ARDMORE, Pa. — Oh, my, she certainly is a handful.
She can tantalize in a number of ways: with her early beauty (scenic opening holes), midround brevity (short middle holes) and late barrage of difficulty (tough closing stretch of holes).
So why did it take so long for Merion Golf Club’s East Course to come back to the party? Or, better yet, why did it take 32 years for the United States Golf Association to succumb to her U.S. Open advances?
Theories vary. No one knows for sure.
But it is here now – with a chance to audition one more time for a permanent spot in the rotation of this nation’s great U.S. Open venues.
No course gets to host a record 16 USGA national championships by accident. From the time Merion East opened in 1912, the property was considered a masterpiece.
It wasn’t the first course built by the Merion Cricket Club. Thirty-one years after that organization was founded, a nine-hole layout opened. But it was immediately considered too short and outdated.
So the club bought 120 acres of land nearby and started over. It hired Hugh Wilson, an amateur architect from Princeton University, to come up with a design plan. In fact, he submitted five of them to a club committee for approval.
Merion East took 18 months to build and open, although it went through a series of tweaks over a 22-year span as an inland links-style course. Wilson brought back
ideas from trips to Scotland to implement in the course’s new unrefined bunkering design – one that led 1916 U.S. Amateur winner Chick Evans to describe those bunkers as being the “white faces of Merion.”
Wilson didn’t get to see Merion East host its first U.S. Open in 1934. He had died nine years earlier of pneumonia.
By the time the U.S. Open returned in 1950 – the tournament in which Ben Hogan hit the famous 1-iron approach on the 72nd hole to force a playoff – it was hosted by Merion Golf Club, which had separated from the Merion Cricket Club.
In that day, when U.S. Open sites regularly played to nearly 6,900 yards, Merion East was at 6,500. Yes it was short, even by yesterday’s major-golf standards.
“Architects from all over the world should come and see something like this,” said Lee Trevino, the 1971 U.S. Open winner at Merion East. “It shows you that you don’t really have to build a golf course that has 100-yard-wide fairways, with greens that are 12,000 square feet and that it has to be 8,000 yards long. You can still build something on 115 acres, which will challenge the best.”
IS MERION OUTDATED?
A too-short label is tough to shed. And this week, Merion East’s maximum distance is 6,996 yards – with five par-4 holes measuring shorter than 400 yards.
Is this course ripe to be overrun by the longest hitters of golf?
The way the USGA conditioned had this layout for months, Merion East should have had enough bite in its tangly bluegrass rough, its spindly fairways (average width 23 yards) and its firm greens to provide a stern test.
Then thunderstorms hit last week and carried into Monday, when the course was flooded by 51/2 inches of water. Suddenly, softened-up Merion East was being compared to rain-soaked Congressional Country Club in 2011, when U.S. Open scoring records were set.
“I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and dryer,” said Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who won that 2011 U.S. Open with a 16-under-par 268 total. “But I don’t think you’ll see scores like the scores that were shot at Congressional a couple of years ago.”
That is not saying birdies won’t be made starting Thursday. From the seventh to 13th holes, the golfers will find four of those short par 4s – including the drivable 10th (303 yards).
And the par-3 13th is a relatively benign 115 yards.
But Gary Koch, a former PGA Tour member who is now part of the NBC Sports broadcasting crew, said therein lies a trap if the golfers are not careful.
“When we play golf courses where you can make a lot of birdies, it tends to make you feel as though you’re Superman and invincible,” Koch said. “So there could be low scores and could be a lot of birdies, but I think we could possibly see a record number of big-number disasters out there because players get a little fat, dumb and happy, and start to think, ‘I can handle this place.’ ”
Even the yardage on the shorter par-4 holes can be misleading, Puyallup’s Ryan Moore noted.
“There are all of these 350- and 360-yard par 4s (but) you have to hit a 5-iron or a 4-iron off the tee,” Moore said. That, he says, makes it about the same approach shot as if you teed off with a 3-wood on a 430- or 440-yard hole.
What projects as the winning 72-hole score? Many observers concede it could be 10 or 11 under with the softer conditions. Or this course could play out like it mostly does – in a penal manner, making even par a solid goal.
“I don’t think we have an exact feel for it yet – what we’re going to have to do and what we’re going to have to shoot,” Tiger Woods said. “The conditions keep changing.”
MERION FAVORS WHO?
Fircrest’s Ken Still played in the 1971 U.S. Open that Trevino won, and was near the lead after three days.
In the final round, Still – a precise driver of the golf ball – missed three fairways.
“Made two bogeys and a double bogey, and shot 76,” Still said. “I think it is definitely a tee-ball golf course. And a straight driver usually does well there.”
Whether its champion is a long-driving 20-something, or a tested champion such as Woods, who is looking for his 15th professional major, one thing is for certain – Merion East is back in the spotlight. Is she ready to handle it again?
“I think it’s great the USGA is choosing a facility they aren’t trying to beat us over the head with that’s 7,600 yards long,” Moore said. “There are different types of great golf – and great courses. The last 10 years, they’ve gotten so nervous about everyone hitting it so far, they’ve combated that by making everything longer.
“Now they are maybe seeing the other way, which gives everyone a fair shot. Have some around 7,000-yard golf courses host the U.S. Open, and make it a good challenge.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org blogs.thenewstribune.com/golf @ManyHatsMilles