How the U.S. Open came back to Merion

Mike Davis : Merion "is one of the great golf courses." USGA
Mike Davis : Merion "is one of the great golf courses." USGA
Posted: March 18, 2013

Mike Davis loved everything about the East course at Merion Golf Club - the history, the tradition, the architecture, the mystique. As a golf enthusiast and a native Pennsylvanian, he always wanted to see another U.S. Open contested in Ardmore.

However, as an official of the U.S. Golf Association, he knew it wasn't likely to happen. Shortly after becoming U.S. Open championship director in 1997, he had to tell Merion officials that with the increased infrastructure needed for the Open and the logistical challenges at the storied but tiny 120-acre club, the USGA couldn't bring the competition there.

"We never said the course was too short or that it wouldn't hold up the way the modern game is played," Davis said in a recent interview. "Our message was, 'You just don't have enough land to put on a modern-day Open.' "

But officials at Merion, a facility that had hosted 18 USGA championships and competitions, more than any club in the country, didn't give up easily. Encouraged by what Davis called "out of the box" thinking on both sides during one meeting at the club, the impossible was becoming possible.

Thanks to exhaustive work by the USGA and club officials and members, questions were answered, and problems were resolved. Thus, golf's national championship will return in three months for the fifth time to Merion, site of some of the Open's more iconic competitions - Ben Hogan winning in 1950 after almost losing his life in an automobile accident the previous year and Lee Trevino defeating Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff in 1971.

"It is one of the great golf courses and one of the great historical venues for great things that have happened in golf," said Davis, a native of Chambersburg, Pa., and now the USGA's executive director. "Yet for so many people, they've never seen Merion before. They've heard about it, but it's kind of something that's been lost in history.

"So that's what's going to be so exciting. To see it on TV, to have the history play out, to see the wicker baskets, to know that you can have a golf course under 7,000 yards that can host a U.S. Open, I know it's going to be great. It's limited tickets. It's limited, kind of, everything. But it's just going to be neat for the game."

Tickets will be limited to 25,000 per day for three practice rounds and the four days of the championship. The limits also include revenues, which could be as much as $10 million lower versus a larger U.S. Open site, according to a source familiar with the situation.

However, Davis still couldn't be happier with being there.

"We will be making millions of dollars less from a U.S. Open," he said. "But selecting an Open venue based on maximizing revenues has never been a top priority for the USGA. It ultimately is about selecting the most special and exciting venue."

Creativity, ingenuity

Merion's path to the U.S. Open was cemented after the conclusion of the 2005 U.S. Amateur where a lengthened and toughened course - still, at 6,846 yards, well short by Open standards - resulted in just four subpar scores from the field of 312 contestants during qualifying.

However, it was the creativity and ingenuity of Merion members before then that turned the USGA's thinking around.

The key meeting happened in 2002 after Davis accepted an invitation to address Merion's board of directors on why an Open couldn't work. He began the day playing a round of golf with Buddy Marucci, a club member and two-time U.S. Walker Cup captain whose 2009 team won at Merion, and Marucci began a dialogue on what the club could do.

"We figured if we could get some smart people in a room, and maybe it couldn't get done, but try to explore all the alternatives that could make it possible," Marucci said. "Our job was to try to convince Mike to at least give us a look and to get some people to deal with the local municipality, to deal with [nearby] Haverford College, to deal with things like transportation.

"[We said] 'Let's put a checklist out and figure out what the obstacles are. Maybe there are some we can't get over, but let's not just take that at word.'

"Mike is a very perceptive guy. We said to him, 'Look, give us an opportunity to examine the possibility of being able to do this. Don't just shut us out because people think it can't be done.'

"I can remember saying, 'If we can deal with the logistical issues, do you have a problem coming to Merion?' And I believe his response was, 'I would love to come to Merion, but our staff is going to have to tell me that we can pull it off.' "

Davis, who said he "started to, literally, do a 180" during the meeting, met the next day at USGA headquarters with then-executive director David Fay and Mike Butz, the association's senior managing director for Open championships. Butz was familiar with Merion, having worked with the club during the 1981 U.S. Open and the 1989 U.S. Amateur.

"I said to them, 'You're not going to believe this, but I actually think if we're willing to host a really small U.S. Open in terms of attendance and accept millions of dollars less in revenue, we can still host a U.S. Open at Merion,' " Davis said.

"Now, only a year or two prior to that Mike Butz and I had given a report to our board of directors, few of whom really wanted to see a U.S. Open at Merion, and we basically said, 'There is no way we can host a U.S. Open at Merion.' So as the three of us are talking, David and Mike are looking at me like, 'Have you completely lost your marbles?' "

Worked hard

Fay, another Merion fan, sent USGA operations people to Merion to explore how an Open outside the ropes would work. Club members fanned out into the community. Haverford College committed land for parking and corporate hospitality. Homeowners to the left of the 14th and 15th fairways offered to rent out their land for corporate tents. It was agreed that players' hospitality, locker rooms and practice range would be located at Merion's West course, more than a mile to the south down Ardmore Avenue.

"The membership worked hard to pull this off, drawing upon every resource to create something that would work," Marucci said. "Neighbors were convinced that this was something that would be good, and everyone agreed from the governor on down. We built some momentum and were able to get the kind of support that was necessary."

One last test applied to the course itself, the 2005 U.S. Amateur, with a field that included several current PGA Tour players, including reigning U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson. Given a stroke average of 78.158 during qualifying, the course proved it could stand up to the long hitters, the livelier golf ball, and the modern equipment.

Even though Edoardo Molinari carded seven birdies over the final 15 holes of the championship match over a rain-softened course to capture the trophy, everyone agreed with Davis that Merion was an excellent test.

"Once we got through the U.S. Amateur, we basically said, 'OK, we do now have a venue that absolutely could host a U.S. Open,' " Davis said. "We had done all our work in terms of saying, 'If we did it, here's what we would need. Here's how we would lay a U.S. Open out operationally. Here are the properties off-site that we would need. Here's financially how a U.S. Open would work.' "

Merion received word in February 2006 it had been awarded the 2013 Open. The formal public announcement came three months later. Now work continues to get everything ready for the buildup to the start of the championship on June 13.

"This place," Davis said, "just from a historical standpoint and the great moments of golf, you can't find a better place."

Contact Joe Juliano at Follow on Twitter @joejulesinq.

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