Merion golf course like an old romance

June 12, 2013 

US Open Golf

Zach Johnson tees off on the eighth hole during practice for the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, in Ardmore, Pa.

GENE J. PUSKAR — AP

— Perhaps Merion Golf Club is where the United States Golf Association has drawn a line in the mud.

This U.S. Open championship, which begins Thursday under the threat of thunderstorms, is a nod to the past, a barometer of the present and, most likely, a referendum on the future.

This is no ordinary U.S. Open if there is such a thing.

“It’s very much a boutique Open,” television commentator and former U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller said.

This is where, perhaps once and for all, the question will be answered about whether some of the game’s greatest courses – challenged by the distances players now hit the ball – can stand up to the modern professional game.

There is a romance to returning to Merion after 32 years and the reality of how it plays could have lasting ramifications.

When the lights went down after David Graham’s nearly flawless Sunday afternoon performance in winning the U.S. Open 32 years ago at Merion, there was a sense that the national championship was bidding farewell to the course Hugh Wilson designed because it was too short and small for modern major championship golf.

But like the memory of a girlfriend from long ago, Merion was impossible to forget.

It had a history, an attitude and a style.

It’s where Bobby Jones first gained national attention as a 14-year-old amateur and it’s where Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930. It’s where photographer Hy Peskin snapped the greatest golf photo of all time – Ben Hogan holding his finish having just striped a 1-iron to the 18th green in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open he would win in a playoff the next day.

It’s where Lee Trevino pulled a rubber snake out of his bag before he beat Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff for the 1971 U.S. Open championship, the victory that helped cement Trevino’s place among the immortals.

It’s where wicker baskets replaced flags shortly after the course opened and there’s still no definitive answer about how they came to be. It’s where the first tee is tucked so close to the clubhouse porch that its possible to sneak a french fry off someone’s lunch plate while waiting to hit your opening tee shot.

It’s where the white clubhouse has wooden staircases pocked with spike marks so old that the members live with them rather than replace them, imagining some of the dimples in the wood might have been left by Jones’ shoes.

It’s as old money as the Rockefellers and has earned the privilege of setting its own policies, which may trail the times but suit the clientele.

Cargo shorts are prohibited. There are no yardage markers in the fairways. Range finders are forbidden. Shirt collars are required. Mulligans aren’t allowed. Tweed thrives.

Set on 111 Main Line acres with a routing that does for course design what Van Gogh did for brush strokes, Merion was nevertheless a relic.

Technology trumped tradition. Merion lacked two essentials – a long enough golf course and enough room for hospitality tents.

Then a funny thing happened.

The USGA, which can be fairly criticized for the issues it has and hasn’t chosen to engage, brought the U.S. Open back to Merion.

It took nerve, imagination and willingness to accept less as more. For once it wasn’t about the money. It has been written that the USGA will lose approximately $10 million on this Open.

And, it was the right thing to do.

It was – and is – a big gamble but there’s a sense that almost everyone wants this to work. U.S. Open courses are generally as lovable as the flu. They’re designed, like the flu, to deliver body blows.

Merion is different. It’s relatively short at 6,996 yards but its difficult holes are wickedly tough and its short holes are as dangerous as a blind date. There’s nothing like it in major championship golf.

Stand anywhere at Merion and the view is enthralling. Its fairway lines are as sharp as military creases but there’s an untamed ruggedness around the edges. The bunkers – the white faces of Merion – are sandy dungeons often framed by knee-high grass.

The par-4 11th hole is museum-quality, all of 370 yards on a good day with a green the size of a kitchen and a brook – it’s too cool to be a creek – snaking around three sides of it. The par-4 16th hole plays over an old quarry to a green that sits at an odd enough angle that it seems almost out of place.

The par-4 18th hole is the toughest finishing hole in any U.S. Open, so says USGA executive director Mike Davis, who knows such things and isn’t given to hyperbole.

Since this Open was announced in 2005, the one wild card has been the weather. To get the most out of Merion, it must play firm and fast.

Unfortunately a tropical storm blew through late last week and another biblical deluge hit Monday. Thursday’s weather forecast is thunderously ominous and Merion is already squishy. Spectators are wearing galoshes which, unlike cargo shorts, are acceptable attire.

“It’s not going to bare its teeth the way it should,” Ernie Els said.

That’s been the fear all along, that Merion won’t be able to reclaim its former glory. That would be a shame.

The U.S. Open is back at Merion for more than the memories.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a regular contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.

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