In the 32 years since the venerable course in the Philadelphia suburbs last played host to the game’s greatest golfers, the U.S. Open has outgrown the narrow site roughly 40 percent the size of Augusta National – wedged between Main Line neighborhoods and a commuter rail line and bisected by a primary road. There’s no room for the USGA to even find an additional four yards to make the East Course stretch to an even 7,000 yards.
“When we closed up in 1981 … we really thought this was the last time at least at a national Open Championship you would ever see Merion played on TV,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis. “And really it had nothing to do with the golf course in terms of how it played, in terms of a test of golf. But it had everything to do with how do you fit a modern day U.S. Open on this 111 acres.”
Seven years ago, however, officials went against all rational thought and decided to return to Merion for a fifth U.S. Open and record 18th USGA championship. Despite modern technology that renders the 6,996-yard course petite and infrastructure demands that make the limited crowd boutique. Tiger Woods and Co. will take on the course where Bobby Jones completed his grand slam in 1930, Ben Hogan struck his iconic 1-iron to win in 1950 after nearly dying in a car crash and Lee Trevino psyched out Jack Nicklaus with a rubber snake in a 1971 playoff.
It was a risk that the USGA couldn’t resist taking despite all the evidence that suggested it wasn’t logistically feasible.
“That was one of the best days I’ve had in my 23 years at the USGA,” Davis said of the board’s decision to return the Merion. “This place is just magical. In so many ways, it’s a historical, it’s an architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint I think you could easily say it’s a landmark.”
Merion is indeed one of the great American courses that stands up architecturally to anything else. But whether it can withstand a threesome of modern bombers such as Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts remains to be seen. Former USGA executive director David Fay called it a “referendum on the distance issue,” which could be a lopsided vote after the heavy rains dumped on the area Friday by Tropical Storm Andrea passing through.
But at least golf fans will get perhaps one final look to see the whicker basket flagsticks and the Scottish broom atop the “white cliffs of Merion” bunkers that Hugh Wilson created in 1912. Players will be given a different challenge than they’ve come to expect on courses that increasingly get longer every year.
“I tell people all the time it is my favorite golf course in the world,” said Webb Simpson, the reigning U.S. Open champion after rallying last year at Olympic. “What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses and it seems like most golf courses now are evolving to be a bomber’s paradise – every par‑4 is 500 yards and you hit driver on every hole. Where Merion’s the opposite. I only hit a few drivers.”
You get an understanding of just how cozy Merion is on the first tee. The narrow box is tucked directly adjacent to the clubhouse patio where members are eating lunch or enjoying cocktails 15 feet away from where you’re hitting your opening drive. You don’t know nerves until you stand to address the ball and an entire restaurant suddenly gets quiet to watch you swing.
No mulligans are allowed.
Davis calls Merion “a true blend of short and long.” It has five par 4s that are shorter than 400 yards and three more that are shorter than 430. But three of the four par 3s can be stretched to 230 yards and the final five holes are as tough a test as any golf course.
That kind of setup opens the door for a wide range of contenders.
“I would say here that there are probably more players that can potentially win this U.S. Open than on any other U.S. Open venue we go to,” Davis said. “And I think some of that is the overall distance that we’re under 7,000 yards. In fact our distance on the scorecard would be 6,996, par 70. But that’s from the tips. I think there will be days when it will play 68 and change.”
To combat that (and the potentially soft targets from the recent rain), Merion will be tricked up with brutal rough and narrow fairways.
“It will be penal by U.S. Open standards relative to past years, but we still do intend to graduate it,” Davis said of the rough. “So on the shorter holes, you’re going to see it a little bit more penal than the long holes.”
Simpson, who played in the last U.S. Amateur at Merion in 2005, said that through the first 13 holes players can have nine wedge opportunities into the greens if they drive it well. But 11 of Merion’s 18 holes have some kind of blind element to them, heightening the strategic challenge.
The biggest challenge that Merion poses for a modern major is logistics. There isn’t the peripheral space for all the hospitality requirements, meaning that they had to contract out people’s lawns for sponsor marquees and staging areas. The practice range and player lockerrooms will be set up a mile down the road on Merion’s West Course, requiring shuttles just to get to and from the course.
And the USGA had to decide to limit attendance to just 25,000 per day – at least 10,000 fewer than other major venues.
“You’ve got a situation where there’s just so many out of the box things that had to happen for this to occur that it’s great,” said Davis.
Fans will feel the pinch as much as the players. Holes 2 through 12 are on the opposite side of Ardmore Road, and at one stretch four holes abreast are barely wider than a par 4. Fan movement will be limited in spots, with more bleachers set up to force people to sit and watch rather than try to follow Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott around the whole course.
But in the end, the USGA decided for at least one more time, it’s better to have loved and lost at Merion than never to have tried.
“For us this is taking what has become just a huge championship and saying, ‘You know what, for the good of the game, we can’t not come back to a place like this,’” Davis said. “It’s too important from an historical standpoint, and it means too much architecturally and it’s still a great test of golf.”