Still, he was well-acquainted with Merion's aura. So maybe the real question should have been, "Why not?"
"First of all, I grew up in Pennsylvania," Davis said Wednesday at the Olympic Club on the eve of the 112th national championship, the fifth one held here since 1955 and first in 14 years. "So Oakmont [in suburban Pittsburgh] and Merion have always had a certain place in my heart. But it goes way beyond my personal side. For so many years, the USGA didn't think it would ever go back to Merion for an Open, at least for the foreseeable future. We were concerned it just wasn't [equipped] to put on a modern-day U.S. Open, because of logistics.
“Couple that with the fact that there wasn't really overwhelming confidence that the golf course would hold up to today's players. You put the two together?…?"
Yet somehow, a layout that always has ranked among the country's top 10 will be hosting its fifth Open, and first since 1981, 12 months from now. It also will be the 18th USGA championship ever conducted there, more than any other venue. So what changed the perception?
"I remember going to Merion, I can't remember the year, essentially to meet with the club's board to tell them why they weren't getting an Open," Davis said. "I was going to explain to them that we couldn't do it, because we couldn't figure out how to do it from an operational standpoint. That's a lot easier to do than tell a club their golf course doesn't work anymore, in terms of a test of golf.
“I ended up playing, and looking around. And during the round of golf, we chatted a bit. A couple of members actually threw some things out to me as possibilities that we'd looked at before, such as [using] Haverford College [for necessities such as parking]. We'd talked about it, but never thought we'd get it. Long story short, on that visit we finally said if we really thought outside the box, we could maybe pull off a few things. It's fair to say that nobody at the USGA probably pushed for this harder than me. I mean, it's almost a museum, when you think of what's happened there.
“I just felt we had to go back, whether it ends up being a one-and-done, or once every 20 to 25 years. We felt the golf world should see Merion [again]. They deserved it."
It certainly will be a different Open. Merion will play at a little less than 7,000 yards, almost unheard of anymore. It has five par 4s that measure less than 400. But it also has some par 4s that play more like par 5s. Speaking of which, there are only two. And none after the opening four holes. Did we mention that there's a par 3 in the 130 range?
So what? It's Merion.
There's no need to convince Jack Nicklaus, who lost to Lee Trevino there in 1971 in an 18-hole playoff.
"It's got some birdie holes on it, which Merion always has had," he said. "But it's got some really, really strong par 4s, which will balance that out. I don't think you're going to find Merion being a piece of cake?…
“I think it's great [that they're returning]. I always loved Merion. They always worried that it won't be long enough for an Open. I promise you it'll be plenty long enough and plenty difficult. Merion will do just fine."
When the Open was last contested there 36 years ago, David Graham's winning score was 8-under-par 272. Yet only three others managed to break par. So who knows?
"I worry if there's 4 days of rain, if Congressional [where Rory McIlroy went 16-under in wet conditions last year] repeats itself," Davis said. "They say a 6,900-yard course can't defend itself. I'd contend that if you give us 2 of the 4 days with it playing firm and fast, it'll provide a marvelous test, even for the world's best. I think that's what Merion can show, that you don't always have to be at 7,600 all the time. I'm excited about that.
“I'm also excited that the players are going to have a lot of options. Standing on some of the tees, they can hit driver or 3-iron or something in between. Options don't always mean it's easier. In some cases, it can put doubt in the mind. And the closing stretch, starting with 14, I'd put up against certainly any U.S. Open. Even if it's soft, it's still hard to play those holes in even par. It's the middle part of the course [that can be vulnerable]. If you give guys a shot off the fairway with a wedge, they're going to make a lot of birdies."
Fair enough. And the one thing even the USGA can't control is Mother Nature. But Davis says that when the U.S. Amateur came there in 2005, Merion played harder than any recent course except Oakmont. And that was in August, following a hot summer, when the rough really wasn't as penal.
"Right there that convinced me," Davis said. "I don't expect much wind at that time of year. I think you could see a 20-stroke difference in the winning score, depending on [the weather]. I really believe that. If it rains, it could be 16-under. If it's firm and fast, maybe even par. What people just don't understand is that tour players hit it so consistent with such distance control, it really becomes interesting when they have to think about what happens when the ball lands."
There obviously will be issues, just because. But the general public won't realize or care about most of them, such as where people park or where corporate hospitality is located or where they put the players or media. It is what it is. So the West Course, about a mile down Ardmore Avenue, will serve as the practice range and (tented temporary) locker room.
It won't change what happens inside the ropes.
"We're really reducing the size of the Open," explained Davis, who's referred to Merion as a "boutique" Open. "There'll be a lot less tickets sold [about 25,000 max]. A lot of things that are normally on site will be off site. But I think it'll work?…
“I think the players are going to love it. They haven't seen it. It's going to be such a pleasant change for them. I think they come to a U.S. Open expecting it to be a really hard test. If it isn't, they're disappointed. I think Merion will be more of a fun test. Maybe, like what happened at Oakmont when they took out all those trees, it can start a trend.
“And Philadelphia has such a great heritage. In terms of quality, even if you take Merion and Pine Valley away, it's got a lot of quality. The area is dying for big-time golf. You saw that with Aronimink [the PGA Tour's AT&T National in 2010 and '11]. Merion has had such a profound effect on American golf. It's one of those places that's made a difference. This will expose it to a whole new audience. I can't tell you how many people I ran into ask me about Merion. It's intriguing. I think it's going to be special."
About time. n
Contact Mike Kern at firstname.lastname@example.org