Ardmore, Pa. – Seven years ago, Mike Davis sat in a USGA Championship Committee meeting when the final vote took place for the 2013 U.S. Open site. Davis, then the senior director of Rules and Competitions, was thrilled when Merion Golf Club was approved.
“For me, that was one of the best days I’ve had in my 23 years at the USGA,” said Davis, who became the Association’s executive director in 2011.
Few thought that Merion would ever be awarded another U.S. Open. After David Graham of Australia captured the 1981 Open there, the common assumption was that the championship had simply become too big for the club to handle.
Merion, which has hosted more USGA championships (17) than any course, was thought to be too short for today’s power game. Merion’s East Course also presented several logistical challenges; more specifically it didn’t offer enough room among its 111 acres for spectators, corporate tents and other outside-the-ropes features that have become the norm at U.S. Opens over the past 20 years.
But Merion and the USGA came up with a creative plan to bring the National Open back to the Philadelphia area for the first time in 32 years. And Davis couldn’t be more pleased with its return.
“This place is just magical,” said Davis at media day on April 29. “In so many ways, it’s historical. It’s an architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, I think you could easily say it’s a landmark.”
Merion, at 6,996 yards, is still considered short for today’s elite players. In fact, the 2013 U.S. Open will be the first contested at fewer than 7,000 yards in nearly a decade. In 2004, Shinnecock Hills also played 6,996 yards.
Yet Merion’s remarkable blend of short and long holes, challenging green complexes, deep bunkers and challenging rough should, as Davis said, provide the kind of stern test the USGA wants for its most visible national championship. When the U.S. Amateur was conducted at Merion in 2005, the lowest score in qualifying was a 1-under 69.
“So many people think, ‘Wow, it’s under 7,000 yards,’” said Davis. “When you really study Merion, you realize this blend of short and long [holes] is going to be such a neat and exciting feature of this Open. There’s going to be more birdies made – trust me – at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history. Why? Because there’s just some holes out here that lend themselves to it, which is wonderful.”
Merion has some of the shortest par-4s among post-World War II era Open venues. Five of the 12 par-4s will measure under 400 yards, and another three will play between 403 and 430, which is short for today’s best golfers.
On the other hand, Merion also features four par-4s longer than 460 yards and three of the four par-3 holes can play more than 235 yards; the lone exception being the 115-yard 13th hole. And the course concludes with the 521-yard, par-4 18th, a hole Davis called the “toughest finishing hole in all of the U.S. Opens.”
No. 18 certainly has witnessed plenty of USGA history, with Ben Hogan’s famous 1-iron approach shot in the final round of the 1950 Open being the most famous, thanks to Hy Peskin’s iconic photo. It’s also where Gary Cowan and Lee Trevino wrapped up playoff victories at the 1966 U.S. Amateur and 1971 U.S. Open, respectively, and the spot where Leigh Anne Hardin finished off her 1998 U.S. Girls’ Junior victory.
A 14-year-old Bob Jones made his U.S. Amateur debut in 1916 at Merion, and 14 years later he punctuated his amateur career by winning the U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam.
Many of Merion’s shorter holes, such as Nos. 1, 7, 8, 10 and 13, will play as they did during Jones’ era. A few of the longer holes have been lengthened, with some 400 yards added to the layout since the 1981 U.S. Open. New teeing grounds have been constructed at the par-5 fourth (628 yards), par-3 ninth (236 yards) and par-4 18th. The USGA will also employ part of the sixth tee to extend the third hole to as long as 256 yards and will again utilize part of the practice green to extend the par-4 14th hole to 464 yards.
Other minor alterations have been made to enhance the challenge, including a shift of the 11th fairway more to the player’s left and adding a bunker in the drive zone on the right side of the 15th fairway.
The keyword for Merion will be precision, both off the tee and for approach shots.
Fairway widths are less than most U.S. Open venues – averaging about 25 yards – while the rough and “white faces,” as members call the bunkers, will be penal.
“You need to keep the ball in the fairway,” said Davis. “Whether it was five years ago or five years from now, there’s just a history to Merion with rough.
“[They also have] very deep bunkers. As good as [PGA] Tour-level players are in bunkers, there are some bunkers here so deep that when you get down [in them], you can’t even see the flagstick or the wicker as they call it here. I would say half of these bunkers you really want to avoid. They are hazards.”
In keeping with recent tradition under Davis’ leadership, the USGA will again employ graduated rough, meaning the farther offline a shot goes, the stiffer the penalty. Davis said the rough will be higher on the shorter holes – i.e., Nos. 1, 7, 8 and 10 – than the longer ones.
Plans call for the greens to roll between 13 and 13½ on the Stimpmeter.
Last year, 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell paid a visit to Merion and told superintendent Matt Shaffer after his round, “I think you guys got the year wrong. The course is ready now.”
Then again, all the preparations could go perfectly, and Mother Nature might still dictate the outcome.
While the USGA isn’t concerned about what the winning total is, Davis said the difference between having a firm and fast course for four competition days versus one that gets soft from rain could produce an “18-to-20-shot difference” in the winning score.
“We can’t control that,” Davis said of the weather. “We’re fixated on trying to get the golf course to play properly.
“The whole mindset is we want it to be the most complete test in golf. We want it to be difficult, exciting and [have] swings in scoring, but we [also] want to showcase the architecture… While [Merion] might not play exactly the way it did in 1930 or 1950, in a lot of ways, it’s going to mimic the way past Opens have been played here.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.