Merion set to enter the U.S. Open spotlight

Posted: June 14, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — The folks who have the task of putting on next year's U.S. Open at Ardmore's storied Merion Golf Club understand the challenge. And the curiosity level, from a world where 7,000-yard courses, no matter how revered, simply don't host those kind of things anymore. But it's coming nonetheless, back to a venue that hasn't dealt with that kind of stage for more than 3 decades.

On Tuesday, the reality finally hit Merion head professional Scott Nye, one of the contingent at the Olympic Club representing the next site.

"I had a chance to walk around this morning watching the players as they chipped balls from different areas off the green, trying to learn the slopes," he said. "And that's when the bell kind of went off for me like, ‘Hey, this is going to be at Merion 1 year from now.' The best players in the world are going to be trying to figure out how to navigate our East Course, trying to win a championship on a course that's had all the great players play it.

“That's really exciting to me, to all of us, to see what's going to happen. Because it hasn't happened in a long time, at that level."

Merion, with 18, has been the venue for more USGA events than anyone, the most recents being the 2005 U.S. Amateur and the 2009 Walker Cup. Yet it hasn't hosted the biggest golf championship on the planet since 1981, when it did so for the fourth time. It was supposed to get one in 1992, which was later pushed back to '94, but that never came about because of minority-membership issues that obviously are no longer an impediment. A lingering concern, though, had been the conventional wisdom that labeled the layout as outdated because of its relative shortness. And the fact that logistically there are inherent problems with handling a showcase of this magnitude when you have only 120-some acres to work with.

In 12 months, none of that will matter.

"The USGA calls it a ‘Boutique' Open," said Rick Ill, who just served as Merion's president and is now the general chairman of the club's U.S. Open Committee. "That doesn't bother us. We realize we don't have the space other [Open] courses have. The fact is, they feel they can come back to a traditional golf course. The USGA is really good at solving problems. And there's some that are still in the process of being solved. But it's going to be great, not just for Merion, but for the Philadelphia area especially. With some things, we're already ahead of the game [compared with] other Opens. We think we can do it."

So, about that media parking?…??

"We're going to put you at Citizens Bank Park," Ill said with a smile, "and give you bicycles."

There will be issues, some easier to address than others. And sometimes, regardless of how much planning is involved, it's always something. For instance, on Monday morning, Tiger Woods showed up at the practice range at 6:30. But nobody was there yet, because volunteers were instructed to arrive at 7.

Mostly, all you do is try not to let even the smallest details slip through any crevices. Knowing all the while that the whole universe is taking notes.

"I've been to the last five, and every one is different," said Bob Morley, who's in charge of on-course operations. "When you walk in and see everything, you do go, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.'?"

Much bigger than the last time. In 1981, they needed 550 volunteers. Next year, they will utilize almost 5,000. The checklist is endless.

"It's like knowing exactly what you have to do to set up for a party at your house," general manager Christine Pooler said.

Indeed, the landscape has evolved. Exponentially. Still, one factor remains timeless.

"The infrastructure will take care of itself," Nye said. "It's about the golf championship, on a course that's proven over and over, in comparable situations, that it's a masterpiece."

The ghosts are all over the grounds. It's Bobby Jones completing the Grand Slam there (at the U.S Amateur) in 1930, on the 11th hole. It's Ben Hogan winning there in 1950, in a playoff, a little more than a year after he nearly lost his life in an automobile accident. And the moment being captured forever in a photo of him hitting that infamous 1-iron into the green on the 72nd hole of regulation. It's Lee Trevino tossing a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus before their playoff in 1971, then tossing a 68 at him to win by three. And then saying, as only he could, "I fell in love with Merion, and I hardly knew her."

"We know where it stands in our eyes," Morey said. "We are a part of golf. But it's exciting that the world's going to see it [again], in this setting. The next generation, that's never played it."

There's a reason it's continually ranked among the top 10 in America.

Added Ill: "We don't think Merion needs any elevating, with all the history that's taken place there. But this will help perpetuate what it is. The visibility has been raised."

Nicklaus was in recently to see it, for the first time since '81. Two-time champion Ernie Els played it last year. Graeme McDowell, who won this 2 years ago at Pebble Beach, was in last week.

"He said to [superintendent] Matt [Shaffer], ‘You guys got your years messed up,'?" Ill related. ‘‘He felt we were ready for it now.”

Member Buddy Marucci, who captained the victorious U.S. Walker Cup squad, said 1996 champ Steve Jones, who doesn't compete much, told him he's going to try to qualify next year "just because" it's Merion.

"It's important that when the players walk off the 18th, whether they played well or not, they had a great experience," Marucci said. "It's a pretty cool place. Whether the winning score is 10-under or 10-over, I'd like to see somebody have to make three putts like Nicklaus had to make at 15, 16 and 17 just to get in [to the playoff], or something like that. I want them to go to the next event and be standing on the range and say, ‘Wasn't that a great Open? Amazing.' Because it's that kind of place. And now more people can see why."

Once the last putt drops here, that countdown will begin in earnest.

"Because it's unique, the interest out there right now is significant," Nye emphasized. "Everyone's asking question after question. It's like a mushroom effect going on. I see it every day. There's so much excitement already.

“I play in a really nice pro-am in Florida, with some serious players. Guys on the [PGA] Tour, top amateur golfers. And they all kept saying the same thing: ‘We can't wait. We can't wait.' We know how good it is?…?Think about the guys who played it in '81. Now they'll get to see what these guys can do, how much the game has changed since then. It's fabulous.

“And it's only going to add to the lore." n

Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.

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