No guarantee Open will return to Merion

With limits on the crowds at Merion Golf Club, the USGA missed out on millions in revenue.
With limits on the crowds at Merion Golf Club, the USGA missed out on millions in revenue. (   DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 18, 2013

As the U.S. Open trophy sparkled in the fading Sunday sunlight and the smiling champion attached to it, Justin Rose, posed for the cameras, you had to wonder whether such a scene would ever be repeated at Merion Golf Club.

It's not that the old course didn't give the golf world everything it wanted during Open week. Rose's victorious total of 1-over-par 281 proved that. The mystery of Merion's greens went unsolved. The rough yielded little. And its myriad hazards had nearly as many visitors as the merchandise tent.

Throughout American golf's premier event, broadcasters, journalists and many of the players heaped praise on Merion as not only a historic Open venue but a more-than-worthy one.

For an aging course whose potency had been questioned for decades, it was a welcome shot of energy.

But now that the cleaning, the disassembling, the restoration has begun there, now that the Open euphoria has abated, an uncomfortable question remains. It is, ironically, the same question asked 32 years ago when another U.S. Open concluded there:

Will short, compact Merion ever host another one?

"As great as this week was, I think the U.S. Open has kind of moved past one of these venues," said Brandt Snedeker who, perhaps not coincidentally, finished at 10-over-par 290.

"It's been great to be a part of," he added. "I love the history here, man. It's awesome. But there's so much more that goes into the U.S. Open than just the golf, from an infrastructure standpoint, from the fan standpoint, from the whole global marketing standpoint . . . I think this tournament needs more space to put on a championship in the right way."

The U.S. Golf Association, feeling vindicated both by the modest winning score and the overwhelmingly positive response to its "boutique Open," will, of course, be tactfully noncommittal until it can crunch the numbers.

In that sense, golf is no different than widget manufacturing. Money talks. History walks.

But remember that the USGA conceded before coming to Merion, with its 25,000-a-day crowd restriction and its smaller corporate and concession footprint, that it would earn as much as $10 million less than the typical Open, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Since it is that revenue that supports everything the august USGA does, don't be fooled into thinking Merion's difficulty as a golf course guaranteed it another Open.

There were plenty of logistical headaches around Merion's edges: parking and traffic problems; moving even a limited crowd through such a claustrophobic layout; and, maybe most significantly for its fate as future venue, having to set up the practice range and players facilities at Merion West, 1½ miles down the road.

"Obviously that's not ideal," said Adam Scott about what caused many of his colleagues to feel less than at home on the range. "They have to weigh up whether that's a big enough factor for them to have it here or not."

Like most Open courses, Merion, for all the drama, double-bogeys, and praise it elicited, managed to make a lot of enemies. Some players complained about the out-of-bounds that was in-range on 15. Others hated the punishing rough, or the slick greens, or the crazy pin positions.

"It's going to be a tearful, tearful sight," said golfer and Golf Channel analyst Arron Oberholser of the 2013 Open's conclusion. "There are going to be tears of joy - not only for winning, but that it's finally over. This has been a brutal test and these guys can't wait to get on a plane to get home."

Yet there were plenty of others who felt this nostalgic return to the site of so much golfing history was worth any price.

"I think the golf course is a great golf course," said Padraig Harrington. "I enjoyed the course. I enjoyed the test and I'd put up with a little bit of inconvenience to play such a great course."

"I'd like to see [the Open] come back in the next 10 years," said Billy Horschel, whose five-over total left him tied for fourth. "I love this course. It beats playing a 7,600-yard course where you're hitting driver every time."

Scott, this year's Masters champion, agreed.

"They should play the course on its merit," he said, "and I think they did that this week. You just have to deal with the other things. It's the U.S. Open."

In the end, as was the case with this Open, Merion's rich history could again be its salvation.

After all, in 2030 the sport will mark the 100th anniversary of Bobby Jones' Grand Slam, a still-unmatched feat that was completed here on Merion's pretty little 11th hole.

What better, more appropriate place to host such a momentous celebration?

Just as long as it's a small party.

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at ffitzpatrick@phillynewscom. Staff writers Mike Still and Zach Helfand contributed to this article.

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