Host of reasons for U.S. Open to return to Merion

Posted: July 02, 2014

WHEN THE FIRST U.S. Open at Merion in 32 years ended last June with Justin Rose holding a trophy that many were probably hoping would have been Phil Mickelson's, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that the venue had done enough to earn itself a fifth Open at some point. And the most logical return date appeared to be 2030, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Bobby Jones completing his unprecedented Grand Slam there at the U.S. Amateur.

Turns out it might not take nearly that long.

The national championship is booked through 2021. Word is the folks at Pinehurst No. 2, which just hosted its third Open in 15 years, already are talking about getting another one as early as 2022. Because an Open there makes big-time revenue. And the Open is the only championship conducted by the USGA that generates any profit. The logistics and infrastructure are maybe as good as any venue the USGA uses.

The same obviously can't be said about Merion. Which is one of the reasons it took so much time to get back in the rotation. It's no secret that the 2013 Open didn't make much money. The USGA knew that going in, which is why it was flanked by Opens at places such as Congressional (2011) near Washington, the Olympic Club (2012) in San Francisco and now Pinehurst. Their profit margins could offset what Merion wasn't able to produce financially, no minor consideration. And next year's site, Chambers Bay in suburban Seattle, also figures to do well, because it's the first time a major has gone to the Pacific Northwest since the 1998 PGA at Sahalee, also near Seattle.

So the USGA can afford to do a Merion. And the organization treasures history. Few courses have meant more to the sport than those 125 or so acres in Ardmore. So there's always that. Sources at Merion have confirmed that the USGA was very pleased with the way things went that week, which is saying a lot, since the weather didn't cooperate. But the 7,000-yard layout, which many thought might no longer be viable in today's game, more than held up, despite the fact that the tournament was played in softer conditions than the USGA would have liked. So that shouldn't be a concern, or a deterrent, moving forward.

Merion wants another Open. And the USGA wants to go back. It's mostly a matter of when. Sure, there are issues. The lockers and practice range were on the the West course, about a mile down the road. Not ideal. But hardly a deal-breaker. They couldn't have pulled it off without the help of Haverford College, which was used for hospitality and parking. People familiar with the situation from both sides have indicated that the USGA thinks it can make more money the next time, which never hurts.

Still, the biggest factor working in Merion's favor is simply that it's Merion, and deserves to serve as the grandest stage every so often. A whole new generation found out as much 12 months ago. If a handful of guys had gone Martin Kaymer, it might have ended the conversation forever. That wasn't the case. Not even close. The course is worthy. So you find ways to make it work. If it had all the other stuff that makes Pinehurst so attractive, it might be the host every 5 years. Instead, it will have to settle for something more like another dozen or thereabouts.

I've always thought Merion would be perfect for a Women's Open. But that's not what Merion prefers. And it's the club's prerogative. Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, said not long ago that there will be something at Merion in 2030. But it almost certainly will be another U.S. Amateur, which the club last held in 2005. That was more like an audition, which is no longer necessary. So instead of an Amateur in 2024 and an Open 6 years later, the timetable could be reversed.

In 1924, Jones won the first of his four Amateur titles at Merion, where he'd competed in his first Amateur 8 years earlier. So that's another anniversary, if the USGA is so inclined. Perhaps 2025 or even '26 is more whatever. There will be competition, by that point from places such as Congressional, maybe Southern Hills (Tulsa, Okla.), Olympic or even Cherry Hills (near Denver), which hasn't hosted since 1978 but where Arnold Palmer won one of the most memorable Opens in 1960. Oakmont, the 2016 venue, figures to be looking for a date by then, as well. So you never know. But something in the middle of the next decade sounds like a reasonable guess.

In the meantime, Merion can always hold a different event, maybe with an eye toward the women. It has hosted four Women's Amateurs (the last in 1949), a Curtis Cup (1954) and the Girls' Junior (1998).

Again, it's about continuing a special relationship with the USGA that extends back to the start of the last century.

But an Open is what sets a club apart. And Merion has shown that it belongs on that level again. It just comes down to the proper timing, which shouldn't be as long as originally projected.


Email: kernm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @mikekerndn

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