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The Battle of Merion

By: Jay Flemma


The forces of good that battle for the preservation and promotion of golf’s greatest classic, strategic courses won a great victory last week. Merion Golf Club – once thought lost to the mists of time forever as too short for major competitions – will host the 2013 U.S. Open.

The return of Merion to the informal U.S. Open rota is a victory on three levels – first for the great golf history already written at the club (including Bobby Jones finishing the Grand Slam there in 1930); second, for all short-course members and supporters who believe a great shot-shaper’s and thinker’s course can stand up to the world’s greatest; and third, for the promotion of great golf course architecture.

Built in 1912 by Hugh Wilson, no other golf club has hosted more USGA Championships than Merion. If Augusta is golf’s Yankee stadium, then Merion is Fenway Park.

Bill Iredale, Merion’s Championship Committee Chairman, said, “The 2013 Open will be the 18th national championship in the club’s history.” Merion has hosted four U.S. Opens with Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino among the winners, but has not hosted a major since 1981 when David Graham won after shooting a 7-under 273.

“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. “It’s a pleasure to have such a course of charm and integrity.”

Indeed, some believe the success of the 2005 U.S. Amateur, won by Italian Edoardo Molinari, who was 7-under after 15 holes, cemented the decision. “From the standpoint of length and difficulty, Merion certainly answered the question in the affirmative during the 2005 U.S. Amateur,” said Jim Hyler, chairman of the USGA championship committee."

Molinari brightened when told of the news. “It was such a joy to play because it’s not just driver-5-iron. You have to hit a lot of different shot shapes and there is a nice mix of short and long holes. I hope to go back. I have a lot of great memories. And we had a few great parties.”

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Joe Logan agreed the choice was monumental news. “It is a nod to a hallowed place. The USGA is doing a good job of being all things to all people. They have given a nod to public players with Bethpage, Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines. There is a nod to great classic courses with Shinnecock and Winged Foot and Merion.”

The most serious competition came from The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., site of a phenomenal Ryder Cup in 1999. But that club seemed to base its hopes on people being sentimental that 2013 would be the 100th anniversary of the victory by Francis Ouimet.

Come on people, it’s Francis Ouimet, not Francis of Assisi. Taking the argument ad absurdum we should honor Orville Moody’s centennial anniversary by going to Champions in Houston in 2069 and Steve Jones’ 100th anniversary at Oakland Hills in 2096. Rigid adherence to a scheduled golf calendar of anniversaries would lead to a chaotic checkerboard of venue selection and will always disappoint somebody.

The impact on the future of technology and equipment is equally staggering. Does this mean we will have a tournament ball by 2013? A 10-percent ball solves a lot of problems regarding older, shorter courses. While the USGA downplays any link between choosing Merion and the reduced distance ball, six manufactures have submitted balls to the USGA for testing and balls are also being given to players to check for performance.

Finally, Alistair Mackenzie once wrote, “We must fight for the soul of golf course architecture as though British hegemony were at stake.” Not only is Merion historic, but the course is one of the strongest architecturally – all the more amazing because it was Hugh Wilson’s first effort.

Even if we admit Merion is short and “easier” than Oakmont, Oakland Hills, Winged Foot, etc., Merion still requires superlative planning and execution. She tests all shot shapes. Besides, if Merion is where Tiger ties or breaks Jack’s major record – a not-so-remote possibility – will it really matter if minus-14 wins? Either way, it is likely that the winner will approach the aggregate scoring record. David Graham missed the then-record of 272 by one stroke in 1981, a fact that may have contributed to Merion’s long absence.

Merion has always been short, is short and will continue to be short. But that is irrelevant. You don’t need length to defend par. The 10th at Riviera says more in its scant 310 yards than most par-4s say on 460. On average, it still plays over par at the Nissan Open.

Once more, players will come from all points of the compass to walk Merion’s hallowed halls. She will no longer worry about joining the tombstones of major venues past. And once again, the ghosts of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan won’t sleep tonight; no peaceful slumber.

They’ll be out playing in the moonlight – celebrating. They may even invite Hugh Wilson.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.blogspot.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 has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf – or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf 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.

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