ARDMORE, Pa. — When the U.S. Open contenders reach the final three holes at Merion Golf Club today, they’ll face a difficult challenge that will decide who hoists the trophy.
They will also take on the ghosts of Merion past.
Known as the quarry holes, because they play over and around an abandoned limestone quarry, the three holes have quite a history.
Sixteen is where Lloyd Mangrum inexplicably picked up his ball to get rid of a pesky bug. It cost him two shots, and a chance to win the U.S. Open.
Seventeen, with its natural stadium setting, once served as an ice rink.
Eighteen is the site where Ben Hogan hit his famous 1-iron to get into the 1950 U.S. Open playoff.
Collectively, the three holes measure 1,197 yards and play to a par of 11. Not many golf courses can boast of such an impressive trio of holes in succession.
Augusta National Golf Club has Amen Corner, site of so much drama and history through the years at the Masters Tournament. Pebble Beach has the spectacular ocean trio of Nos. 8, 9 and 10, all difficult par-4s.
There is no water that comes into play on the quarry holes, but there are plenty of obstacles to overcome.
Throw in the difficult 14th and 15th holes, a pair of par-4s, and golfers will face an array of shots.
“You have to hang on for dear life those last five holes,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner who missed the cut this week. “Those last five are as tough a finish – I can’t think of a tougher finish that I’ve seen at a U.S. Open.”
No. 16, a downhill par-4 of 430 yards, does not require a driver for the tee shot. But golfers will want to find the fairway, or playing from the fairway bunker or the rough will make it difficult to traverse the quarry.
“With that tier in the green, as soft as it is now, it’s going to be tough to find the top portion – that is if you find the fairway – and a very difficult second shot,” McDowell said.
There is a “chicken” route if golfers don’t hit the fairway. The fairway bends to the right and goes around the quarry.
If a ball does go into the quarry, heavy underbrush and multiple bunkers await.
Keegan Bradley, who also missed the 36-hole cut, made a triple bogey in the opening round at 16.
“I made a mistake in trying to go for the green,” he said.
In the 1950 U.S. Open, Hogan held a one-shot lead over Mangrum when they reached the 16th green. Just as Mangrum was about to putt, a bug landed on his golf ball. Not thinking, he picked up the ball to blow the insect off. Instead, he incurred a two-stroke penalty for not properly marking the ball first.
Hogan went on to win the playoff by four over Mangrum and six over George Fazio.
Mangrum, though, took the penalty in stride.
“Well, I guess we’ll all still eat tomorrow,” he told Joe Dey, the USGA’s executive director.
No. 17, a long par-3 of 246 yards, plays across part of the quarry and is in a natural amphitheater setting.
“It’s probably one of the prettiest holes I’ve seen in a long time,” said Steve Stricker, who was one shot off the lead through 36 holes. “It’s like walking into a stadium because the stands are on the left and behind the green and the hole’s kind of sunken down and it’s just a pretty hole.”
The natural beauty fades for the pros when they realize the difficulty of the tee shot.
“But we were hitting 3 wood into there, 250 some yards to that hole,” Stricker said.
Players must take a winding staircase down to the green, and hope that their ball finds the putting surface. Deep grass and five bunkers surround the green.
Once on the green, a false front presents a tricky ridge that golfers must negotiate. The heavily contoured green is also deep, which makes two-putting a difficult proposition.
According to the USGA, Merion used the area near No. 17 as a skating pond during winter months. A shelter and waltz music completed the setting for club members.
Anyone skating off with a par here will be happy. With three of the four par-3s over 200 yards, the short holes at Merion provide a stern test.
“If you can play these par‑3s this week in even par, you’re going to do well,” Stricker said.
No. 18, which can play as long as 521 yards, is a typical U.S. Open finishing hole: a long, tough par-4.
For starters, players must carry the edge of the quarry with a long and accurate tee shot. From there, they face an approach of more than 200 yards to the green.
“From the back tee I hit driver and 3-iron,” three-time U.S. Open winner Tiger Woods said earlier in the week. “I played the up tee with driver and 4-iron, and I hit two good ones. It will be interesting to see where they put the tee markers on that hole.”
Not surprisingly, the 18th has been the hardest hole all week.
No one can walk the 18th fairway without thinking of Hogan’s heroic shot, which he produced in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open. Needing a par to join Mangrum and Fazio in a playoff, he laced his 1-iron from about 205 yards onto the green and two-putted for his four.
The next day Hogan won the second of his four U.S. Open triumphs with a round of 69.
A plaque now sits on the site where Hogan hit the shot, and plenty of talk this week has centered around the shot and the iconic photograph taken by Hy Peskin for Life magazine.
Most golfers don’t carry 1-irons any more, and some noted that players can now hit mid-irons more than 200 yards.
“It’s pretty incredible, really, when you think about it,” Stricker said. “The thing that strikes me the most, I’ve looked at that picture, I looked at the plaque, and it looks a lot shorter in person when you’re there than when you’re looking at it in that picture.”