Mystery of Merion Set to be Unlocked
By Dave Shedloski
ARDMORE, Pa. – Scoring over 72 holes of stroke play determines the U.S. Open Championship, but not in recent memory has there been more angst and anticipation surrounding the manner in which that scoring will be achieved than at this year’s venue, venerable Merion Golf Club.
A timeless, tenacious, historically transcendent golfing parkland, Merion hosts its first U.S. Open in 32 years, beginning at 6:45 a.m. EDT Thursday, and no one – not even USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, who is in charge of setting up the East Course for a rigorous championship examination – can predict what will unfold along these 125 trundling acres.
Merion is an old-style, strategic golf course of just 6,996 yards, par 70, set atop a naturally flowing property in one of the Main Line communities west of Philadelphia. It is known for its narrow, winding fairways, its deep-faced bunkers, its interspersed blind shots, its varying green complexes and its overall consistent shot values made aggregately more challenging by a potent and plentiful growth of rough.
Instructor and former UCLA coach Eddie Merrins, the famed “Little Pro” who began his career as an assistant professional at Merion in 1957 and who competed in the 1971 U.S. Open here, said the East Course “consists of 18 masterpieces.”
Nevertheless, the burning question on the eve of the 113th U.S. Open is not the quality of the finely fashioned classic features at Merion, but whether it can withstand an assault from today’s fashionably fit players and their high-tech equipment.
“This week, if you see – pick your number – 14‑under win or you see 5‑over win, for us it's how did the golf course play [that matters],” Davis said. “Did it play appropriately?”
Perhaps the more salient issue might be this: will it be given the chance to play appropriately?
The course already has withstood more than six inches of rain, and the forecast for the opening round calls for an unwelcome mix of heavy rain, wind, and perhaps even hail. Merion best defends itself under dry conditions, when tee shots might scurry off into the 4-to-5-inch rough and approach shots hit the greens, yet will not remain on them if not properly struck.
But three-time champion Tiger Woods said that regardless of the weather, the demands of the U.S. Open do not change.
“I've played Opens under both conditions where it's dry and soft. I've won on both conditions, which is nice,” said Woods, whose last U.S. Open victory came in 2008 at a firm and fast Torrey Pines Golf Course near San Diego. “Either one, the execution doesn't change. You've still got to hit good shots and get the ball in play, especially now with the rough being wet, it's imperative to get the ball in play so that we can get after some of these flags and make as many birdies as we can.”
This will be Merion’s fifth U.S. Open. Olin Dutra (1934), Ben Hogan (1950), Lee Trevino (1971) and David Graham (1981) won the previous four, and each time the Open returned the winning score dipped lower. Graham’s 7-under 273 improved by seven strokes upon the even-par 280 Trevino and Jack Nicklaus posted 10 years earlier, and that performance, one shy of Nicklaus’ championship record at the time, signaled what many believed to be the final curtain on Merion’s Open narrative.
But that version of Merion was 452 yards shorter than this latest iteration of the East Course. There are still many short holes, but Merion won’t play short, especially not when it has been drenched.
“It's still a U.S. Open; they're still going to set it up very difficult,” said 17-time U.S. Open competitor Steve Stricker. “With wet conditions like we have, there are other challenges, too. We may be able to drive it in the fairway a little bit easier, the ball may not run away on us in the fairway, but getting to some of these pin locations is still going to be difficult because now we've got to play for spin. So there's still going to be a lot of challenges and it still at spots is a pretty long golf course. I've been saying this is the longest short course I've ever played.”
One more variable that will keep the 156-player field on its toes and might offer Merion some relief from a potential scoring onslaught is the probability of mud accumulating on golf balls. The USGA does not believe in preferred lies, but instead adheres strictly to the Rules of Golf and to the notion of playing it as it lies.
Mud can affect the spin of the ball, resulting in a loss of distance control and accuracy.
“If it was so bad, then the obvious … consequence would be we probably wouldn't be playing,” said Tom O’Toole, the Championship Committee chairman.
“I think mud balls are a problem. I think they're unfair,” 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who won his title at a stone-faced Pebble Beach. “I think golf is designed to be played from a closely mown fairway. If you hit it in that fairway you deserve a great line and a great opportunity to attack the green surface. That's the reward you get for hitting the fairway.
“I’m hoping a mud ball doesn't decide the tournament come the weekend.”
No matter what the weather brings, this will be a special U.S. Open, a tribute, in some ways, to golf’s storied past and some of the more prominent players who illuminate the hallways of history – men like Bob Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.
“I think that while Merion may be short on the scorecard … it absolutely has stood the test of time,” Davis said. “In fact, if you ask me to rank other U.S. Open courses against it, I would say Merion has [better] stood the test of time in terms of going from hickories to steel shafted clubs to the modern golf ball and so on. I think this place has stood the test of time maybe as good as anyone.
“Even though the players’ ball flights are different today and the clubs they’re using are different today, the challenges they face are going to be very similar to what Hogan, Jones, Nicklaus, and [Lee] Trevino faced in yesteryear. It's really going to be a special time.”
Indeed. Golf once frozen in time will be restored.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usopen.com.