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The Merion Experiment

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 second installment.]

Merion East's Iconic 16th Hole

It's going to be a tough week for everyone at the U.S. Open: players, officials, fans, broadcasters, writers and locals alike. The choice of Merion -one of the most important golf courses in the world architecturally and historically - is proving uncommonly difficult logistically.

Merion is tiny, and the U.S. Open is enormous.

Traffic in Philly, already grueling, just went from "dull roar" to "New Year's Eve Crazy," with the biggest party in the golf world taking over the city - an old city with many twists, turns and cul-de-sacs. Moreover, there's a run on rental cars, good hotel rooms and patience as everyone has been warned to "plan on an extra half-hour for everything."

Guys, better make that a whole hour . . .

The venue site is an enormous maze. Entrances are not only hard to get to, but hard to find in the first place. Three parking lots have been shut down by the torrential downpours in the last five days, including the biggest, closest spectator lot.

Guys, better make that two hours . . .

Once you get inside, you can't go anywhere except the massive merchandise tent. The golf course and foot-traffic paths are a confused jumble of dead-ends, circuitous routes and long delays. It's impossible to move around easily, spectate, or cover the tournament with up-to-the-minute accuracy (while out on the course at least), or keep from getting road rage every time you try to find anything other than "Spectator Square."

It's easy to find that though. All roads lead to the cash registers.

On that note, the merchandise tent alone is the size of a city block. I watched a female friend go in there "for five minutes," and she came out minutes later gasping for air with a horrified expression on her face.

"I'm not doing that again," she promised her amused boyfriend.

Even players, media and officials are feeling a significant crunch. Players have to take a shuttle to the practice area, they will start one day on No. 11, a brutal hole to open the day, and the "locker room" is a temporary structure.

It's a nightmare for the media, too. Not even Pebble Beach was this zany (it was close, but there was at least twice as much room). Merion's media tent is on the far side of the 16th fairway, so far out that we have to take a shuttle to the 18th green to interview the players. Just like at Pebble Beach, the fastest way from place to place sometimes is, according to USGA officials, "to exit the event and then re-enter by another nearby gate instead of walking all the way around."

Worst of all, every hole is surrounded by stuff - tents or stands or towers - and you can't see across the golf course like you're supposed to. "All you can see is a narrow tunnel of a hole or a windowpane-like view of a green. The whole point was to have people see how special Merion is, and they can't even see Merion at all," grumbled one golf fan.

Finally, the weather is ghastly. That's not anyone's fault; the USGA put every possible contingency in place, even hail storms, tornadoes and earthquakes. But now it's tough to get people off the golf course, or at least afford them shelter. Five inches of rain over the weekend, more showers sporadically the first few days of this week, and now we're told we're getting a "derecho" tomorrow. A derecho, for those of you scoring at home, is a tornado without the funnel cloud that can bring winds well over 100 mph and hail the size of castanet knockers.

A tornado, by the way, is the one eventuality I am prepared for; I know exactly what to do in a tornado. You point at it, yell "Tornado!", and run like hell.

Funnel cloud or no funnel cloud, Merion's East Course is waterlogged and muddy to the point of saturation, dangerously close to being unplayable. It's nowhere near the mess Bathpage (yes, Bathpage!) was in 2009, but Merion just can't take another weather body blow like it has the past few weeks. Neither can we. Spending a week in Philadelphia cramped, wet and with no sightlines is no one's idea of fun.

So all this begs two question: 1) Was it really worth it to come here? and 2) Has the U.S. Open gotten too big?

We came here to make a point about golf course architecture: to prove that you don't need 7,500 yards to defend par, to show that smaller greens, side-hill lies, and intelligent design strategies are the best defense to a golf course - not length, water and rough, and to show that the way forward for golf is to look at the design principles of the past. Yes, it's worth it trying to come to Merion because those points are important for the economic and cultural survival of golf. It's critical to make that point about architecture.

"We knew that old-fashioned, Golden Age architecture and, especially Merion, could still hold up against modern technological advances in equipment and in the talent level of the modern professional golfer. Merion is still relevant and so is Golden Age architecture, and with firm-and-fast conditions, it would have acquitted itself nicely," explained USGA Architecture Archives committee member Tom Paul.

"It's great that the USGA came to a tiny place like this," agreed ESPN's Bob Harig. "We get to relive the history, and even if the winning score is low, who cares? It really doesn't detract from the tournament at all."

"There's plenty of difficulty out there," confirmed Luke Donald. "With the rough, bunkers, out-of-bounds, creeks and side-hill lies it would have proven harder than anyone expected, and we would have seen that great design is timeless, even against modern equipment."

Merion would have made all those points perfectly . . . had the weather cooperated.

And then the rain came and the whole plan went kablooie. Now, instead of a lesson in design and strategies, we get interminable lectures on soils and drainage. That's not the way we want to shine the light on architecture. It'll bore everyone to death.

Apologies to all you golf course superintendents, but soils ain't sexy.

Has the U.S. Open gotten too big?

Some think so, others don't.

"The U.S. Open is like 10 circuses rolled into one," explained Paul. "It's tough for the USGA to structure all these tents and stands and towers and move the people around on any site. Obviously, this week was more of a challenge, but remember they only sold half the tickets they sold at Bethpage," said Paul.

"And they put up half the corporate tents," offered Harig.

That's all true. But though they sold half the tickets and put up half the tents, we still have as much or more congestion as in 2009 at that New York muni. It's impossible to move around, but that's become a growing problem, not a new issue.

Take Torrey Pines in 2008. Mid-day on Friday during the second round I left my desk in the media tent and went out on to the course for a frozen coffee and to watch a little golf. Instead, I got mushed, crushed, jammed, crammed, tangled, mangled, beaned and sardined by what could have passed for the second coming of every tribe of Visigoths that ever invaded Rome, Nome or the River Somme. That's what happened when, quite by accident, I walked headfirst into the heaving sea of humanity following the so-called "dream pairing" of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and their straight man, Adam Scott, at that time still not a major winner but a major heartthrob to the "Look, he's cute!" crowd.

I went to a golf match and, the next thing I knew, I was in the Torrey Pines version of a pinball machine, hockey game, biker rumble and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby finals all rolled into one. That's what I get for liking frappaccinos.

But Harig raises a great point, one that every broadcaster, event planner and fan should notice. To come to Merion and stage this tournament, even the USGA must be feeling a serious pinch. They will make $10 million less than they ordinarily would at a U.S. Open. Note that carefully: make $10 million less . . . not "lose 10 million." (Don't worry about the USGA, they can afford it.)

It's eminently laudable of the organization to put the last dollar on the table aside. Stand up and cheer the altruism; it set a good precedent and was classy, too. Thanks for setting a great example, USGA, as usual. "For the good of the game," indeed.

Moreover, with a new venue each year, each Open requires the USGA to all but reinvent the wheel dealing with site-specific logistics.

"Each course represents new and different - and at often times difficult - set of logistics," stated Global Golf Post editor-in-chief Jim Nugent. "They almost have to start from scratch every time, and they do their best to anticipate everything and accommodate . . . not please, but accommodate, everyone as best they can. This year, it's like Baltusrol. We're in a small neighborhood. This year was highly unusual circumstances, and Merion is special, so we tolerated a lot to hopefully get a lot out of it."

Let's hope that's true. It's still early, but the outlook is grim for this week. We have to do our best to make sure the fan experience doesn't dwindle to the point of diminishing returns. The Masters puts the fan experience first, and that's why it's the greatest spectator event in sports. At the U.S. Open, convenience and comfort are ranked lower, so great golf can come first.

Still, were not at the point where it's unmanageable at Merion, but we're getting too close. We need to keep a closer eye on exactly how much or little the fans enjoy their experience. Let's never hope the best seat in the house is on your couch or in the media center lunchroom.

U.S. Open venues are like dog breeds: there's no perfect one, there's always tradeoffs. The tradeoff here is a sublime golf course and an epic championship in terms of how interesting, tough and historic the golf course is. But it's shaping up to be a long, wet, messy week.

As for the golf course itself, the intention has not been lost on the players. When he turned from 18 to the first hole, Phil Mickelson saw USGA executive director Mike Davis and told him, "This is my favorite Open setup ever."

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.

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