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An early look at U.S. Open site Merion

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ARDMORE, Pa. – The calendar says late April, but the temperature gauge in the rental car reads 42 degrees, which is either an ode to the great Jackie Robinson or another example of winter’s lingering reluctance to give way.

Yet for those tasked with transforming Merion Golf Club’s hallowed East Course from a winter wonderland to a championship test, the cold morning breeze was only a temporary delay.

“It will be thicker,” Merion head professional Scott Nye smiled after depositing a golf ball in the gnarled rough right of the 14th fairway. “It will be much thicker.”

Nye’s promise is neither immodest nor mean-spirited, just a fact.

It’s been more than three decades since the national championship was played at the old cricket club, and many believe that 30-something years of technological advancements have relegated the once-mighty East Course to relic status.

Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam at Merion when he won the 1930 U.S. Amateur, and Ben Hogan sealed his comeback following a near-fatal car accident when he won the 1950 U.S. Open on the East Course.

Plaque honoring Ben Hogan 

But as we walked down Merion’s iconic 18th fairway on Monday, Nye paused near a plaque commemorating Hogan’s famous 1-iron approach shot in 1950 to force a playoff. “That’s 213 yards (to the flag),” Nye said. For many Tour types in this century that’s little more than a 5-iron.

June’s Open will be played on the same historic turf that Jones and Hogan traversed, but in many ways it is not the same game. It’s why many believed the game had outgrown Merion. Even Mike Davis, the USGA’s thoughtful executive director who will be charged with setting up the East Course for this year’s championship, had his doubts.

“I think they’ve always been worried about the length of the course,” said Merion superintendent Matt Shaffer.

Ben Hogan

It's why Merion officials began adding new tee boxes before hosting the 2005 U.S. Amateur and didn’t stop until late 2011. When the golf world descends on the East Course the week of June 13-16 they will find a course that will play to a par of 70 and just under 7,000 yards, which is nearly 500 yards longer than it was when Merion last hosted the national championship in 1981.

Only one tee on the course, the “terrace tee” at the first, has not been extended, and one of the final pieces of the extension was added in the fall of 2011 – a 300-square-foot spit of teeing ground that was carved out of a hill and has stretched the 18th hole to 527 yards.

The return to Merion, which is hemmed in on all sides by housing and Haverford College, presents plenty of challenges for the USGA. Players will park and practice on the adjacent West Course, cross Ardmore Avenue (which will be closed during the championship) as they head to the second tee, and on Thursday and Friday half the field will begin their rounds on the 11th hole out of logistical convenience, but after touring the layout on Monday it doesn’t seem likely anyone will complain that the layout is too short.

Consider that the par-3 ninth hole will play to an estimated 236 yards, and closer to 255 yards when the pin is placed in the back left portion of the green, while the penultimate hole will range from 220 to 230 yards.

“A par here would be a phenomenal score,” Nye said.

He says that a lot, actually. Particularly when talking about the East’s “back five,” Nos. 14-18 that constitute the inward loop around the old quarry.

The 14th, which will utilize a makeshift teeing area that is actually a part of the members' putting green, is a monstrous par 4 at 473 yards; while the 15th is shorter (411 yards) with a collection of ominous-looking bunkers down the right and out of bounds waiting 1 yard off the fairway on the left.

Nye calls the 16th hole “the best chance for birdie on the back five,” despite a blind approach shot and a devilish false front to the green (for the record, many of the East’s putting surfaces have a similar feature which gives the entire layout a False Front National feel to it).

While the scorecard may leave some golf fans wondering where the rest of the course is, the subtle architecture and green speeds that are expected to reach between 12 and 13 on the stimpmeter have all been tinkered into a modern test.

Even the USGA’s normal setup philosophies have been adjusted for Merion. The intermediate cut, or graduated rough, has been a hallmark of Davis since he began setting up courses for the national championship in 2006 at Winged Foot, but at Merion those varying degrees of success will be limited.

“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 recently said. “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.”

But then, players likely won’t see much fairway, either. According to Shaffer, his crew has removed some eight acres of fairway in the buildup to this year’s Open. After the Open, he said the club will likely put that manicured turf back.

It was all part of a plan to make something old, something classic, stand up to the realities of a new game. Whether those efforts will be successful remains to be seen, but on a cold April morning it certainly felt like the mission had been accomplished.