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Defining a Tough Test in Golf

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- A tough test of golf should not be measured by numbers, a winning score, nor the club in a player's hand.
There will be plenty of talk this week about how Corey Pavin hit a 4-wood into the 18th green at Shinnecock Hills to set up a simple par for a winning score of even-par 280 in the 1995 U.S. Open.
Retief Goosen played Shinnecock Hills for the first time Monday, and while he hit his tee shot into the rough on 450-yard 18th hole, he said it should be no more than a 7-iron into the green.
What gets lost in the hysteria over how technology has ruined golf is that Pavin is among the shortest hitters in golf, ranking 159th in driving distance on the PGA Tour that year. He probably hit a lot of 4-wood shots into par 4s.
USGA executive director David Fay tells an interesting story about another long shot on the final hole of a major - Ben Hogan at Merion and his famous 1-iron that allowed him to make par, get into a playoff and win the 1950 U.S. Open for his first major since nearly being killed in a car accident.
There is great history at Merion, the 92-year-old golf club outside Philadelphia that has hosted more USGA championships than any other golf course.
Along with Hogan's dramatic victory, Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam at Merion by winning the 1930 U.S. Amateur. Lee Trevino pulled a rubber snake from his bag to spook Jack Nicklaus, then beat him in a playoff at the '71 U.S. Open.
But these days, Merion is known in some quarters as a great course rendered obsolete by equipment. Some say if Hogan had that shot today into the 18th, he would only need a wedge.
'What people fail to remember is that in 1950, the last day of the U.S. Open was two rounds,' Fay said. 'It's true that Ben Hogan hit 1-iron into the 72nd hole. But earlier in the day, when he was finishing up his third round, he hit a 6-iron into that green.'
Hogan no doubt was fatigued on the 36th hole of the day, and couldn't get his drive down the hill.
What would players hit today if Merion held a U.S. Open?
Brad Faxon is not by any means a long hitter (neither was Hogan). He played Merion a few years ago from a new back tee that now measures 463 yards and had 5-iron into the green.
Could Merion still host a U.S. Open?
'Yes,' Faxon said before the question could be completed. 'Absolutely. If it's not in the top five courses, it's in the top 10. It's obsolete if you think you have to hit driver on every hole. There are hard holes and there are some holes that seem easy, but you have to think like crazy.'
When Merion was picked to host the 2005 U.S. Amateur, some figured it was a consolation prize for a classic course that would never again host a U.S. Open.
Instead, the USGA is using that as a litmus test to determine whether the U.S. Open can return to Merion in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the golf course.
'It has never been a course where driver was used on a lot of holes,' Fay said. 'There's a big stretch in the middle of the course with short, sexy par 4s. Then the finish is colossal. But the issue has never been that Merion is too short. Some look at the yardage and say the game has passed it by.
'In a twisted way, the technological advances in the game have altered the way one plays Merion less than other courses.'
Since the last U.S. Open was held there in 1981, the club added length - most significantly to Nos. 5 and 18 - to stretch it out to just under 7,000 yards.
Former USGA president Buzz Taylor asked Nick Price to play Merion early in the week of the '97 U.S. Open. Price told him it was one of the greatest golf courses in the United States.
'He said, 'What do you think would win?' I told him, 'Under par,'' Price said. 'To get even par to win on that golf course, you have to trick it up too much. I think 5 or 6 under would win. To me, that's not a big deal. You can't take a course out of the rotation because even par doesn't win, especially a great course like Merion.'
But that's what it might come down to.
If players make two days of qualifying for the '05 Amateur look like any year at the Bob Hope Classic, chances of Merion ever seeing another U.S. Open are slim.
'We've made no decision on Merion,' Fay said. 'Certainly, it's reasonable to expect that seeing how the Amateur plays out will be an important factor.'
But Price isn't sure scores should ever be a factor.
'They want it to be the toughest test,' he said. 'Shooting under par doesn't mean it's not a great test. It's like the TPC (The Players Championship). I always said if 8 under par wins, the course is a perfect test. If the score is lower, it was too easy. If the score is higher, it was too tricked up.'
The bigger issue for Merion is whether it has room for a spectacle like the U.S. Open. It is a much bigger show than it was in 1981 - more interest, more corporate and hospitality tents, more media.
Fay said Merion could probably only hold 20,000 people at best - less than half of the number at Bethpage Black - which means less revenue.
That's a fair argument.
But look at Merion for what it is - a classic course, a classic test, no matter what club a player has in his hand or what score he writes on his card.
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