U.S. Open: Merion takes us back to the future
ARDMORE, Pa. We’re about to find out if old school is obsolete. Get ready for a week of bunts, sacrifice flies, stolen bases and whatever it takes to proceed station-to-station to score.
Of course, when you take the U.S. Open to an intimate old ballpark, everything shrinks, including the revenue stream. If the gamble works, the U.S. Golf Association will feel vindicated in its return to Merion Golf Club.
In an era dominated by the long ball, play at the 113th U.S. Open will contract next week. At Merion’s East Course, patio tables have been cleared of iced-tea glasses, lest they get in the way of opening drives. A stop sign was removed along Golf House Road, which adjoins the 14th fairway, to avoid interference with the line of flight off the tee. From Nos. 7 through 13, no hole will play longer than 403 yards.
Prepare to downshift, guys.
Defending champion Webb Simpson, who first played Merion in the 2005 U.S. Amateur, appreciates Merion’s subtleties. Even for the relatively short hitter – at 282.9 yards, Simpson ranks 124th in driving distance on Tour – shot placement at Merion is more important than bombing drives close to greens.
“What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses,” Simpson said. “It seems like most golf courses are evolving to be (a) bomber’s paradise – every par 4 is 500 yards, and you hit driver on every hole. Merion’s the opposite. I only hit a few drives.”
Merion offers only 18 acres of fairway. Compare that with 20 acres last year at The Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco, or 33 acres at Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2, site of next year’s U.S. Open. Merion also is short – only 6,996 yards for its par 70. That spawns curiosity about Merion for its fifth U.S. Open – but first since 1981 – and much speculation: Will Merion still pose a challenging test of major-championship golf, or has it become an outmoded museum piece?
It’s also daunting in terms of infrastructure to have to set everything up on a 126-acre parcel, by far the smallest of a modern U.S. Open venue and roughly half of Shinnecock Hills’ site. A typical U.S. Open site requires 250-300 acres for golf course, infrastructure, range and maintenance. For Merion, everything is being squeezed into 175 total acres.
Call it “The Merion Experiment,” with implications for USGA coffers and the viability of classic courses to contend for future Opens.
The grounds of the East Course are so small that players will be set up on a practice range a mile away at the club’s West Course. Spectator tickets will be capped at 25,000 per day, significantly less than a relatively large event such as at Olympic Club last year, where 35,000 tickets sold daily. That also will mean less merchandise activity.
Organizers have devised some creative solutions. Although the big merchandise tent is only 24,000 square feet – down from 36,000 last year – it will be supplemented by two smaller tents onsite. The grounds of nearby Haverford College have been rented for corporate hospitality, with pedestrian traffic channeled over a new bridge that traverses the regional train line. Front yards of private homes along the first, 14th and 15th holes have been rented to pitch hospitality tents. One home will serve as USGA headquarters. Because of limited spectator room within the grounds, USGA officials have devised an Open Championship-like system of perimeter fan viewing and circulation, with stands holding 15,000 seats available, including a stadium-like temporary structure behind the par-3 17th green.
Of the USGA’s 13 championships that are conducted annually, the U.S. Open is the cash cow that feeds the other events. So there’s some risk in hosting a smaller Open. But as Tom O’Toole, the USGA’s vice president and chairman of the Championship Committee, said, “We don’t look at this as a one-year financial exercise. We look over a period of years, and we’re perfectly comfortable that we could come back (here) and have a less financially successful Open.”
O’Toole emphasized that site selection for a U.S. Open is based on the quality of the golf course and operational flow of the facility. The USGA’s planning model is based on what he called “break-even over a five-year period,” not based solely on squeezing every dollar out of each U.S. Open.
With Merion’s history – winners such as Bobby Jones in the 1930 U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam and Ben Hogan in the 1950 U.S. Open to cap his historic comeback from a near-fatal car accident – the suburban Philadelphia site proved too tempting. The wispy bunker faces, scotch broom, sandy scrub areas and red-wicker baskets for flags enhance the appeal.
“We can’t not come back to a place like this,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director. “It’s too important from an historical standpoint, and it means too much architecturally and it’s still a great test of golf.”
Jim Hyler, a former USGA president who chaired the Championship Committee in 2006 when the Open was awarded to Merion, said the reward will be worth any perceived risk.
“You go there and you picture Jones, Nicklaus, Trevino,” Hyler said. “There were some naysayers who focused on length. After we held the U.S. Amateur there in 2005 and evaluated all the factors, we were convinced the U.S. Open could be played there.” When the USGA secured the use of Haverford College, Hyler said, “the pieces really fell into place.”
If “The Merion Experiment” works, at least one other old-school course could regain consideration. As home to Francis Ouimet’s historic U.S. Open win in 1913, The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., was thought to have the inside track for 2013’s centennial. But a combination of club politics, presumed commitments to other tournaments and logistical issues (i.e., traffic) dating to the 1988 U.S. Open stalled that effort.
Don’t, however, expect a flood of antiquated courses suddenly to pop back onto the U.S. Open rota.
Merion is unique in its appeal, and the USGA can afford to take a financial hit – a decline in net income of as much as $7 million – like this only once every few years. The schedule offers variety, including historic treasures that are long enough and big enough to host a U.S. Open without the compromises needed for Merion. Pinehurst (2014), Oakmont (2016) and Shinnecock Hills (2018) are big and variously lucrative. Under Davis’ tutelage, the U.S. Open also has embraced innovative designs such as Chambers Bay (2015) and Erin Hills (2017) that offer tournament length and space for support, corporate hospitality and parking.
In previous years, diminutive Merion has proved to be compelling and maddening for the world’s best players. At the last U.S. Open here, in 1981, winner David Graham shot 7-under 273 over a 6,544-yard course. Average score for the week: 73.166.
Of course, back then the average drive on the PGA Tour was about 260 yards. Since then driving distance has increased by 11.5 percent, to 290 yards in 2012. Merion’s 6,996 yards is about all that the intimate grounds can handle. And yet judging by some recent championship scores, Merion should still be enough of a sound test for elite players. At the 2005 U.S. Amateur, with Merion playing 6,846 yards, the average score during the stroke-play qualifier was a robust 78.158. No hole – not even the two par 5s – played under par.
Dry, firm conditions such as what tested golf’s elite amateurs eight years ago would give Open contestants fits. However, if it’s wet next week and the ground becomes receptive, watch out.
“If you saw Merion firm for four straight days versus soft for four straight days, you might see an 18- to 20-shot difference in the winning score,” the USGA’s Davis said. “We can’t control that.”
Scoring isn’t the only way to judge a golf course, but it shapes perceptions. USGA leaders are sensitive to public scrutiny of how they have been protecting the game in the wake of improvements in clubs and balls and whether technology has rendered classic venues obsolete. There’s an inherent interest in demonstrating to the wider golf community that the USGA has done its job. Thus, the importance of Merion as a test case.
Upholding Merion as a showpiece for continued relevance is evident in the course yardage: 6,996. The USGA could have found a few extra yards to surpass the symbolic 7,000.
Like many other classic courses, Merion (No. 7 on Golfweek’s Classic Courses list) derives its character from the native terrain and by modern maintenance practices that keep the turfgrass lean and mean, not lush and spoiled. The course was designed by Hugh Wilson in 1912, expanded by William Flynn into its present routing in 1927 and restored by Tom Fazio and Tom Marzolf in 2003. The recent restoration was necessitated by years of subtle transformation – tree growth, bunkers that stopped draining, underperforming greens. More back tees restored some of the long approaches for modern players.
In the lead-up to the 2013 U.S. Open, additional work – narrowing fairways and moving bunkers into the line of play – was required for a 21st-century major championship. More bunkers were added to catch drives that carried well beyond anything that Wilson and Flynn could have imagined. And at the notoriously sloped green on the par-4 12th, Fazio built a new putting surface two years ago in the same place as the old one, with milder interior contours. The idea: hold approach shots and provide for more hole locations.
Some members grumbled about the Open preparations, especially the narrowed fairways and tighter bunker patterns. But those lines can be returned, even if it means the maintenance crew has to regrass areas or relocate bunkers.
For all the focus on Merion’s yardage, the best defense comes via ground contours. At the 504-yard par-4 fifth hole, a 27-yard-wide fairway cants like the first turn at Talladega, pitching shots sharply left from one shoulder to the next, toward a creek. The thin ribbon of heightened turf along the edge – it’s purely ornamental and will not stop a ball – runs all the way to a green that looks as if it fell on its side. It’s one of many places where a player’s sangfroid gets tested. On the tee of the 556-yard, par-5 second hole, golfers considering driver (and thereby hoping to bring the green within reach on two shots) run the risk of out-of-bounds along Ardmore Avenue only three steps right of the fairway. At the 360-yard par-4 seventh, the OB tree line right is only 4 feet right of the fairway. Even if a drive finds the fairway, the right quarter of the approach line is obstructed partially by overhanging trees. And then there’s the shortest hole on the course, that minuscule par-3 13th, which at least one day is likely to be set up to play all of 99 yards and yet can cause havoc if the tee shot finds the rear bunker.
At Merion, golfers constantly are tacking, from par 4s best played as 4-iron/wedge to long holes that demand a perfect drive and a long-iron approach to a green not suited to the task. Adam Scott returned from a Merion practice round and admiringly described the place as “fiddly,” explaining the many half shots and an elusive comfort zone.
“You don’t see where the ball finishes off all your tee shots,” said Scott, the recent Masters champion, “and there’s camber on the fairways and some movement.”
It’s a course of extremes, with plenty of birdie chances offset by the perils of dense rough, wrong angles and, ultimately, high scores – what a mathematician would call a bimodal distribution. Six of the par 4s average only 357 yards. The other six average 470. Merion demands working the ball both ways. In places, fairway grain and slope are so pronounced that seemingly accurate shots can roll into the rough. With no intermediate collar as a buffer, the dense rough of bluegrass, fescues and other grasses will exact a toll.
The USGA’s Davis loves this kind of constant shifting, how Merion induces what he calls “an emotional yo-yo.”
All of which – weather permitting – could make the USGA look like geniuses for showing the virtues of small-ball golf.
– James Achenbach and Alex Miceli contributed