Mays Landing resident Pete Barron III and former Middle Township High School standout Alex Hicks.
Barron is registered to play at Waynesborough Country Club, in Paoli, Pa., on May 9, along with Hammonton's Gary Cicatiello, Margate's John Manfredi and Millville's Jeff Simpson. Appleget and Hicks, who recently finished second for William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association championship, are headed to Worthington Manor Country Club in Urbana, Md., outside Baltimore on the same date.
If he doesn't earn a spot at the Open, Appleget may wind up breaking a promise he made to himself years ago.
"I always told myself that I would never go to a major championship unless I was playing in it," Appleget said Monday in a telephone interview. "Hopefully, I'll be playing at Merion, but if not, I'm going to be really tempted to go anyway because it's just so close."
This year's tournament marks the first time the U.S. Open has been within a two-hour drive from South Jersey since 1981, when the tournament was also held at Merion.
The stately course will host the tournament for the fifth time, having also had it in 1934, 1950 and 1971, and has been the site of some of the most famous finishes in U.S. Open history. On Monday, USGA vice president and championship committee chairman Tom O'Toole held up the famous 1-iron that Ben Hogan, who was just months removed from a serious car accident, hit on the 72nd hole to force a playoff in 1950. The 1971 tournament featured a legendary playoff between Jack Nicklaus and eventual champion Lee Trevino.
"And if the past offers anything about the future," O'Toole said, "the 2013 U.S. Open promises enough exciting moments to fill Merion's famed wicker-basket flagsticks."
Merion's Par 70 East Course will measure 6,846 yards, which is short by professional standards, but will be packed with challenges befitting a tournament that has traditionally come to be known as the toughest test in golf.
The course features thick rough, tight fairways, fast greens and deep bunkers that are known as the "White Faces of Merion."
"I've only played there once, and it was a few years ago in the Philadelphia Open," Appleget said. "But I remember those bunkers."
USGA executive director Mike Davis, who sets up the U.S. Open courses, described Merion as "magical" because of its tradition and unique layout.
Players who may think they are in control after the 13th hole will quickly discover they were mistaken.
"You can be three or four strokes up when you step on that 14th tee, but you still have a long way home," Simpson said. "The last five holes are going to be some of maybe the hardest we've every had in the U.S. Open. It's going to be very exciting for the fans."
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