Merion Golf changes ways to prepare for 2013 U.S. Open

Planned changes to hole No. 6, the Quarry Hole, include moving the fairway and raising the rough 41/2 inches.
Planned changes to hole No. 6, the Quarry Hole, include moving the fairway and raising the rough 41/2 inches. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: August 20, 2012

First in a series on the U.S. Open coming to Merion in 2013.

 In the dim twilight of June 20, 1981, Merion Golf Club, much like its signature wicker-basket flagsticks, appeared to be a curiosity from another golfing era.

As David Graham pocketed his $55,000 winner's check during the Sunday evening ceremony that concluded the 1981 U.S. Open - the fourth Merion had hosted since 1934 - golf insiders already were composing the fabled East course's obituary as a venue for major golf tournaments.

"There were people who thought it might be one of the last Opens at a course like that," recalled Graham, 69 now, and retired in Whitefish, Mont.

But somehow, all these decades later, the 135-acre course near Ardmore has pulled off a comeback to rival the one Ben Hogan managed there in winning the 1950 Open.

After a decade and a half of feeling sorry for itself, Merion tossed its hat back into the Open ring in the mid-1990s. In 2005, after agreeing to tweak its historic layout and creatively solve its logistical problems, the U.S. Golf Association awarded Merion its fifth U.S. Open. America's premier golf event will take place there June 13-16, 2013.

"It's hard to have an Open here now because of the logistics," said Rick Ill, who heads Merion's Open effort. "There's some things we'd rather not have done, but overall it's been a pretty good give-and-take."

Merion gave in to USGA suggestions about lengthening some holes, adding traps, and narrowing fairways. And Merion officials took time to find some creative ways to overcome such non-golfing problems as where to put the enormous corporate and merchandise tents that are 21st-century Open staples.

Uncommonly short

Back in 1981, Merion's shortcomings seemed insurmountable. Even in those waning days of the wooden driver, Merion, at just over 6,400 yards, was uncommonly short. And after 452 rounds of Open golf that week and the assault of crowds bloated by thousands of counterfeit tickets, its rough had been trampled, its fairways and greens scarred, its ego battered.

No player had bettered par in Merion's first three Opens. Graham had won its fourth with a score of 273, 7 under. And in Sunday's final round, when Open pressure generally turned the leaders' limbs to jelly, the laconic Australian hit all 18 greens in regulation, as if Merion were some pitch-and-putt course.

The clubhouse, a converted 157-year-old farmhouse, was cramped and antiquated. Its grounds provided little room for practice facilities, and none for parking, corporate tents, or the big galleries that generate profits for the USGA and the host club.

As far back as 1950, when Hogan had capped his comeback from a near-fatal auto accident by winning there, pros had been insisting length mattered. Before the start of the '81 event, Johnny Miller had warned someone might shoot a 59 on mini-Merion.

And whenever rains softened its small and slick greens, as had happened twice that Open week, "the old girl is defenseless," said Lee Trevino, who had outfoxed Jack Nicklaus in a playoff to win the '71 Open there.

For those willing to look ahead - and among the club's stuffy Main Line membership, that was not a large number - the future held out little hope for Merion.

Just seven weeks earlier, at the 1981 Houston Open, a revolution had dawned. There, journeyman Ron Streck had become the first player to win a PGA event using a metal wood. Though few then paid attention, by the end of the '80s metal woods and a new generation of juiced-up golf balls would forever alter the game's mathematics, hastening the obsolescence of America's first generation of courses.

There was little Merion could do to combat time and technology. So by the time Graham raised the shapely silver championship trophy above his head that evening, a sizable portion of Merion's membership had yielded to the disturbing reality: The course was through as a host for major professional tournaments.

Or so they thought.

Everything else matters

Merion's 2013 Open, USGA officials insist, will be a "boutique event," much more controlled and compact than the kind of sprawling spectacle that took place at Congressional Country Club in 2011.

That suburban Washington course has a 140,000-square-foot clubhouse and sits on 400 acres that easily handled the 230,000 spectators who watched Rory McIlroy take apart the 7,574-yard layout.

Merion, by comparison, sits on a confined 135 acres, has a 35,000-square foot clubhouse and must limit Open attendance to 100,000 - 25,000 fans per day.

Even though the course has been altered and stretched to a distance of 6,900 yards, it will be a whopping 850 yards shorter than Washington's Chambers Bay, the 2015 U.S. Open site.

Wherever possible, tees were pushed back, traps added or expanded, fairways narrowed. Similarly configured at the 2005 U.S. Amateur, Merion fared well in its first prolonged exposure to 21st-century golfers who routinely drive the ball 300-plus yards. It wasn't until after Saturday night rains softened them that the tournament's winner, Francisco Molinari, was able to tame its greens.

"A lot of the young Turks tried to overpower the course, and that doesn't work," said Ill. "I think the thought has always been that with the length of the course, the only way it would be really beat up and they could go real low was if it rained the night before. When Molinari had such a great round the last day . . . he could throw darts because it had rained hard on Saturday night."

Though it tends to be the focus of most conversation about Merion's Open readiness, length has never been its primary liability. As Trevino once said, while Merion might have 16 birdie holes, "it also has 18 bogey holes."

It was everything else that a modern Open entails that was the real hurdle to the Open's return. Once the decision was made in the mid-'90s to try for another, Merion got creative.

The football field-sized corporate tents that are now golf tourney staples will occupy the front yards of the stone mansions that line adjacent Golf Club Road. Others will be erected on Haverford College's soccer fields or on an adjoining property that 200 Merion members purchased. Bridges will be built to span nearby SEPTA rail tracks. Streets will be closed. Fans will park as far away as Chester and King of Prussia.

And Merion West, the sister course just a mile up Ardmore Avenue, will be the site of the practice facility, the media center, and the headquarters for players and their families. Golfers will be shuttled back and forth to the East course, via a route that will utilize the driveway of a home just off the 10th tee.

"[The home] is owned by one of our members," Ill said.

The driving force in reigniting Merion's interest in the Open was its long-standing relationship with the USGA. The same members who were eager to see their course host its record 19th national event weren't at all interested in a PGA tournament.

"Before Aronimink accepted the AT&T [Championship, filling in for Congressional in 2010-2011], they called us," said Ill. "We talked about it at the board level, but we didn't even consider taking a PGA Tour event. We wouldn't want that."

Tweaks and changes

After the '81 Open, the club went through much soul-searching. Its image of itself as a mainstay in the USGA's rotation faded.

"We'd always felt like we could pick up the phone, call the USGA, and get an Open," Ill recalled. "But as we went forward from '81 that wasn't the case."

Slowly that began to change. And in the mid-'90s Merion officials contacted USGA headquarters in Short Hills, N.J., and officially notified them that they wanted to get back in the game.

"The USGA likes to say that they don't come to a place where they're not invited," Ill said. "They knew we were interested in having another Open if the logistical problems could be solved."

In the interim, as if they were Open auditions, Merion was awarded two other USGA events, the 2005 Amateur and 2009 Walker Cup. The same summer as the Amateur, Merion got word that the USGA, where then-executive director David Fay had been hoping to return the event to an older, more traditional course, would bring the 2013 Open there.

"Once we got it," Ill said, "it was a little like the dog-and-fire-truck thing. 'OK, now that we've caught it, what do we do with it?' "

Fay's successor as executive director, Mike Davis, has made several trips to Merion, walking the course with Ill and others and suggesting both tweaks and significant changes. Some were agreed to and others, for reasons mostly financial, rejected.

On his first tour, Davis asked if they would consider moving the second green about 70 yards, back to an old Ardmore property that members recently had purchased, razing the house that stood there.

" 'Mike,' " Ill said he asked Davis, " 'would you consider paying for that and paying for the fact that we'd move it back after the Open?' He said, 'We really don't want to do that.' And I said, 'I don't really want to pay for it.' So the green is staying where it is."

Members were concerned early on when they learned the USGA was considering replacing the old club's iconic wicker baskets with traditional flags. But Davis soon agreed such a switch made no sense since tradition was why the Open was returning to Merion.

Considering the Open in a piece with the Amateur and Walker Cup, the club, Ill said, should, depending on the sale of merchandise and tents, break even or turn a modest profit. The USGA, however, figures to take a financial hit since ticket sales have been limited to 100,000 over the four days, less than half of Congressional's total.

Most of the major course changes already have been made.

A bunker was added in front of the second green and along the fairways at the famed 16th, the Quarry Hole. The fairways have been narrowed to between 22 and 24 yards. The par-3 third hole's length will fluctuate between 220 and 265 yards. Four par 4s will measure close to or beyond 500 yards.

While the members might complain about some of the difficulties caused by the course upgrades, the few touring pros who have seen them, like 2010 Open winner Graham McDowell last month, were impressed.

"McDowell played here, and he was ecstatic about it," said Ill. "He asked [director of golf operations] Matt Schaffer, 'Do you have the year wrong? You could have the Open right here today.' "

Last hurrah?

Hosting a 21st-century Open is a massive undertaking. And to facilitate the solution of the massive logistical problems, the USGA's Hank Thompson has been stationed at Merion.

Thompson, Ill, and others continue to work with Pennsylvania, Delaware County, and Haverford Township officials on police, traffic, safety, and crowd issues. Unlike the '81 event, when the unexpectedly large galleries often overflowed the tiny course's walkways, as many as 17,000 grandstand seats will be in place next June.

In the meantime, an army of 5,000 volunteers - 10 times the total needed in '81 - is being prepared.

Still, despite all those efforts and all the course changes, the key to Merion's getting the Open might have been the homeowners along Golf Club Road. At this juncture, all but one have agreed to lease their yards for the enormous tents, without which the event couldn't take place.

"Some are members, some aren't," Ill said. "We didn't do those negotiations. There was a neighbor up there who got them all together before the USGA went to them and made its offer as to what they'd give them for the week, depending on size of the lawn. Some of the lawns are going to have three or four tents."

Despite all the enthusiasm the return to Merion has generated, no one is certain if this will be a last hurrah. Assuming the pace of logistical and technological changes continues, the old course - still ranked among the world's best - might eventually run out of options.

"I'm a traditionalist," said Graham. "But Merion's Open might well be one of the last at a course from that generation. If that's so, it won't be the fault of the golf course."


See more photos of

modern-day Merion,

by Michael Bryant,

at philly.com/merioncourse


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

 

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