Golf historians should be holding their breath.
Merion Golf Club’s East Course is such a treasure. It is such a revered landmark of the American game. It is home to so many epic memories. With the U.S. Open’s return to Merion next week after 32 years, all of that should make anyone who cherishes the game’s history as nervous as a curator of antiquities hosting a kindergarten class field trip.
What are today’s kids in golf, with their high-tech toys, going to do to Hugh Wilson’s wonderful old design?
Are they going to break records in bunches in a U.S. Open that will be remembered as the Massacre of Merion?
Are they going to embarrass the USGA with a birdie fest that goes down in history as Exhibit A in how the game’s runaway technology has made classic courses obsolete?
Or will Merion remind us that strategy and finesse can still trump power in modern architectural design?
Will Merion be a beacon that brings us back to the shot-making values of championship golf of old?
Next week Merion will deliver another chapter in the story of American golf, and the folks who really love the game’s history can’t wait to see it revealed.
“I call Merion the Shakespeare of golf,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said. “Shakespeare gave us our greatest stories, and I think Merion has given us our greatest golf stories.”
“There has been an argument that great golf courses have been made obsolete because of technology and golf balls and drivers and the ball going so far,” said Paul Azinger, who will help call the U.S. Open for ESPN’s coverage. “We are going to find out here in a few days whether that’s the case.
“Will Merion be able to defend itself against the power of this generation? I think this is intriguing, maybe the storyline going in, almost more than who is the favorite.”
Bringing the U.S. Open back to Merion was a bold, exciting move, but there’s risk in the USGA’s decision.
Merion’s East Course was opened 101 years ago. It’s a compact course built on just 111 acres in Ardmore, Pa., on the northwest edge of Philadelphia. At 6,996 yards, this par-70 layout will be the first U.S. Open measuring under 7,000 yards in nearly a decade.
Bobby Jones closed out his Grand Slam triumph at Merion in the 1930 U.S. Amateur. There’s a plaque on the 11th hole commemorating where he closed out the victory. Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion in a playoff just 16 months after a head-on collision with a bus nearly killed him. There’s a plaque in the 18th fairway commemorating where he hit the famed 1-iron that got him into the playoff. Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff there in the 1971 U.S. Open.
“This place is just magical,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “In so many ways, it’s a historical and architectural treasure. I think from a golf standpoint, you can easily say it’s a landmark. There are so many wonderful moments in time.”
Merion will be home to a record 18th USGA event, its fifth U.S. Open.
Olin Dutra won the first U.S. Open there in 1934, David Graham the last in 1981. Back when Graham won, it was believed that would be the final time the national championship was played at Merion. The venerable course seemed to have become too small to host a major, not just as a golf course, but as a venue meeting the USGA’s hospitality requirements.
That’s why the return to Merion came so unexpectedly when it was announced.
The USGA is restricting attendance to 25,000 per day on the small property, some 10,000 or so fewer than typically attend a U.S. Open. There’s less room for hospitality and merchandise. Those limitations limit revenues.
“I think it’s appropriate to give a tip of the cap to the USGA for selecting Merion in this day and age with the distance guys are hitting it,” NBC’s Roger Maltbie said. “There were a lot of reasons not to go to Merion, that it was a very small venue, and there was one [reason to play there], which is to honor its legacy as a great golf course, and an important golf course in the history of golf in the United States.
“They made a great call in my estimation, and I hope it pans out that way.”
Nobody’s certain how it will pan out with so much dependent on weather. The course has five par 4s under 400 yards. There’s a 115-yard par 3. While renovations created some long par 4s, players will still be hitting more wedges into greens than maybe any U.S. Open ever.
Ideally, the USGA wants the course firm and fast. Those conditions, Davis believes, could make it one of the most interesting U.S. Opens to watch.
Luke Donald saw the possibilities when he played his practice round there this last week.
“What Merion will really show is that length isn’t a prerequisite for difficulty,” Donald told his Twitter followers after playing it. “A great example for modern architects to study.”
How the game’s long bombers handle the course will tell the tale of Merion’s success. If the course is playing fast, with its ultra-narrow fairways measuring just 24 yards wide in spots, with thick, penal rough, long hitters will take big risks with drivers in hand.
“I think there are going to be a lot of young guys that potentially could get schooled here,” Maltbie said. “They're not used to seeing these old-style golf courses that we saw more of. They’re used to bombing away. This is more about finesse. This is about using your power, and you better use it effectively, and the rest of the time you better use your head and be precise, certainly with your wedge game, if you're going to take advantage of the place. It's a very unique golf course.”
If the course is wet and soft, Merion’s defenses will be down. And it was raining this past week, with more rain in the forecast early next week.
Even Davis concedes there could be a record number of birdies.
“When you really study Merion, you realize that this blend of short and long is going to be such a neat and exciting feature of this Open,” Davis said. “There are going to be more birdies made, trust me, at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history. Why? Because there are just some holes out here that lend themselves to it, which is wonderful. Then there are some holes that are very tough. I would contend that you've got this balance of some of the easiest holes for U.S. Opens that you'll see in the modern era, yet at the same time some tough holes.”
If the course is wet and soft, and it looks as if it will be with remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea pounding the Philadelphia area with more than 3 inches of rain Friday, Merion’s defense will be down. More rain is forecast next week.
“Who knows, a 63 could even be broken,” said NBC analyst Johnny Miller, the only player to shoot a 63 in the final round of a U.S. Open.
Davis isn’t focused on what the winning score will be so much as providing a championship test of precision. Miller just wants to see a great championship won by a great champion.
“Time will tell whether Merion's going to hold up well,” Miller said. “Some courses have a tendency to knock the top players off their game, and it's sort of boring, the guys going down the stretch on Sunday. So, I measure a great course by the kind of champions it produces. I hope that going down the stretch this year, maybe it is Graeme McDowell against Tiger Woods and Adam Scott or whatever, and it is a great duel, and we don't have a runaway guy that you wouldn't have picked if you had 10 picks.
“So time will tell. It’s just a great old-fashioned, historical course that's held a ton of USGA championships. I think it deserves a shot in the rotation. If it doesn't work out, well, maybe it will be the last time we see it.”
Hold your breath, historians.