Lowdown:
The world’s top players are in Pennsylvania this week for the year’s second Major Championship. Webb Simpson will defend his US Open title at historic, Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia.

156 professionals and amateurs will tee it up this Thursday as they look to claim the 113th US Open. Players have qualified by a wide range of routes: from those exempt because of World Ranking or previous performances, to those who have made it through sectional, regional or international qualifiers.  

Extremely heavy rain has fallen on Merion since last Friday, with more than five inches saturating the course. But USGA Executive Director Mike Davis has insisted the layout will be ready for play on Thursday. More rain is forecast for Thursday however, so the track is likely to be soft and receptive.

This may be the first US Open course since Shinnecock Hills in 2004 to measure under 7,000 yards, but with little run on the fairways, it will play its full length and the best ball-strikers will be at a distinct advantage.

In last year’s championship at Olympic Club in San Francisco, Webb Simpson came from four behind Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk after 54 holes to win by a stroke.

Simpson will have his work cut out if he’s to make it two in a row. Tiger Woods will be looking for his 15th Major title and his first since the US Open of 2008, while Rory McIlroy will be hoping to re-find his game this week. The event looks to be wide-open, with any number of possible winners. Although a strong European contingent will start at Merion, momentum isn’t currently with them and chances look good of a home winner this season.

Look out at Merion for the wicker baskets that sit on top of metal poles on the greens, rather than flags: Red baskets on the front nine and orange on the back.

This will be the fifth time the US Open has been contested at Merion. Olin Dutra won in 1934, beating Gene Sarazen by a stroke. Ben Hogan was champion in 1950 – an incredible performance considering he had suffered serious injuries in a car crash just 16 months earlier. Hogan’s 1-iron to the final green has gone done in legend as one of the greatest shots in the history of the championship.

Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff for the 1971 US Open at Merion. Trevino famously produced a rubber snake on the first tee of the playoff. He had it in his golf bag from a photo-shoot earlier in the week where he had been using the prop to comically emphasise Merion’s thick rough.

The rough is likely to be pretty brutal this week too and that will cause many to think of a careful strategy from the tees. Phil Mickelson has already said he’s likely to use 3-wood as often as driver.

Last time the US Open visited Merion was back in 1981 when Australia’s David Graham came out on top, after a superb closing round of 67.

Following that championship it was thought that the event might never return to Merion – the course was just too small and there wasn’t enough space for corporate hospitality. But the club acquired new land and the course was extended.

Venue: Merion Golf Club, Haverford near Ardmore, Pennsylvania
Date: Jun 13-16
Course stats: par 70, 6,996 yards
Purse: $8,000,000 Winner: $1,440,000
Defending Champion: Webb Simpson (+1)

TV Coverage:
Thursday 13 – Sky Sports 2 from 2pm
Friday 14 – Sky Sports 2 from 2pm
Saturday 15 – Sky Sports 4 from 5pm
Sunday 16 – Sky Sports 2 from 5pm

Player Watch:
Graeme McDowell – The 2010 champion was runner-up to Webb Simpson last year. His game is ideally suited to the challenges of the US Open. He also has two victories in his last four starts this season.

Matt Kuchar – He’s won twice on the 2013 PGA Tour and is up to a career-high of fourth on the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s supremely consistent and makes few mistakes.

Brandt Snedeker – Not on a great run at the moment but he’s the sort of player who raises his game for a Major. He won this year at Pebble Beach and has a solid US Open record.

Key hole: 18th. At 521 yards, this long par-4 is a very tough finishing hole. The tee shot should bound on if it catches the slope running down the fairway from right to left. But even if the drive does run out, players will still be left with a 200 yard shot into the green, probably from a side-hill lie.

Skills required: Avoiding the rough. It’s likely to be punishing given the recent wet weather and straying into it from the tee will make approaching the tricky greens extremely difficult. Like in most US Opens, straight is great.