'13 major venues truly exceptional

The calendar is turning on a new year, and that means the longest wait between golf's major championships has passed the halfway point.

The golf season seemingly never ends -- it's been off for about 10 minutes -- but that time between the PGA Championship in August and the Masters in April can crawl.

The four majors are by far the biggest tournaments in the sport and rate special attention. The Masters typically signals the start of spring, the true beginning to the golf season, for many around the world. After another break, we've got the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship in close succession.

Before you know it, we'll be talking about all of these tournaments, whether it be who is going to qualify for them or who is best suited to win them. For now, we'll take a quick, faraway look at each of the 2013 majors and their venues.

The Masters
Augusta National, of course, is the annual home to the Masters, which will be played for the 77th time (April 11-14). The venue is ever-changing, and its tournament organizers would love to capture the type of excitement that has been generated the past two years, when Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to win, followed by Bubba Watson's remarkable shot from the trees to defeat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff in 2012.

All eyes, of course, will be on No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy, who has sniffed success each of the past two years at Augusta. Tiger Woods also will be among the big stories. He used to practically own the place, but the latest of his four green jackets is now eight years removed.

There will be plenty of storylines, not the least of which will be a 14-year-old Chinese player named Guan Tianlang becoming the youngest to compete in Masters history, along with the club's admission of its first two female members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore.

The U.S. Open
For the fifth time, the U.S. Open is headed to Merion Golf Club's East course (June 13-16), just outside of Philadelphia. But it is the first time since 1981, and Merion undoubtedly will be the story.

The USGA is undoubtedly taking a risk going to a place that even 30 years ago had seen its time passed. When David Graham won the '81 Open, he did so by hitting all 18 greens in regulation on the final day. The course played shorter than 6,500 yards, and there didn't seem to be any way to go back.

But Merion has hosted more USGA championships than any other venue (Bob Jones played his first national championship at Merion during the 1916 U.S. Amateur) and the USGA was determined to return, calling this a "boutique" event because it will be on a smaller scale, out of necessity.

Although the course has been stretched beyond 6,900 yards -- or about 850 yards shorter than Chambers Bay will play in 2015 -- there just isn't enough room for all the other stuff associated with an Open. What will be interesting to see is which clubs players use from the plaque in the 18th fairway, where Ben Hogan hit his famous 1-iron shot in 1950. Merion is also where Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus in a 1971 playoff.

The Open Championship
The golf world is in for a treat, as the Open Championship returns to Muirfield (July 18-21) for the first time since 2002. Muirfield is generally regarded as one of the finest links in the nine-tournament rotation, usually right there with the Old Course at St. Andrews -- and in some eyes, it's better.

The Open is back in Scotland after two years in England at a course that is about an hour from Edinburgh. Unlike other links that typically go out and back, Muirfield has two loops that mean very rarely are shots played into the same wind direction. During the last Open at Muirfield, when Woods arrived with the Grand Slam in his sights after winning the Masters and U.S. Open, he entered the third round in contention only to shoot his highest score as a pro, 81.

There have been 15 Opens at Muirfield, the first in 1892. Jack Nicklaus won his first at Muirfield -- and named his own course in Ohio after the venue -- in 1966. Lee Trevino denied a Nicklaus Grand Slam bid there in 1972. Tom Watson captured his third Open there in 1980, followed by Nick Faldo's victories in 1987 and 1992.

Ernie Els will return to Muirfield as defending champion in more ways than one. He won the 2012 edition at Royal Lytham, and also captured the 2002 Open at Muirfield, prevailing in a playoff that featured Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.

PGA Championship
Defending champion McIlroy has never played at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., site of the 95th PGA Championship (Aug. 8-11), and the venue will be obscure to a good bit of the field.

Shaun Micheel captured his one and only PGA Tour title there in 2003 when he outlasted Chad Campbell on a tough venue that yielded just three under-par scores for the week. Woods finished 18 over, his worst showing in a major championship to that point.

Established in 1901 and designed by legendary architect Donald Ross, Oak Hill has a long history in the game. It has two 18-hole courses designed by Ross, with the East serving as the championship venue.

While perhaps not well-known to many in the field, the East course has hosted two U.S. Amateurs, three U.S. Opens and two PGAs. It is where Nicklaus won his fifth PGA in 1980 and where Curtis Strange won the second of consecutive U.S. Opens in 1989. It was also site of the 1995 Ryder Cup won by Europe.

Although it plays to just shorter than 7,200 yards, Oak Hill proved to be a brute 10 years ago and figures to be a tough test again.

Players might be relieved when it is over, although then another long wait begins again for the 2014 majors.