For all the reasons the U.S. Open wasn’t likely to be held at Merion again, the most compelling reason that it will be held there is simple: the course itself.
Jack Nicklaus has given Merion the highest accolade, proclaiming, “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.” That’s some praise from a man who not only played on the finest courses during his Hall of Fame career, but built quite a few good ones, as well.
The historic East layout—Hugh Wilson’s homage to golf shot-making—is ready to defend itself against the world’s best. A course created long before titanium and graphite promises to be a worthy adversary for all the modern world can throw at it.
At just under 7,000 yards, Merion will play a lot “shorter” than other courses on the PGA Tour. (Augusta and the Memorial, for example, play closer to 7,500 yards.) But what Merion lacks in length it makes up for in “bite.”
Bunkers have been strategically added—on No. 2, for instance. Similar scoring impediments have been installed on holes 15 and 16. Four of the par 4s will play more than 500 yards long, while
No. 3 is a monstrous par 3 at 265 yards uphill The 17th hole is another whopper of a par 3 at 250 yards.
There will be lots of holes where the pros won’t have to hit a driver, but they will need to be accurate, with fairways narrowed to 22-24 yards wide and the rough a jail sentence height of 3.5-4 inches. The final five holes will be as tough as any they face on tour—an “amen corner” stretch where the championship will no doubt be decided. And we all know what lurks on 18, where the famous Hogan plaque in the fairway will stare today’s golf studs squarely in the face, daring them to create their own historic shot.
Rick Ill, chairman of the U.S. Open Committee at Merion, thinks players will enjoy coming back to an older, traditional course. “It will be different for them to play a course that’s not just long, long and long,” he says.
To hear Ill speak of his beloved home course is reminiscent of a proud father boasting about one of his children. (He was a past club president at Merion for six years and is a longtime member.) “You may see a player go low one day,” he says. “Or, if we get wet conditions, they can fire at the pins. But, all in all, I think the course will defend itself.”
Perhaps the best quote on the subtle scoring intricacies at Merion was by 1971 U.S. Open winner Lee Trevino (who beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff that year). “It’s got 16 birdie holes and 18 bogey holes,” Trevino said, grinning.
Though the course itself may have stood the test of time, the club planners couldn’t possibly have envisioned the tremendous growth the game would enjoy over the past three decades. They certainly couldn’t have conceived of a small city setting up on their site, with trailer loads of food, equipment, merchandise, fencing, generators, tents and the like.
The last Open at Merion Golf Club in 1981 required 500 volunteers to conduct the operation of the event—this year’s event will need closer to 5,000. How could a course that was built on just 126 acres hope to accommodate the modern crush of officials, media and spectators?
First, the United States Golf Associa-tion limited the amount of spectator tickets to just 25,000—a sizable reduction from other host-site venues in years past (with media and volunteers, that number is closer to 32,000). Then the USGA had to come up with a creative way to manage all the modern logistics, and their thinking outside the box led to “thinking outside the property,” as they looked for off-site space to accommodate the things Merion couldn’t handle inside its immediate property perimeter.
That task fell squarely on the shoulders of Hank Thompson, the USGA championship director, and his team. “The biggest challenge we have experienced thus far is making certain that we have the space to accommodate all of the facilities required for the championship,” Thompson says. “We’ve taken steps to enlarge the footprint by renting space at Haverford College and local residents’ yards for additional facilities. In utilizing smaller areas for facilities—like resident properties—we’ve had to take additional time to
be certain support facilities like power generators, HVAC, restrooms and prep tents fit within the borders of the yards. On the East Course itself, we’ve attempted to maximize grandstand seating throughout the course to help mitigate narrow spectator walkways and to provide for quality views of championship golf.”
Thompson’s task of ensuring an opti-mal spectator experience has not been an easy one. But from all accounts, it looks like the Merion on- and off-site facilities are in line and ready to go. (Having been to several U.S. Opens through the years, I’ve found that the USGA’s flagship event has always been first-rate.)
“I knew this process would be a lot of work, but maybe not this much,” says Ill. “The USGA has done an amazing job with these logistical issues, and all of the hard work of all our various committees has paid off—and I know the membership is excited to see the event here.”
The culmination of close to eight years of all these great efforts is now finally coming together. The course where Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan left their footprints is waiting for a whole new era of legends to make their mark. Will we see an epic battle à la the Golden Bear and the Merry Mex with Tiger and Rory? Or will someone else stamp his passport to golf history?
By dusk on Father’s Day, we’ll know.
For more from the 2013 Golf Guide, click here.