Some are calling Merion Golf Club a pint-sized major championship venue because it stretches to only 6,996 yards. The historic par-70 U.S. Open course falls about 500 yards short of normal major championship yardage requirements.
But when you consider Merion’s storied history, it is nothing short of gargantuan.
Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam at Merion in 1934. Ben Hogan came back from a near-fatal accident and won here in 1950. Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff for the ages in 1971. David Graham won the most recent U.S. Open at Merion in 1981.
Left for dead by the USGA, it appeared that the fabled grounds in Ardmore, Pa., would never again play host to our national golf championship.
The reason was simple. Major championship golf had outgrown Merion, which played around 6,500 yards when Graham won. Besides being short in distance, it appeared that Merion’s East Course, which is located on only 125 acres, couldn’t handle the massive infrastructure needed for an event such as the U.S. Open.
But give the USGA credit (and far more than they deserve for their decision to ban the anchored putting stroke). The return to Merion is brilliant. This might be the most talked about major championship in the past 25 years. Can the old gal stand up to the artillery that she will face from today’s professional golfers who hit it outta sight and outta mind?
Complicating things this week will be the weather. Merion is soaked after getting dumped on over the weekend by a tropical storm. Estimates would indicate the course has taken in excess of 6 inches of rain since last Friday. More showers are forecast for later in the week. The hope of a hard and fast Open venue is down the drain — literally.
The course will serve up soft greens that will be like big dart boards. The narrow fairways will hold tee shots. Ah, but the rough. As late as last week, the roughs were still being fertilized.
Ah, the rough. Do not enter! Travel at your own risk? Hit it in the rough and you simply advance it out, assuming you find your ball. Accuracy will be a premium.
Creativity abounds here. The players will use a makeshift locker room set up on the West Course at Merion, which is located about one mile from the East Course. That is also where players will hit balls; and, for the first time in my recollection, fans will not be able to watch the players practice at a major.
A lot has been written and said regarding the traffic around Merion. Players will have to deal with an inconvenience they are unaccustomed to. It will be necessary to leave in plenty of time to get to Merion, and I’ll take slim odds that somebody misses a tee time this week.
On top of that, players will start on holes 1 and 11 on Thursday and Friday, not 1 and 10, as is customary, based on the routing of the course. It’s safe to say that Merion is quirky, but in a very good way.
There will only be 25,000 spectators allowed on the grounds each day, compared to 45,000 next year at Pinehurst. Grandstands have been constructed to seat 17,000 people, which is about 5,000 more seating than a normal Open.
Merion’s trademark is its wicker baskets, which sit on top of the flagsticks. These babies weigh about 25 pounds each, and it will complicate things for the players because they will not be able to look at flags that would help identify the direction of Merion’s swirling winds. You might not notice on television, but the baskets are red on the front nine and orange on the back nine.
The most famous picture in all of golf is that 1-iron shot that Hogan hit on the 72nd hole of the 1950 Open. He made par and won a playoff the next day against George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum. To this day, a plaque remains on the spot in the 18th fairway here at Merion where Hogan hit the shot.
All week long players have dropped golf balls near that plaque and tried to replicate Hogan’s famous shot. “I hope to avoid Ben’s plaque on No. 18 because the divots around it are plentiful,” Ernie Els quipped this week.
Merion is where Trevino threw the rubber snake at Nicklaus moments before they teed it up in their 1971 playoff.
Oh, and one other quirky Merion feature. The first tee on the East Course sits next to the terrace at the clubhouse, and diners can reach out and grab a driver on the downswing from a player hitting a tee shot. It’s that close.
There is no place like Merion. On Thursday, I will observe the group of Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Tim Clark at 7:33 a.m. Clark is the leader of the anchored putters. Pure USGA irony that I would observe this group?
At 12:41 p.m. Friday, I am assigned to the threesome of Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Keegan Bradley. It doesn’t get much better than that. Thanks USGA for that one!
This promises to be a U.S. Open for the ages. Enjoy it. This is a step back in time. This is great for golf. The USGA got this one right.
Ted Bishop is PGA of America president and director of golf and general manager of The Legends Golf Club in Franklin.