Webb Simpson hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the… (Andy Lyons / Getty Images )
ARDMORE, Pa. — Webb Simpson's first competition at Merion Golf Club was a brief one.
He lasted only two rounds into the 2005 U.S. Amateur but was mature enough to appreciate something outside of his scorecard.
"I tell people all the time it is my favorite golf course in the world," he said.
If the 27-year-old is to repeat as U.S. Open champion this week, he'll have to have similar fortunes to what he had at another national treasure: the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Simpson didn't make it out of the first round at the 2007 U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club, losing to Anthony Kim. He then won the U.S. Open last year at that venue thanks to a pair of 68s on the weekend.
The Charlotte, N.C., resident begins his U.S. Open defense Thursday at Merion, a layout that will require a different approach from the Olympic Club and most others.
"What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses and it seems like most golf courses now are evolving to be bombers' paradise," he said. "Every par-four is 500 yards and you hit driver on every hole.
"Where Merion is the opposite. I only hit a few drivers."
Simpson has struggled a bit to this point in the 2013 season, sitting at 136th in total driving, which combines distance and accuracy off the tee. But he has other areas that will need to be better this week.
He has missed the cut in three of his last six tour events, thanks in part to his approach shots. His greens in regulation in those short workweeks are at less than 50%.
But that is similar to the 2012 campaign, when his missed consecutive cuts leading up to his U.S. Open victory.
Simpson has proved he can win on golf's biggest stage on some of the world's most difficult courses.
"I think what [the 2012 win] did is prove to me that in the most pressure-packed situation — the U.S. Open is the hardest test of golf on every level," he said, "and for me to play well that Sunday on the back nine was a huge relief just knowing, 'Hey, I've been here.'
"I can look back and say I've been here before. I know what to do."
What Simpson and the others in the elite field will need to do is put the ball in the fairway off the tee. Merion will be one of the shortest U.S. Open courses in recent memory, but penalty comes to those who miss the short grass — or find the wrong side of fairways and greens.
Jammed into 126 acres, Merion rewards accuracy and strategy.
"Well, I look at it as two different golf courses," Simpson said. "Potentially through 13 holes, if you drive it well you can have nine wedge opportunities.
"And then the last five are going to be some of maybe the hardest that we have ever had in the U.S. Open."
Simpson's wedge game will have to be better this week than it has been so far this year if he's to contend. He is 150th in greens in regulation (GIR) from 125 to 150 yards. His scrambling (for par) from the rough is at just 54.72% — which ranks 108th.
He has proved to be solid in GIR from spots other than the fairway — second on tour at 63.93%. And he is second in GIR from less than 100 yards (92.57%).
"I think a guy with a good wedge game and good mind will have the advantage," said Simpson, who begins his defense Thursday off the No. 1 tee with playing partners Ernie Els and 2012 U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox.
Weather also will have an impact. Rain in recent days will help the players control the ball on a softer, gentler Merion, which is hosting its fifth U.S. Open and record 18th USGA event.
"I would contend that if you saw Merion firm for four straight days versus soft for four straight days, you may see an 18- to 20-shot difference in the winning score," USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said.
"We can't control that."