Scott Dunlap: Lessons learned from Merion

The 18th hole at Merion Golf Club.

The 18th hole at Merion Golf Club.

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The U.S. Open has just concluded at historic Merion, and while we should celebrate how this historic, if not somewhat diminutive, layout withstood the modern game, this does provide an opportunity for reflection and analysis.

photo

Scott Dunlap

The conventional wisdom, promoted endlessly by the talking heads on The Golf Channel, was that even with some 500 yards added to Merion, it would still be a pushover for today’s players armed with today’s equipment. But why was this thinking so conventional?

Dating to the 1960s, concern over the lack of length on Merion’s scorecard had tournament executives fretting over low scores that would never materialize. And why would the low scores not come? Well, for those astute enough to look at factors beyond total yardage, that answer is not particularly difficult to discern, but that sort of research was lacking a generation ago, and still is scarce today.

The simple glaring factor that escapes most when evaluating the difficulty of a tournament venue is green complexes. More specifically, how difficult is the putting, and how problematic is it to hit and hold the approach shots? Merion’s greens, like many great architectural creations of the early 20th century, have tremendous slope, and that includes areas where the hole may in fact be located.

Think back to the last PGA Tour event you watched on television, and picture the pros putting. Putts go in from everywhere, and they go in consistently. The reason for this is that modern-day architects build greens that bowl in, not out, forcing hole locations into the low-lying areas. This gives the green a trough-like effect, and makes putting for players good enough to have their names on their bags as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

Some of our great old courses – Congressional and Medinah come immediately to mind – have had this “modernizing” effect bestowed upon them, and with what results? A 16-under-par winning score at the U.S. Open (Congressional, 2011) and a Ryder Cup (Medinah last fall) with nary a putt missed in three days. Ah, but Congressional was soft, you say. Did the course get as much rain as Merion got leading into last week’s Open? I doubt it.

Like most lessons, they don’t seem to take unless learned the hard way, and I suppose that I was fortunate enough to have learned this one in just that fashion. Anyone fortunate enough to play extensively in the northeast becomes quite familiar with this kind of golf and the problems it can create.

My bubble was burst over a couple attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open in the Westchester County area of New York, on such courses as Knickerbocker, Montammy, Century, and Old Oaks. These courses range from 6,500 to just under 6,900 yards. Quite short by today’s standards. For the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills I qualified at Knickerbocker and Montammy; my pre-round guess at the score requisite for qualifying was 6 under or better. Having shot even in the morning, I purposely avoided looking at the scoreboard on the way to the afternoon round so as to not completely discourage myself. After getting it 6 under in the afternoon, I suspected I was about right there, but a double bogey followed by two more bogeys and I was sure I was going to be watching the Open on TV just like everyone else. Upon posting my score, I soon realized I would be in a seven-man playoff for six qualifying positions.

Two under par almost qualified without a playoff. I managed to secure a spot at Oakland Hills with what felt like a substandard effort. The lesson was further hammered home when I shot 1 over at Century and Old Oaks trying to qualify for the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. In a similarly dejected frame of mind immediately following handing in my scorecard, I was to learn that I would be heading out for a five-for-one playoff that I was fortunate to win. Another Open successfully qualified for with what seemed to be inadequate scores.

I then asked myself, ‘Why is this happening? What makes these courses so difficult to score on?’ It certainly wasn’t the length. The answer resides in the greens. They have plenty of slope, but not at the expense of areas for hole locations. And if you missed greens in the wrong place – that usually being long – you were cooked. Bogey would be imminent, if not worse.

When you watch a U.S. Open, think how much break you’re seeing the players play. There are 30-footers breaking 10-12 feet, and short putts being played well outside the hole at times. This places two requirements on holing putts: speed and aim. Most modern attempts at architecture lack the slope, so aim is the only thing concerning the player. When the player is on the PGA Tour and only concerns himself with aim, he is going to hole a lot of putts.

Maybe instead of looking for 500 yards to lengthen a course seemingly passed by because of technology, one should examine the green complexes for answers. If this topic or area of discussion was solely academic, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, but there have been, and will continue to be, real-world consequences to this benighted state we generally find ourselves in as a golfing community.

A style of architecture has been foisted upon us dating back to the 1960s to early ‘70s and has pretty much stayed with us until the recent advancements (more of a harkening back than an advancing forward) of architects such as Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Brian Silva and several others. The average golfer has been sold a bill of goods over the last generation: 7,500 yards of water-strewn, railroad-tied, forced-carry nonsense has dominated. A 15-handicapper has been convinced that unless he loses a dozen balls and struggles to break 115, he hasn’t played a ‘real’ golf course.

The great tragedy is that these ‘real’ courses are not problematic for me and my peers. We can keep a middle iron in the air for 200 yards, carrying that bunker or waterfall, giving us that flat 10-footer. These are the kind of courses on which pros shoot 22 under for four rounds. They are also the same types of courses the average amateur is unable to negotiate.

Conversely, great old courses such as Pebble Beach, Merion, Shinnecock Hills, Prairie Dunes and Cypress Point, to name a very few, can be handled by a less-than-expert golfer while frustrating the touring pro inclined to be slightly wayward or less than circumspect.

It appears a movement is afoot to restore architecture to its early 20th century roots, limiting the forced carries, creating bunkers that don’t appear as though they’ve come out of a cookie cutter, and creating fun, interesting holes with imaginative greens while de-emphasizing length. Merion’s appearance and performance should hopefully serve as a wake-up call to all of us who enjoy the game of golf. This is the kind of course that is fun to play, pretty to view, and confounding in the way golf was meant to be confounding: suffer the consequences for not playing straight or with the required touch, and not for being born without the power and strength of a Dustin Johnson or a Bubba Watson.

How’d those guys do last week, anyway?

Scott Dunlap, 49, a touring pro since 1985, has captured tournaments in six countries and played in five U.S. Opens (his best finish was T-24 in 1997). He ranks 27th in Web.com Tour earnings this season. A former high school valedictorian who earned a degree in finance at the University of Florida, he says he’d one day love to host CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

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