Sports Columns

June 11, 2013

Loran Smith: Three decades later, Open is back at Merion

ARDMORE, Pa. — The U.S. Open returns this week to Merion Golf Club, the fifth time the tournament has been staged here. It’s a course with enough history to keep you anchored in your reading room for an indefinite period of time.

The last time the U.S. Open was played at Merion was in 1981, when Australian David Graham fashioned a flawless 67 in the final round to win by three strokes, one of the best closing rounds in U.S. Open history.

Merion remains a par-70 layout. Even with the lengthening of some holes by the United States Golf Association, it is still commonly referred to as “Little Merion.” Tucked away in this suburban community of 12,455 on the Main Line, west out of Philadelphia, Merion Golf Club sits on fewer than 120 acres.

It is the smallest venue, geographically, of the clubs that have latently hosted the championship — about half the size the USGA prefers. In fact, in order to accommodate the giant commercial tents and parking requirements, the USGA has rented 20 acres from Haverford College, Merion’s next-door neighbor. A bridge had to be built over the Main Line railway for spectators to reach the grounds.

The competitors this week will, no doubt, back away from shots on the occasions when a train charging down the Main Line sounds its horn as it races by, transporting commuters in and out of Philadelphia.

That won’t be the only external noise the players are likely to contend with, either. A little more than 150 yards from the sixth green is St. George’s Episcopal Church, where the bells in the tower ring every 30 minutes. The rector of the church has been quoted as saying that nobody has asked the church to turn off the bells, but if any golfers want to come by, he will “bless their clubs.”

Merion, famous for its wicker basket flagsticks, is a gem of a layout that once was farmland. Hugh Wilson, a club member, was charged with designing the course at what was originally known as the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

In his creativity, Wilson was able to achieve a deceptive layout that has charmed golfers and designers alike. A Scottish immigrant, Wilson journeyed back to his homeland to gather ideas from courses he observed in Scotland and England before starting work on the course that became Merion.

But his genius at Merion never caused him to become noted like Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast and Alister Mackenzie. Other than Merion, Wilson designed two public courses in the Philadelphia area and a private club in Phoenixville, which is 19 miles from Ardmore.

Mike Davis, the USGA executive director, has called this year’s tournament the “boutique Open.” But that doesn’t mean the course will be a pushover for the world’s best players.

While Merion is only 6,996 yards in length, it has all the elements of the national championship, with tight fairways — down to 24 yards in some cases — and an unforgiving rough. Golf’s evolution when it comes to distance does not, in the opinion of many, render Merion inadequate, especially if the rain stays away. Placement of tee shots is more important than distance. Players will likely have the opportunity to use a driver on no more than seven holes — perhaps five with the longest hitters.

Lee Trevino, who won in a playoff over Jack Nicklaus in 1971, said there were 16 birdie holes on Merion’s east course, where the championship is played, but he also noted that “there are 18 bogey holes.” Those bogey holes would become neutralized if the weather were to create soft greens, which is why everybody — especially Davis — has their fingers crossed for warm sunshine and dry conditions.

The long-range forecast is for sunshine on the weekend. The desired weather, tight fairways and the rough — which USGA officials say will be tougher to escape from than in recent U.S. Opens — should make this year’s championship as competitive as anyone could want.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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