'Landmark' Merion Golf Club braces for assault

Tiger Woods practices for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.

Tiger Woods practices for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.

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— Are we celebrating the last U.S. Open to be held at Merion? I sure hope not.

Neither does Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, who called the decision seven years ago to bring the Open back to Merion one of the best days in his 23 years with the association.

“This place is just magical,” he said. “In so many ways, it's historical; it's an architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, I think you could easily say it's a landmark. And there are so many wonderful moments in time.”

The question is, can the grand old dame, which hasn’t hosted an Open since 1981, still measure up in the modern era?

Not a shot has been hit yet and already it seems a deluge of rain has stacked the deck against feisty, old Merion. On the surface, it is a postage-stamp course, a mere 6,996 yards. One school of thought is that short courses were fine in an earlier era, but with a livelier ball, oversized clubs and the rise of power golf, the pros will eat up Merion. It will play too soft, too short, too easy. It’s mere speculation at this point, but the pundits are debating the chances of someone shooting 62, of record-low scoring.

But you know what? This is old hat for a course that has raised questions of whether time has passed it by each time it has hosted the Open. Take 1971, when it was the shortest layout for the Open since it was played at St. Louis Country Club in 1947. Consider the droll pessimism of the late Jim Murray, whose syndicated column in The Philadelphia Inquirer was headlined, “Merion Mismatched Against the Pros.”

“They’re holding it in a closet,” he wrote. “They’ve got 150 of the greatest golfers in the world, maybe in history, at Merion and they’ve got a pitch-and-putt for them to play on. It’s not a tournament, it’s an assassination. They should blindfold the course . . . I look for 269 to win it. They’ll carry the course out with a white sheet over its face.”

Yet a few days later, Murray was out walking with Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins and the television commentator Jack Whitaker when he realized he had made a grievous mistake. On Monday, Murray’s mea culpa was published across the country. It took a few rounds, but Trevino figured out what made Merion special. “I’ll eat all the cactus in El Paso if anyone breaks 280,” Trevino promised. That was the score that earned him a spot in a playoff with Jack Nicklaus, which Trevino eventually won.

At Merion, the holes fit compactly on the land like a jigsaw puzzle. Ask the best golfers in the world about Merion and they will tell you to pay absolutely no attention to the yardage on the scorecard. Length is no real advantage at Merion. This is strategic golf at its finest: the line of bunkering, the swinging fairways and the green entrances make the player choose a line of attack or a position of safety. It’s a course that demands full control of all shots.

No less than Nicklaus, in the 1971 Open tournament program, called Merion “acre for acre maybe the best test of golf in the world.” And we can’t host an Open here anymore?

One of the reasons that 32 years passed between Opens is that Merion’s midsection – specifically the short holes from Nos. 7 through 13 – was deemed vulnerable. Some are surprised the club agreed to stretch it as much as they have.

When Gene Sarazen returned for the 1971 Open, he took one look at the course and beamed, “Merion is just the same. Only the players are different.”

The writer Charles Price once summed up the mood of the day: “Merion wouldn’t alter that course for the Second Coming, let alone another golf championship.”

He wasn’t kidding. For the 1981 Open, the club refused the USGA’s request to build a new tee to lengthen the fifth hole. “Basically, the course is unchanged going back to the 1930 Amateur,” William I. Kent, the tournament’s general chairman, wrote in a letter to the USGA. “Accordingly, we feel we should present the 1981 players with the same layout . . . Hopefully, the championship will agree with this opinion – namely, leave Merion unchanged and let the contestants vie with history as well as with par.”

Adding distance was a conversation starter if another Open would ever be contested at Merion. They’ve lengthened the par-70 layout at the second – you guessed it – the fifth, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th holes to add more than 400 yards since David Graham won here. And yet that doesn’t come close to compensating for the longer distances the pros hit the ball on Tour. How much have things changed? No one got home in two at the par-5 second hole in the 1971 U.S. Open. Now? Virtually all of the field should.

As Golfweek’s architectural editor Bradley S. Klein so astutely pointed out, just to keep up with the increased average driving distance on Tour during the past 32 years, Merion would have to measure 7,300 yards.

“This is a different golf course,” Graham said.

“The Merion Experiment” to find out if old school is obsolete already has been answered. Rain or no rain, this was never going to be an apples-to-apples comparison like past Opens held here.

The speed of the greens, if the USGA has a say in the matter, will be much faster than in 1950, when Ben Hogan described the greens as so slick that he was afraid to ground his putter. If you watched any of the re-broadcast of the 1971 U.S. Open playoff between Trevino and Nicklaus, you can believe it that the greens were running 7.8 on the Stimpmeter. If players today rapped putts the way those two dueling greats did that day, their golf balls would end up halfway down Ardmore Avenue. Even in 1981, the greens were running a mere 10.2 on the Stimpmeter.

So what? says Trevino.

“You can’t do anything about that,” he said. “It’s like automobiles. My first car was a ’49 Ford. I could blow it wide open at 62 mph. Hell, now I can go that fast in low gear in my car. It’s the same thing with golf. Time goes on. The equipment gets better. The athlete gets better. They’re bigger. They’re stronger. There is a lot of technology in this game now, and they’re taking advantage of it.”

It’s a shame that greens that would have seemed reluctant to accept a shot will bite instead of have their usual bite. It’s a shame the course won’t play fast and firm. Let’s not sell Merion short as Murray did. Trust me, there’s still plenty of danger to avoid. Out of bounds is close on six holes. Cobbs Creek threatens on six holes. The rough will be 5 inches tall of terror. Greens will be slick and slanted. Once the tournament begins, expect to hear about all those dogleg holes with no room to cut the corner. Expect the talk to shift to the devilish bunkers, the fabled “white faces of Merion.” And the closing stretch is no picnic. At the 1971 U.S. Open, Jerry McGee called the last five holes the best he’s ever played, and added one of the all-time quotes: “It’s like tip-toeing through hell,” he said.

So if a soft course ends up spoiling the party at Merion this week, you heard it here first: Merion deserves a rain check.

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