PHILADELPHIA — Merion Golf Club’s rich history is undeniable. Now, the club that boasts Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus among its past champions is prepared to add to its honor roll.
The venerable course once thought to be too short and too compact to stage the USGA’s national championship is back in the spotlight and less than a year away from hosting the 2013 U.S. Open.
The Open’s return to Merion has been a long time coming — 32 years to be exact. The primary question facing the membership and the USGA was whether the course could challenge the long-hitting, modern day player and accommodate the trappings that go with an Open.
And after more than a decade of preparation and a number of successfully staged championships, the membership and USGA are confident on both counts.
When the players arrive in suburban Philadelphia next June they’ll be greeted by the club’s red wicker basket-topped pins and “white faces of Merion” sand hazards. They’ll also be teeing it up on basically the same layout that played such a large role in golf’s past.
“There’s so much tradition and history,” said Reg Jones, the USGA’s senior director of U.S. Open Championships. “It’s one of the places in the golf world you hear footsteps; you go there and hear history.”
Merion is where 14-year-old Bobby Jones played in his first U.S. Amateur and then completed the “Grand Slam” in 1930. It’s where Ben Hogan claimed the 1950 Open a little more than a year after surviving a horrible car crash. It’s where Jack Nicklaus fired four rounds in the 60s for the U.S. in winning the World Amateur Team Championships, and where 11 years later he lost to Lee Trevino in a playoff in the 1971 Open.
In one of golf’s most enduring photos, Hogan is pictured, from behind, hitting a 1-iron from Merion’s 18th fairway to a green ringed by spectators in the ’50 Open. And on a lighter note, before the start of the playoff in 1971, Trevino pranked Nicklaus, tossing a rubber snake at his feet while on the first tee.
Merion last hosted an Open in 1981, and David Graham was the winner.
It wasn’t long before advances in technology changed the game and the way it was played. Many thought shorter, traditional courses — like Merion — were rendered obsolete.
It took time, but Merion worked its way back into Open consideration. The club put plenty of time and resources into restoring and lengthening the Hugh Wilson par-70 design to 7,000 yards. It hosted other USGA championships along the way, including the U.S. Girls Junior, the Amateur and Walker Cup. The defining moment for Merion’s eventual return came in the stroke play portion of the 2005 Amateur when just six players scored under par.
Soon after, the club was awarded its fifth Open.
Merion has been primed in the years leading up to the Open, and the consensus seems to be that the layout will provide a formidable challenge.
Nicklaus weighed in last week before the Open at The Olympic Club.
“The golf course has got some birdie holes on it, which Merion always has had,” Nicklaus said. “But it’s got some really, really strong par 4s, which will balance that out. I don’t think you’re going to find Merion being a piece of cake. I think Merion will be a pretty good test.”
Merion chairman Rick Ill got similar feedback after another pro visited.
“Graeme McDowell played a few weeks ago and said you have your years mixed up, the course is ready today,” Ill said.
That’s high praise for the club that will be hosting its USGA-high 19th championship.
Ill said the USGA plans to have Merion’s greens speedy, the fairways between 22 and 24 yards wide and rough at approximately 3½ inches.
“There will be nothing tricky,” Ill said. “But it all depends on the weather. We can control a lot of things …”
“We’re not worried about the score. … I think the pros will enjoy playing here, playing where Hogan walked,” he said.
Nicklaus was once quoted as saying of Merion, “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.”
And that was the ultimate issue: At just 120 acres, the course routing leaves little room for the accouterments that accompany an Open, which is big business.
“The U.S. Open has changed a great deal; a lot of work has been invested,” said Hank Thompson, U.S. Open manager for the USGA. “It’s not so much the golf course, it’s if the area could support it.”
The USGA and Merion have made some concessions to make the event work. The USGA is limiting attendance to 25,000 per round, down from the usual average of about 35,000, and plans are in place for a few smaller merchandise tents, rather than one large tent. Strategically placed grandstands are expected to help crowd flow, and remote satellite parking and hospitality tents are also part of the plan.
The club reached out to the township and nearby Haverford College to help ensure a smooth running event.
“The initial plan is one that can work and be effective,” Thompson said.
Excitement for the event is building. The USGA announced Sunday that grounds tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the championship have sold out, with remaining ground tickets for the opening round expected to sell out soon.