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The 2013 U.S. Open - Merion is no Longer a Maid

By: Jay Flemma


[Cybergolf's Jay Flemma and Marino Parascenzo are in Ardmore, Pa., for this week's U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. Here's Jay's first installment.]

As the first prismatic ruby shafts of sunrise illuminate the dryad loveliness of Merion Golf Club's fabled East Course, we see clear proof that time has stood still here for 100 years, a shining golf summer forever undimmed by a winter's chill. It was in 1913 when Hugh Wilson and friends first began designing and building Merion and, for a century since then, the golf world has rejoiced the glory of her name.

Indeed, the next week will be filled with countless romantic notions and reminisces about fair Merion, and rightfully so. The East Course has incomparable history: 17 previous USGA championships, including Bobby Jones completing golf's only true Grand Slam in the 1930 U.S. Amateur. It's seen unparalleled drama, such as 1950, when Ben Hogan dragged himself through sheer force of will to his second of four U.S. Open titles (five if you count the 1942 Hale America Open like Dan Jenkins does).

And it has ineffable beauty. A quintessential example of an eminently natural Golden Age golf course, with its enchanting groves, glades and grottos, Merion now materializes out of the hazy mists of golf history like a reverie, bewitching and beguiling us with the promise of a glorious 2013 U.S. Open to match its illustrious past. We're all going to fall in love with Merion all over again.

But don't make the mistake of calling Merion a "maid," because she's much, much tougher than that. A maid? No. An Empress Dowager? Far more likely.

Merion disappeared from the informal U.S. Open rotation of courses for the length of a bible because it was thought to be too "short" to challenge the pros and contain the advances in equipment. But all the hype about "short equaling easy, so we'll see record low scores" is woefully shortsighted. Just because Merion lacks the Wagnerian tumult of Oakmont or Winged Foot's ancient strongholds of golf doesn't mean it will be a pushover like, say, Congressional or Baltusrol, traditionally the two easiest Open venues.

"At Merion the long par-4s are really hard, and the short par-4s are really tricky," explained golf architecture and travel expert Ron Whitten, and he's right. Merion is a lot Olympic Club last year - the doglegs are at awkward places, so length doesn't necessarily help you on as many short holes as it would seem. Driver can and will go through the fairway, and the rough at Merion is brutal, not just long, but juicy. (Typical of many Northeast-classic country clubs, Merion still uses an old strain of bent from the 1980s for its rough, so it tends to grab the club and hold it.) Additionally, the hazards are penal, and the greens are curvaceous. There are plenty of penalties out there: water, out-of-bounds and murderous bunkers.

Merion didn't get to host 18 USGA championships by being short or easy. It is treacherous to those who take her lightly, and a U.S. Open will chew you up and spit you out if you play too loosely. So if you believe all that lowest-common denominator nonsense that Merion - under proper Open weather conditions, fast and firm - will be record-shatteringly easy, then as Johnny Stumpanato said to Ed Exley (when Exley called Lana Turner a hooker), "You are making a LARGE mistake . . ."

Drama, Comedy, Tragedy

Merion can be divided into three parts: Nos. 1-6, 7-13 and 14-18, and they are known by the members as "drama, comedy, tragedy."

"The first six holes, most golfers want to stay around even-par. You can't get to aggressive because they are hard," explains Merion member and USGA Golf Architecture and Archives committee chair Tom Paul. "The next seven are very short - some of the guys will try to drive seven, eight, and 10, plus (USGA executive director) Mike Davis likes to move tees forward trying to tempt guys to drive the green - so, yes, there will be some birdie opportunities there. But then the closing five holes it's hold on for dear life."

Merion is only short on the scorecard - 6,996 yards, but it plays much longer. Yes, there are four particularly short par-4s and a 115-yard par-3, but there are also many more brutishly long holes. The remaining three par-3s are all 246 yards or longer. Holes 4-6 - a par-5 and two par-4s - play a gargantuan 628, 504, and 487 yards, respectively. And 18 - where the drive must carry 275 yards to clear a quarry - clocks in at a whopping 521 yards.

"When I first heard that I said, 'Jesus! Really?" confided Paul.

Also factor in that the East Course will play to a par-70, not 72. To properly calculate what yardage a par-70 golf course truly plays like (if it were a par-72), architect Tom Doak says you must add 350-375 more to the total yardage. I choose a round 400, but either way, Merion's 6,996 yards will feel more like 7,400. Suddenly it's not so short any more.

"Merion is all about placement," Ben Hogan once said. "Course management is absolutely essential."

To demonstrate the intelligence and discipline a golfer must employ to score well at Merion consider how Hogan tackled the eighth, a short par-4 and one of the holes where many might be tempted to haul out driver. But the farther you drive down the fairway the more the terrain rolls or rises, giving the golfer a side-hill lie. Moreover, the fairway bends slightly in an awkward place, so that long tee shots that don't draw will run into the long rough. So in a practice round, Hogan played conservatively off the tee, and his drive ended up well back of other golfers but on a flat spot, where he had an even lie and the preferred angle to the flag.

How accurate was Hogan? He told his caddie, "Carefully replace the divot, I plan to be here every round."

That's how to win at Merion: accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Remember Hogan's famous 1-iron that hit golf's "Shot Heard Round the World" at 18 in the final round in 1950? It had a dime-sized wear mark in the sole of the club from Hogan hitting it on the exact center of the sweet spot every time. Remember David Graham in 1981? He hit every green in regulation and missed only one fairway. Bobby Jones wasn't a long hitter. Neither was Olin Dutra in 1934 or Trevino in 1971. But Trevino was one of the smartest and most creative golfers of not just his era, but any. The long-bombers don't win U.S. Opens at Merion - the smartest golfers do.

"There are 16 birdie holes out there and 18 bogey holes," said 1971 U.S. Open winner Lee Trevino prior to the tournament. "I'll eat all the cactus in El Paso if anyone breaks 280." He and Jack tied at 280, setting the stage for their epic Monday playoff, which Trevino won, 68 to 71.

This tournament will be just like the majors played at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. Players will have to club down off the tee. Take 15 and 16, for example, which have slithery fairways that curve at odd distances; anything longer than a hybrids or irons off the tee will run into trouble. The best you can say about Merion is that there are a couple more birdie opportunities than at other venues, but it's not Congressional or Baltusrol.

"What Merion will really show is that length isn't a prerequisite for difficulty. It's a great example for modern architects to study," explained Luke Donald. "Besides, long courses take pleasure and shot-making out of play at all levels and are killing the game."

"Merion has always taught us that brute length does not necessarily make for great golf" said venerable golf writer Marino Parascenzo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Cybergolf, echoing Donald's comments. "It's a pleasure to have such a course of charm and integrity hosting the Open."

Yes, five inches of rain in the last two days have waterlogged the golf course . . . for the moment. And, yes, rains like that will leave any golf course defenseless . . . for a day. But the best superintendents, agronomists and other turf and turfgrass experts are squeezing out every drop they can from the course at this very minute. Contrary to what Ernie Els thinks, as long as the rain finally stops Merion will acquit herself just fine.

"Yesterday it was beautiful. It was just starting to dry out, the greens were getting a little bit firmer, and the surfaces are just unbelievable," began Els. "But after the rain this morning, it's going to be very sloppy now. You're not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year, I'm sorry. I don't care if they get helicopters flying over the fairways, it's not going to dry up. We're going to have a soft golf course this week, all week."

But that's not the case. Winged Foot also got a record drenching from the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea last weekend, and it dried out in exactly one day. Yes, the day after the soaking, two-man teams shot a 63, 64 and some other mid-60s rounds, but that was over a dramatically shortened, totally soaked golf course. The next day, however, the scoring average jumped a full seven strokes, and the course was back to normal, with balls running all over creation.

Despite Els's dramatic pronouncements, he does not know weather, agronomy, soils, grasses or drainage anywhere near as well as he knows putters, irons and a can of Foster's. As Els himself once snarled at a journalist who asked him how he was doing to tackle Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship, "Don't ask me about golf courses! Ask me about winning the British Open!"

Or the Masters? Or the PGA Championship? Or the Dunhill Masters? Stick to the clubs and beers, Ernie. The USGA has the groundskeeping covered.

"There's still going to be a premium on hitting fairways and hitting greens. But especially around the greens I think when it's softer it makes things a little bit easier," said Donald. "Will it change my opportunities? I don't really think so. I think there's only a couple of holes I probably only hit five drivers out there this week. Looking at the course, 5, 6 and 18 holes are where I'd like to get a little bit of roll after my tee shots, because they're very long and I'm going to have long shots in. I'm going to lose that roll. Other than those three holes, I don't think the clubs off tees is going to change for me, and the way I approach it won't change too much, either."

"I don't think we have an exact feel for it yet, what we're going to have to do and what we're going to have to shoot. The conditions keep changing," mumbled a bored-looking Tiger Woods Tuesday morning. "We haven't dealt with teeing it up in a tournament yet with it raining and drying out for a couple of days . . . That's going to be interesting. Especially the longer holes."

Merion is not long in certain places, but even then it throws everything at you and the kitchen sink besides. It also has one of the hardest closing stretched in all major championship golf, along with Winged Foot West and Carnoustie. Unless the washing machine in the sky continues, no one is breaking the U.S. Open aggregate scoring record. Remember when Graham shot his famous closing 67 to win the 1981 U.S. Open? The course was softened up that week as well by torrential rains. Graham's aggregate was 273, 7-under par. Expect this week's winning score to be right on that figure, perhaps one or two strokes higher, and expect the precision golfer to win it, such as Adam Scott, Zach Johnson, Graeme McdDowell, or yes, defending champion Webb Simpson, to win.

And so as the sun finally sets beyond the verdant hills of idyllic Ardmore and night falls with the suddenness of the shuttering of a lantern, we find the whole golf world eager as gun dogs the night before a hunt. Rain won't dampen our spirits nor dilute the achievement of the eventual winner. Merion means history, and all times are one here. With the right kind of eyes you can see that golf here hasn't changed for 100 years, though everything else around it has. But that's the true magic of Merion, and no clouds, raindrops or thunder can make us see its beauty any less clearly.

News, Notes & Quotes

Hogan's Hero Vol. 1

When he won in 1950, to satisfy the 14-club rule, Hogan took out his 7-iron saying, "There are no 7-irons at Merion." He put in the most famous 1-iron in golf in the bag instead.

Hogan's Hero Vol. 2

1950 was the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open, and all eyes were on Hogan since he went from national champion (he won the '48 Open at Riviera, which needs to get back into the Open rotation by the way), to near-death, so everyone was there to see how he would hold up.

"Sam Snead was the favorite along with Jimmy Demeret and Lloyd Mangrum," recollects Skee Reigel the 1948 U.S. Amateur champion, "but Ben was the one we were all watching. He was like some figure from another planet."

Hogan's Hero Vol. 3

Hogan had to play 36 holes on the final day of scheduled competition . . . and then another 18 in the playoff the following day for a whopping 90 holes in four days. His prep routine took two hours - warm bath, stringent leg rubs, elastic bandage from thigh to ankle and one aspirin with OJ or ginger ale. When he got to the course he just putted as a warm-up.

One week after winning the three-way playoff, he flew to Hollywood to start filming the story of his life: "Follow the Sun." The only movies made so far about Tiger Woods have dirty titles. I'm just sayin' . . .

Who Really Designed Merion

One of the more fierce fights in golf occurred just a few years ago when experts started debating how much credit should go to whom for participating in the design and building of Merion, but then devolved into roiling fury over each others parentage, physiognomies and ethics. Cybergolf's own Tony Dear has written the best analysis of who designed Merion and who else played what part - it was Hugh Wilson and friends.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.