Dear, sweet, little ol’ Merion (est. 1896) hosts the U.S. Open golf championship this week. It’s like playing the Super Bowl at Dickinson College.
Deemed obsolete when it last hosted the Open 32 years ago, Merion sits on 111 acres in Ardmore, Pa., a persimmon wood’s throw from downtown Philadelphia. For comparison, last year at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, the USGA had over 200 acres at its disposal for myriad hospitality tents and huge galleries.
"It was a challenge to even think about bringing the U.S. Open to Merion," Reg Jones, the USGA’s senior director of the championship, told Bill Pennington of the New York Times. "People said time had passed her by, but we thought it was worth it to try. It wasn’t going to be easy, and it was going to take some out-of-the-box thinking, but we wanted to see if it could be done."
Merion’s hemmed in by Haverford College (which assisted in making the Open possible by renting out 25 acres for parking space), roads, large homes, railroad tracks (beware the trains’ air horns blasting during backswings!) and homes.
Some neighborhood roads will be closed during the Open. Spectators will be shuttled onto the grounds. But where else could they dine on a veranda just 20 yards from the first tee?
St. George’s Episcopal Church rests about 150 yards from the sixth green, and woe be unto the golfer standing over a putt when the bells toll (every half hour). "Nobody has asked us to turn off the bells," The Rev. Ryan Whitley, St. George’s rector, told Pennington. "I have, though, told the USGA that if any of the golfers want to come by, I will bless their clubs."
That might not be such a bad idea.
At just under 7,000 yards, Merion’s the shortest Open venue since Southern Hills in 2001. But will the old course be able to withstand the onslaught of modern technology that threatens similar classic courses without being severely lengthened? Will thin fairways, severe rough, and tiny, hilly greens provide enough of a defense?
"The final five holes will challenge any level of golfer from any era," Mike Davis, USGA executive director, told Pennington. "The short holes are short, so, yes, there will be more birdies made — trust me — at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history. But the long holes are really long."
"Potentially, through 13 holes, if you drive it well you can have nine wedge opportunities to the greens," defending Open champion Webb Simpson told Pennington. "And the last five holes are going to be some of maybe the hardest that we have ever had in the U.S. Open. So you kind of have the best of both worlds."
"Everybody’s got a chance this week, because of the length," Paul Azinger told Robert Lusetich of Foxsports.com. "But you’re going to find out in the end who has the intestinal fortitude, the moxie, the spit and vinegar, whatever cliché you want to use."
Because it’s Merion. "The place is just magical," Davis told Lusetich. "In so many ways, it’s a historical and architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, you could easily say it’s a landmark."
Great courses produce great champions, and Merion is no exception. Here Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur to complete his Grand Slam in 1930. Of all the courses Jones won on, only Merion, Oakmont and Winged Foot remain in the Open rotation.
In 1971, Lee Trevino ended up in a playoff with Jack Nicklaus for the Open championship. On the first tee, Trevino extracted a rubber snake from his golf bag, tossing it at Nicklaus. Though Nicklaus birdied the first hole (Trevino bogeyed), Trevino won the playoff, 68 to 71.
Ten years later, David Graham played one of the most precise final rounds in Open history. He missed only one fairway (the first, by a foot, and he birdied) and missed only two greens (on the fringe both times.) His final round 67 left him at 7-under par for the tournament, three shots clear of the field.
Graham’s flawless performance evoked a congratulatory telegram from none other than Ben Hogan.
In 1950, just 16 months after a near-fatal car accident that doctors felt might leave him unable to walk, Hogan won the Open at Merion. His two-hour, pre-round ritual included a warm bath, leg massages with Ben-Gay, bandaging his legs from ankle to crotch and aspirin.
Despite the therapy, several times during the 36-hole final day his legs spasmed. "I thought for sure he was going to collapse," playing partner Cary Middlecoff told reporters at the time.
On the final hole, tied for the lead and 214 yards away, Hogan hit a one-iron onto the green, his follow-through captured by Life’s Hy Peskin in one of the most famous golf photos of all time. Hogan then two-putted for par. "I had given up on him being able to play in the playoff," Hogan’s wife, Valerie, told Dave Anderson many years later. "But I couldn’t tell him that."
Summoning incredible inner strength, Hogan hobbled through the playoff. When he rolled in a long birdie putt on 17, Valerie began to cry. "I knew then that Ben had won it."
Welcome back, Merion. History awaits.