Although it was largely overlooked, Tiger Woods alluded to an interesting change of direction by the U.S. Golf Association at his season-opening news conference last month in Abu Dhabi.
“I have never been to Merion,” Woods said of this year’s U.S. Open venue. “From what I hear, I don't think they are going to have the intermediate cut. I think they are just going to have rough and fairway, that's it.”
The intermediate cut, or graduated rough, has been a hallmark of USGA executive director Mike Davis since he began setting up courses for the national championship in 2006 at Winged Foot and the philosophy has been almost universally applauded by players and pundits.
So why change for Merion?
“Merion is not a golf course that jumps out for the graduated rough like others because of the premium of short holes,” USGA Championship Committee chair Tom O’Toole told GolfChannel.com. “With short holes you have to play from the fairway and if you are not, there has to be a punishment. You’re not going to see the graduated rough on the short holes.”
Merion last hosted the U.S. Open in 1981 and played to 6,544 yards and a par of (36-34) 70. In 2009, the venerable East Course hosted the Walker Cup and had been “stretched” to 6,846 yards. O’Toole said for this year’s Open, the fifth played at the club, he expects the course “to play just under 7,000 yards.”
As a result O’Toole said he and Davis will likely have graduated rough at Nos. 5, 14 and 15, while shorter holes like the eighth, 10th and 11th will feature no transition from fairway to primary rough.
“We still think it can test these players,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole also addressed the dramatic makeover of Pinehurst No. 2 in the run up to next year’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, which will be played on the Donald Ross-designed gem in consecutive weeks.
For example, No. 2’s fourth and fifth holes played as a par 5 and par 4, respectively, at Pinehurst’s last U.S. Open in 2005. O’Toole said he and Davis will likely be “flipping” the par on those holes for next year’s championships.
“We will move the tee up on four with a more receptive green and build a new tee on No. 5, probably close to the property where the Golf Hall of Fame was,” O’Toole said.
Many of the changes at Pinehurst have been predicated on the redesign work of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, who began renovating No. 2 in 2010.
Crenshaw told GolfChannel.com that the tinkering will give the USGA a wide variance in tee boxes at the par-4 third and 13th holes and a new tee at the par-3 17th that is nearly a club further back from where it had previously played.
For Crenshaw it was all part of maintaining No. 2’s ability to test the game’s best players while keeping with Ross’ original design concepts.
“You have to go back in the architect’s mind and figure out what he was thinking. That was (Ross’) pet,” Crenshaw said. “It’s fascinating to study because it does test the best golfers in the world but it is also pleasurable for people to play. That’s a tough deal these days.”