Nos. 7 and 8: A pair of holes virtually unchanged at Merion

Fans sit in the backyard of a house near the eighth hole at Merion. Little has changed over the years to the seventh and eighth holes. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Fans sit in the backyard of a house near the eighth hole at Merion. Little has changed over the years to the seventh and eighth holes. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 17, 2013

Like the homes that border their fairways, the seventh and eighth holes at Merion Golf Club have a middle-class feel about them.

OK, maybe more like upper middle class.

But there's something about the short par 4s, which have remained virtually untouched since Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan played them, that make them feel slightly apart from the rest of the famed course.

There are shorter and easier par 4s at Merion, but Nos. 7 and 8 have held up well this week at the U.S. Open, a testament to their subtleties and the shot-making required from professionals who have become used to gripping it and ripping it.

Except for how plush they are and how difficult they're set up, Nos. 7 and 8 are like holes you might see at a municipal like Cobb's Creek - another Hugh Wilson design - or even Walnut Lane. They're certainly similar to the holes Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones played when they won their majors at Merion.

The United States Golf Association, in setting up the course, wanted to retain the flavor of many of the short holes at Merion, even if the players were hitting middle irons into the fairways.

"In some ways . . . even though the players' ball flights are different today and the clubs they're using are different today, the challenges they face are going to be very similar to what Hogan, Jones, [Jack] Nicklaus, [Lee] Trevino faced in yesteryear," USGA executive president Mike Davis said.

In 1950, when Hogan won the Open at Merion, 7 and 8 measured at 360 and 367 yards, respectively. Thirty years prior, the holes were set up to play at 350 and 355 yards when Jones completed the Grand Slam and claimed the U.S. Amateur.

This week, they measure 360 and 359 yards, respectively. There have been minor tweaks, but the holes are generally as Wilson and his superintendent, William Flynn, intended. The only significant change is that the fairways are shaped differently. Once relatively straight, they bend more to give the golfers something to think about on the tee.

"You're hitting 5-irons off some tees, and it's a tough tee shot for a par 4," Rory McIlroy said. "It tests every aspect of your game. You've got to drive it well. Where these pins are, you've got to hit great iron shots, you've got to be very tactical."

So while they are set up to be birdie holes, Nos. 7 and 8 can be tricky. The players aim for very specific spots in the fairways so that they can hit full wedges into the greens and have the best angle into the pins. But as a Merion member once said, "Scores invariably exceed expectations."

The seventh hole ranked as the 12th most difficult hole through two rounds, while the eighth was an easier 15th. There have been plenty of birdies - and even two eagles at No. 8 - but there have been quite a few over par. At No. 7, there were 61 bogeys, eight doubles, and two triples. And there were 61 bogeys, three doubles, and one triple at No. 8.

The seventh is a little gem. The tee shot is semi-blind, and the box is angled toward the right side of the fairway - and conveniently overhanging trees and the out-of-bounds area. The green is large and perched atop a knob. It has three tiers and traps that guard the front left and two that cradle the right.

There's also a severe drop off to the left of the green that the USGA had mowed down to fairway length.

Marc Leishman, who briefly led at the Masters in April, carded a triple-bogey at No. 7 in the first round. The Australian wound up missing the cut.

The tee at No. 8 kisses the green at the seventh hole and is only two paces away. Players hit to an S-shaped fairway with bunkers guarding each side and out of bounds again to the right. The approach is a downhill shot to a small green protected by three front bunkers.

There is deep rough from tee to green. On Friday, Tiger Woods hit an iron off the tee into the deep stuff. His second shot jumped out and skidded again into the rough near a green that slopes from back left to front right. Woods eventually took a bogey on the hole.

What has given the holes a peculiar feel this week are the homes that run just on the other side of the fence that acts as the out-of-bounds border. Many of the owners have turned their backyards into private viewing parties for friends and family.

Unlike the old stone colonials that border 14 and 15 on Golfhouse Road that the USGA rented for tents and other facilities, the houses on Golfview Road are modest by comparison. They're on the Havertown side of Merion.

It is unlikely there are many members who live in those homes, although there are surely more than a few fathers and sons who have hopped the fences and played those holes.

And like Hogan and Jones and many of the golfers from this week's U.S. Open, they, too, can reach those greens in two and maybe even card a birdie or two.

Just don't tell the members.

Contact Jeff McLane at Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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