Shifting gears: Hole-by-hole at Merion

A view of the wicker basket at the 11th hole on the East Course at Merion Golf Club.

A view of the wicker basket at the 11th hole on the East Course at Merion Golf Club.

— They’ll be tacking, shifting gears, constantly adjusting at Merion. All of which could make for great spectator viewing – and the occasional road wreckage as players come unglued and fall by the wayside. Sure, the ground is wet, and even with more rain (as expected Thursday) the golf course drains well enough that it will not be all that easy applying the brakes. But if the moisture remains and the ground plays There will some lower scores than first expected, but for all the emphasis upon how short Merion is, its long holes will now play much longer.

There’s certainly never quite been an Open like this one, not even in 1981, the last time they set up shop for the national championship here on the west side of Philadelphia. This time around, Merion will play relatively shorter for the world’s best players than it did back then.

That’s because whatever lengthening they’ve done to the par-70 layout – from 6,544 yards to 6,996 – since David Graham won doesn’t come close to compensating for the longer distances they hit the ball on Tour. Just to keep up with the increased average driving distance on Tour the last 32 years, Merion would have to measure 7,300 yards.

Not that Merion’s holes are short. Just some of them are, including a seven-hole stretch from the seventh tee to the 13th green, where there’s not a hole longer than 403 yards. That’s OK; the last few holes make up for it. Graeme McDowell, 2010 U.S. Open champion, says of this stretch, “I can’t think of a tougher finish at a U.S. Open.”

There’s also some of the most confounding ground roll out there to be found on any major-championship venue in the world.

So buckle up your seatbelts and get ready for a wild ride – not Indy style; this one is strictly road rally.

• • •

No. 1: Par 4, 350 yards

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Anyone who pulls out driver here is an idiot – or desperate. This is strictly a layup hole, to a fairway just 24 yards across and short left of a massive deep cross bunker, 285 yards out on the right at the inside of the dogleg. There’s no advantage in trying to carry it – what might be called risk without reward. And if a player does hit driver, the likely result will be to face a short-sided, downhill wedge, or simply a green that doesn’t hold a low-trajectory shot. That said, if the pin is placed up front and seemingly accessible to a left-to-right drive, someone (probably named Bubba or Dustin) might be tempted. Which is exactly what Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, wants: players to make decisions that threaten to put themselves in trouble. And if anyone thinks that the old reliable formula of 4-iron/wedge isn’t exciting, that’s because he never has faced narrow fairways like these where there’s no cushy intermediate rough and there’s only the prospect of deep, thick, gnarly mongrel grasses gobbling up a shot that wanders off the fairway.

• • •

No. 2, Par 5, 556 yards

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How easy can it get on paper? Here’s a par 5 that everyone in the field can reach in two, with the flattest green on the golf course. Except that there’s out-of-bounds looming alongside Ardmore Avenue on the right, only 60 feet from the center of the fairway and exactly 3 yards from the start of the rough. Wind is not usually a factor here in suburban Philadelphia in mid-June, but nerves are. And the second shot must carry a newly installed cross-bunker that ends just 24 yards from the green. Apologies to Merion’s original designer, Hugh Wilson (1912), and to his disciple, William Flynn, who reworked the place in the 1920s, but that bunker was not there when Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam at Merion in 1930. It was installed at the insistence of the USGA to make modern players sweat out their second shots. That said, you can’t stop good players from being great, which is why they’ll think of this as a birdie hole. Good luck. It’s one of the rare ones out here ripe for the plucking, though it also will generate its share of out-of-bounds victims.

• • •

No. 3, Par 3, 256 yards

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The longest par 3 on the course, as well as the largest green on the course, this hole is what Tiger Woods jokingly called “a drivable par-4.” Now 8,700 square feet large, this putting surface was expanded in the back to hold a low-trajectory shot. It’ll play as long as a fairway wood or utility club, though on two days the hole will likely be moved up to 219 yards and play to tighter, more forward hole locations. The green’s shape and the positioning of the three bunkers that frame the surface all call for a left-to-right approach shot; otherwise the ball flight is fighting against the long axis of the green and taking the shallowest line across. Here’s where shot shape becomes all-important – there’s at least twice as much room for the ball to run out when it’s been flighted in from the left.

• • •

No. 4, Par 5, 628 yards

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Here’s one of those illustrative examples of how lengthening a hole makes it easier and less interesting. A new back tee here – literally so far back it sits in the left rough of the seventh hole – turns this downhill, roller-coaster par 5 into a 100-yard par 3, since everyone will just lay up to there. With a tiny creek and a line of steep bunkers fronting the green, there’s virtually no point running the risk of getting home here in two on the two days they will play the way-back tee. So imperative is it to hit the fairway off the tee and get the second shot well down the fairway that many players will drive with a fairway wood or rescue club just to keep the ball in play on a hole that cants steeply from right to left. It’ll be a lot more interesting when they move the tees up 30-40 yards and players will wail away off the tee; if they don’t keep the drive in the fairway, the second shot gets a whole lot tougher, and this is not a green to be coming at from the rough or from more than 150 yards out.

• • •

No. 5, Par 4, 504 yards

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For all the focus on Merion’s length, or lack thereof, the real issue at Merion – and the best defense of par – comes by way of its ground contours. Case in point: the par-4 fifth hole, 504 yards, to a 27-yard-wide fairway that is canted like the first turn at Talladega and pitches everything sharp left, directly into a creek. The thin ribbon of heightened turf along its edge is purely ornamental and will not stop a ball from rolling in – and it runs the length of the hole. If ever a hole at Merion has been made easier by the wet conditions, this is it, since there just won’t be quite as much ground roll as officials had hoped for. The green is generous, 7,077 square feet, but that’s no help because it has a dominant cross slope (right-to-left) of 5 percent, and there’s only room for a rational hole location on precisely 2 percent of the entire surface (believe me, I have the digital measurements to prove it). At Merion’s targeted green speed of 13.3 to 13.8 on the Stimpmeter, a hole location can’t actually be used if it slopes more than 3.5 percent. In other words, there’s no usable hole location here, and the ball can barely stop. Good luck. You read it here first: It’s one of several places on the golf course where director of grounds Matt Shaffer and his crew have to use smoke and mirrors to keep the hole playable. (Hint: Playing the hole with a left-to-right cut helps a lot.) The fun part of this hole will be watching players drive with 3-woods, rescues and stingers to keep it in the fairway and then try to hit (and hold) the green with a 4-5 iron.

• • •

No. 6, Par 4, 487 yards

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Here’s a great example of how hard Merion is. The landing area is semi-blind from the tee and calls for a left-to-right shot, followed by a demanding right-to-left approach iron. The high, right side along the fairway offers incredibly dense rough and has the effect of steering players to the left off the tee, so that drives tend to run through the fairway onto the wrong side for an approach. It’s one of those holes where you have to fight the terrain with well-shaped shots. It’s also the least-talked-about hole at Merion because of its relatively distant location at the farthest end of the golf course.

• • •

No. 7, Par 4, 360 yards

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Time to gear back and exercise caution. There probably will be some temptation by long hitters to have a whack at the green here, but the entrance is so narrow and the likelihood of success so minuscule that it defies reasonable odds for even the longest hitters to try. But of course some will. Most players will lay back, with a 5-wood or long iron. The trick here is that the right side of the fairway brushes up against out of bounds, and tree canopies overhang that edge to impede play from balls hit on the right side of the fairway. The putting surface here is long and narrow, flanked by steep bunkers on both sides. It's also among the most heavily contoured at Merion, thanks to four distinct tiers segmented by transverse ridges. Precision is everything here; power is no advantage.

• • •

No. 8, Par 4, 359 yards

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With the green cut off from any fairway and simply sitting out there on its own, surrounded by sand, there’s very little incentive for players to try to fly the ball onto this green, because it simply will not hold. The front bunker is an attractive option, but miss it short or left and you’ll be halfway up to your knees in the deepest, most punishing rough on the golf course – to a green only 23 yards deep, the shallowest and least receptive at Merion. So the wise play – once again – is to lay up off the tee. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, because the only safe patch of fairway 220 yards off the tee is 30 yards deep and about 20 yards across, framed by bunkers and yet more heavy rough. So the layup is like hitting the green on a par-3 hole – in other words, it’s not to be taken for granted. That’s the beauty of Merion, where every shot counts and where every miss will cost you, even more so on holes where you can easily get lazy just thinking you’re playing it safe.

• • •

No. 9, Par 3, 236 yards

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A beautiful hole, downhill to a kidney-shaped putting surface that’s extremely well protected by sand. The back-left hole location is one of the most inaccessible on the entire golf course; front-center is far more approachable, though it brings into play that little stream, Cobbs Creek. If there’s wind at all at Merion, it will disproportionately influence play here, because any light summer breeze prevails from the right and will swing the ball across the narrowest line of play, the more so because from the launchpad tees the ball is in the air a long time as it parachutes to earth.

• • •

No. 10, Par 4, 303 yards

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This little hole doesn’t possess the charm of Riviera’s 10th hole, nor does it emit the lurking danger of Pebble Beach’s fourth. Still, it commands TLC because if you get on the wrong side – i.e., left – of the hole you could easily run into trouble. From a tee high in the trees, you look down upon a hole that bends steadily left, a turn that’s duplicated in the shape of the green as it wraps around a big master bunker and then looks as if it disappears into a far corner. Ardmore Avenue and those pesky out-of-bounds stakes loom right behind the putting surface, so blasting away with abandon is definitely not an option. If the hole is cut back right, the standard play is to lay up short right and pitch back to the green with controlled spin. But with the hole cut in the center or on the right, in a section of green readily accessible from the fairway, it makes sense to have a go at the green from the outset. Bailing out right is fine, but tugging it left into that huge bunker or worse, the thick rough, leaves a very hard-to-control recovery, however short. This hole will deliver quite a spread of scores, everything from 2s to 6s and 7s.

• • •

No. 11, Par 4, 367 yards

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Want to know why the USGA brought the U.S. Open back to Merion? Just stand on the 11th tee, look down to your right, and read the plaque there: “On September 27, 1930 and on this hole Robert Tyre Jones Jr. completed his Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Amateur Championship.” Now try to throttle down and hit the 22-yard-wide fairway, the narrowest at Merion. It’s actually too narrow, absurdly so, but what will induce a layup isn’t its waif-like appearance. Players must avoid the proximity of Cobbs Creek, starting at 226 yards off the tee and winding its way across the front of the green, then wrapping around the right side and running close to the back of the green as well. No need to flirt with that, not when you have the second-smallest green on the course, with a bunker left and a putting surface that tilts away from it to water. The only sensible way to play this hole is cautiously. Just don’t miss the fairway. And just don’t miss the green short, right or long. One additional matter to look out for: heavy rains. The green here is notoriously prone to flooding. The Friday before the practice rounds, a 3 1/2-inch storm hit and brought floodwaters to within 1 1/2 inches of the surface. If it does flood, the maintenance crew probably can clear off the silt in time. But just in case, this section of the course might be closed and then they’ll bus the players down Ardmore Avenue to play two holes on the club’s West Course. The ghost of Bobby Jones is praying otherwise. So is Mike Davis.

• • •

No. 12, Par 4, 403 yards

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Here’s the "long hole” in this very short stretch, a steady dogleg right that travels uphill through a dramatically sloped fairway to a newly rebuilt green. The old putting surface had less-than-zero cupping space; this one has about a third that’s usable for hole locations. The problem isn’t just keeping the ball on the green; it’s getting there, thanks to a fairway that’s banked and calls for a tee shot flirting dangerously close to four bunkers on the high, left side. A driver here is probably too much, as that could reach the sand. The smart play is to place a fairway wood or rescue to the left side and watch it roll down to the right. From there, it’s a short-iron second shot over a very deep, front-right bunker.

• • •

No. 13, Par 3, 115 yards

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There’s nothing like a twitchy little half-shot hole to turn a golf pro’s brains into Jell-O – or worse. It’s a wedge here, to the smallest green at Merion, only 3,225 square feet. Also, the most tightly squeezed with sand. The most challenging hazard is the one behind, just over a thin little shelf of pinnable ground. Knowing how devilish Mike Davis can be, you can bet that one day he'll move the tees up to 99 yards, cut the hole on the back-right shelf, and laugh all the way back to USGA headquarters as the players overshooting the flag by a foot end up with impossible recoveries coming back.

• • •

No. 14, Par 4, 464 yards

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The fun and games are over; now it’s time for real golf. To pump up this par 4, they converted the club’s major practice green into a new back tee, then took down the “Stop” sign along Golf House Road so the drive – whose first half of flight is technically across ground that’s out-of-bounds – would have an unimpeded path. The hole turns relentlessly left – it’s like trying to hit the curved part of a question mark. With deep rough short and left and a threatening line of bunkers on the far right, it’s very unsettling here to secure the proper line of play. Anything short of a driver off the tee to the uphill landing area will leave 200-plus yards in. The green is fascinating for its unusual contour – a diagonal trough separates the front right from the back left of the putting surface. It’s only when you see a hole like this that you realize how good these players are – or need to be.

• • •

No. 15, Par 4, 411 yards

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And yet the 14th fairway isn’t the hardest to hit; the 15th is. It's uphill, a steady left-to-right, with extremely steep bunkers on the inside of the dogleg and nothing but those maddening out-of-bounds stakes on the far side, exactly 7 feet left of the fairway line. A driver here brings out-of-bounds directly into play; anything hit straight or double-crossed from an intended fade will rocket onto the roadbed beyond. So here’s where the smart players will give up distance to gain control, hitting anything from a 3-iron to a 3-wood and leaving themselves with a short iron to a domed, convex green. It’s a hole that has nothing but trouble down both sides.

• • •

No. 16, Par 4, 430 yards

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Here is a terrifying-looking hole through an old, abandoned quarry that will prove for the U.S. Open to be, in my view, much easier than its reputation. Everyday golfers struggle with the long carry across broken ground in front of the green – 120 yards of broom, sandy pits, rock and all sorts of uneven lies. But these guys won’t even look at the area, unless they miss the fairway and come up with a very heavy lie. The fairway has been narrowed but still is wide enough by U.S. Open standards. The low side is protected by a bunker 281 yards out that was moved more than 25 yards closer to the main landing area. The chief obstacle here is an elevated green with a false front and an uncharacteristic (for Merion) straight line of four pearl bunkers high on the right side. They’re not really in play for U.S. Open-caliber players. What is in play is a two-tiered green where anything less than 15 yards into the 8,000-square-foot, 44-yard long surface will roll back off the front.

• • •

No. 17, Par 3, 246 yards

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If it hasn't been said to this point, it’s time to say it now: This is the hardest green at Merion to hit in regulation. Distance from the back tee isn’t the only issue; it’s also that one-third of the 6,000-square-foot green, most of it up front, repels a shot outward. That rules out running a ball up. Although the green is set down in a natural hollow formed by the old quarry and would seem to call for a shot bounced in off the left side, in fact there’s so much deep rough flanking the green that golf balls don’t come off the mounding. The 5,200 spectators who will be settled in stands here for the day will witness some weird bounces, frustrating lies and many more 4s (and 5s) than 2s.

• • •

No. 18, Par 4, 521 yards

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That “521” is not a misprint, and for two days of the championship – certainly not Friday, when cut day brings play to a glacial pace – they’ll play the back tee, where the carry just to reach the fairway is a robust 252 yards – uphill. Even to reach the famed Hogan marker at 213 yards from the green is quite a poke, the more so with the ground wet and roll (uphill) at a premium. There’s a good chance the best players in the world will be hitting fairway metals just to reach the green. Maybe for the sake of history one of them will even hit a 1-iron, like Hogan did in 1950 when he had to par the hole to make the playoff (which he did, and then won the next day). The problem here is a turtle-back fairway that plays to a turtle-back green. At least when they move the tees up and play it 502 or 461 yards, the players can reach the crest of the hill and benefit from the turbo-boost forward kick that will bring the elusive green within reach of a short-iron. But from the new back tee it’s simply a brute of a long hole, quite in contrast to the image of Merion as subtle, charming and elusive.

But then again, the whole place eludes any simple characterization.

Merion demands more of a golfer than do most championship courses. Whoever wins here will have to be able to switch gears and yet also be comfortable in overdrive.

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