By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Having played Merion Golf Club a few times during his career, Webb Simpson knows his wedge game will have to be extra sharp this week when he defends his U.S. Open title on the iconic layout in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Merion is hosting its first U.S. Open in 32 years after long being viewed as too short to stage a major and Simpson knows from competing there at the 2005 U.S. Amateur that wedges are a prized commodity, especially over the first 13 holes.
"I really look at Merion as being two different golf courses," American Simpson told Reuters in an interview. "You have a lot of wedge opportunities in the first 13 holes, potentially nine of them as long as you drive it well.
"Then you have the last five holes, which will be some of the hardest we've ever seen in a U.S. Open. Merion is going to be so unique. I don't think a long player or a short player will have an advantage."
Simpson, who clinched his first major title with a one-shot victory in last year's U.S. Open at the brutally challenging Olympic Club, knows full well that the season's second major prides itself on a high level of difficulty.
"In any U.S. Open, every hole is a hard hole so you've just got to take the approach that they're not going to give you any easy chances out there," he said with a smile.
"Having said that, anyone with a good wedge game and a strong mind will have an advantage, but what I remember most about Merion is the second that you think you have an easy hole is the second that you will probably make a mistake."
A three-times champion on the PGA Tour, Simpson has produced reasonably good form on the U.S. circuit this season with three top-10s in 14 starts, his best finish a playoff loss to Graeme McDowell at the RBC Heritage in April.
"I'm 13th in the FedExCup (points standings) and I haven't won a tournament this year so that's a good sign," Simpson said of a 2013 campaign which also features missed cuts at the Masters and at the Memorial Tournament in his most recent start.
"I've just got to keep improving. I didn't play well at the Memorial Tournament but I feel like I have got a lot to build on for the U.S. Open."
The biggest thing Simpson will have is the massive jolt of confidence he gained from his major breakthrough 12 months ago at Olympic where he moved past overnight leaders Jim Furyk and McDowell in the final round.
"I am a player who feeds off confidence so knowing that I was able to win at Olympic and beat the best players in the game just gave me a massive confidence boost," Simpson said.
"I experienced what it's like to contend in a major in the most pressure-packed situation on the back nine. The U.S. Open is the hardest test of golf on every level, and for me to play well that Sunday was a huge relief.
"Now I know, 'Hey, I've been here before, I know what to do, I know what to expect and I was able to perform when I needed to under the pressure'. My confidence has skyrocketed."
Asked how much he had enjoyed the past 12 months as reigning U.S. Open champion, both on and off the course, Simpson replied: "It's been great, super enjoyable. I'm being recognized more.
"I always tell people that when I used to sign autographs, kids would often ask their mom who I was and the reply would be, ‘I don't know.' But now a lot more people know who I am.
"I haven't had much change off the course, and certainly I don't want to change based on successes or failures. But golf-wise, a lot has changed for me and I'm really looking forward to getting back and trying to defend my U.S. Open title."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)