John Huggan: Merion offers thinking man’s US Open

The U.S. Open Championship Trophy at the Merion Golf Club. Picture: Getty
The U.S. Open Championship Trophy at the Merion Golf Club. Picture: Getty
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JUST the other day, the United States Golf Association announced a record entry of 9,860 brave and talented souls for this year’s US Open. Which came as no surprise, as this will be, in so many ways, a special event.

For the first time since 1981, what our colonial cousins like to call the “national championship” is returning to the storied Merion club on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Not only one of the best and most architecturally stimulating courses in America, Merion is also one of the most historic. It was there in 1930 – on the 11th green to be exact – that Bobby Jones completed his never-to-be repeated Grand Slam.

For all that, perhaps the most interesting and significant aspect of this 113th US Open is that the venue will measure a “mere” 6,996-yards, an overall length some 500-or so yards removed from what has lately become the norm in major championships. Two years ago, for example, Congressional was set up at 7,574-yards and, 12 months later, the Olympic Club in San Francisco featured a par-5 of 670-yards.

“Merion has always been very short,” admits USGA executive director Mike Davis. “But it is also a wonderful blend of short and long. For this US Open, if we get dry weather, I am confident it will be a strong test. Whenever you have to think about what happens after the ball lands, good scoring is trickier. Links golf is the greatest of all tests because of that aspect.

“Having said that, Merion will have more possible birdie holes than any other previous Open. But, at Merion Opens, that has always been the case.

“On many holes, the players will be using lofted irons for their approach shots. But what is different now is the clubs the players will likely hit from the tees. Where [eventual champion] David Graham was hitting 3-wood in 1981, this year they will probably be hitting 3-irons to the same spots. So the second shots will be the same and just as difficult.

“If we go back to when Olin Dutra won at Merion in 1934, he was 13 over par. In 1950 Ben Hogan was seven over. Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus tied on even par in 1971. And Graham was seven over. So, even if the course plays ten shots easier than before, it won’t be embarrassed. I hope that the rest of the USGA feels this way. My wish is that, while we want the US Open to be a stern test, more than anything we are focused on celebrating the characteristics that make the course so great.”

Davis, as ever, makes a good case. And it is to his enormous credit that the USGA is willing to risk taking what is annually billed as the “toughest” of the four majors to a course so vulnerable to the now almost mindless distances leading professionals hit the modern ball. But there will inevitably be a price to pay. In something of a step back in time, many of Merion’s shorter holes will have to be presented in what used to be the traditional US Open way. In other words, the fairways will be narrow and the rough will be long and thick.

“There will be rough, a lot of it in places,” concedes Davis. “But I don’t apologise for that. Look at next year when we go to Pinehurst. There will be no rough there. None. At Chambers Bay in 2015, we will have that wispy fescue rough that is common at the British Open. At Oakmont a year after that we will see really fast greens and deep bunkers. Then, at Erin Hills in ’17, we will see a much wider course, with a lot of wind and no trees. So I’m looking at the US Open as a five-year project where we will see a bit of everything.

“What I do want to get away from is what was for long enough the ‘cookie-cutter’ US Open, where all the fairways were narrowed and the rough was grown long everywhere. That certainly makes life difficult for the players, but what it does not do is showcase the great architecture at whatever venue we are at.

“So yes, on Merion’s shorter holes we will have to grow the rough. But that is how Merion has always been. It was that way, say, six years ago. And it will be that way six years from now. The club just wants things to be that way. I’m not saying I like thick rough – I never have – but it is part of Merion’s personality.”

Still, for all that the grass will be long, Merion’s short par-4s and par-5s will surely provide the most intriguing aspect of this year’s championship. While, as Davis alluded, the lay-up areas will be no different from past years, it’s a safe bet many more players than ever before will succumb to temptation and whip out the driver in an attempt to find the green in less than regulation. As such, many more numbers will come into play. Birdies will be plentiful, but so, one imagines, will double bogeys.

“It will be intriguing to see how the players play the potential birdie holes,” agrees Davis. “Some of that will be down to how we present those holes, of course. Take the par-5 second, which is reachable in two for every player in the field. If you look at old photographs, the fairway used to be much closer to Ardmore Boulevard, which runs up the right side. It had crept in over the years, so we have moved it back to the right. The club wasn’t too keen on that and moved it back a bit. So I moved it to the right again.

“My point though, is that I hope the players will stand on that tee and debate whether or not to hit driver. The reality is they may be able to get there with two 3-woods, but I want them to hit driver. There will be some penal rough on the left. But I don’t want to put them off too much, to the point where they lay-up off the tee and play the hole as a ‘three-shotter.’ I don’t mind if some do that, but I don’t want everyone to do it.”

All in all then, we are in for something of a rare treat come June 13-16. The players will be asked to think – a much-neglected concept week-to-week on tour these days – and there will be more imagination and creativity than we normally see at what was for decades the most tedious and strategically bereft event in golf.

“If Merion ends up working out – say 12 under par wins and we have a really exciting event – it will be a wonderful statement,” sums up Davis. “Which is not to say I am opposed to a US Open that is hard as hell. It’s nice to see some ebb and flow. But this year we do have the potential for someone to shoot the first 62 in major championship history. Absolutely.”

Which sounds like a lot of fun. In a US Open. Who would have thunk it?