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Merion could outshine stars at Open
I once asked Adam Scott if he had a favorite golf course.
Perhaps Augusta National or — like Tiger Woods — the Old Course at St. Andrews, or maybe the Australian Sandbelt gem, Royal Melbourne?
Instead, the Masters champion quickly nominated another famous Alister MacKenzie design: Cypress Point.
He’s not the first golfer to fall in love with the breathtaking beauty of Pebble Beach’s exclusive neighbor on the Monterey Peninsula.
But while Cypress is to many the Sistine Chapel of golf, few will ever see it because it won’t ever host a major tournament.
And that’s not because the membership are too snooty to have one but because, at 6,500 yards long, Cypress can’t compete against modern technology.
The Christians had a better chance of surviving in the Coliseum than Cypress Point has of resisting today’s golfers and their equipment, designed (literally) by rocket scientists.
Which makes this week’s 113th United States Open all the more fascinating because it will be hosted by a venerable course deemed 30 years ago to have been obsolete.
Tiny, historic Merion, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, with its unique wicker baskets atop flagsticks and its dining verandah 20 feet from the first tee, will be as much the star of the year’s second major as Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy or Scott.
"This place is just magical," said USGA executive director Mike Davis, who was pivotal in bringing the championship to Merion.
"In so many ways, it's a historical and architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, you could easily say it's a landmark."
In an era when golf’s rulers have sought bigger and bigger ballparks to combat technology — and house the corporate tents that bring in tens of millions — the United States Golf Association has effectively decided to take their crown jewel to Wrigley Field.
It’s a brave, brave move given the course is about a third of the size required in an area with small roads where logistical nightmares have been averted because neighbors have allowed their yards to be conscripted into service.
“There were a lot of reasons not to go to a Merion that's a very small venue and this and that,” said NBC golf analyst Roger Maltbie.
But, like many purists, he applauded the USGA for choosing “to honor its legacy as a great golf course and an important golf course in the history of golf in the United States.”
“This is going to be not an easy Open to conduct, and I really applaud them for doing it,” Maltbie said.
“I just think it was a very heady move on their part, and I really wish it to be a great US Open.”
Given the legacy there is every reason to expect a great Open.
Courses are often measured by the champions they produce and Merion hasn’t made a bogey on that score.
A 14-year-old named Bobby Jones competed in his first US Amateur here in 1914, winning two matches, then returned to win in 1924. In 1930, Jones’ legendary Grand Slam — in those days the four “majors” were the US and British Opens and Amateurs — was started at Merion with another Amateur victory.
In 1950 the course became the backdrop for perhaps the greatest win in US Open history. Ben Hogan, the man many consider to have had the best swing of all time, was just 16 months removed from a near-fatal car accident when he won here.
The photograph of Hogan posing in perfect balance after hitting a legendary one iron into the final green is as famous as any in golf.
In 1971, fans were treated to a thrilling playoff where Lee Trevino outlasted Jack Nicklaus, while in 1981, David Graham became the first Australian to win a US Open with one of the finest final rounds ever played.
We know it was one of the finest final rounds in Open history because no less an authority than Hogan sent Graham a telegram telling him so.
Graham shot 67 and hit every fairway but the first — a hole he made birdie on — and almost every green.
But US Opens aren’t meant to yield low scores and Graham’s seven under par tally on the then 6,500-yard layout effectively retired Merion from the rotation of Open venues.
The club acquired more land — not a lot more — and proceeded to be smart about extending the course. By choosing to leave the short holes alone and making the long ones longer and tougher, Merion will provide a unique challenge.
The first six holes aren’t easy, the next seven are birdie holes — five par-fours will play around 350 yards — and the closing five holes are difficult, particularly the final three which play as hard as any closing stretch anywhere.
“You're sitting there with a chance to make possibly quite a few birdies, but it doesn't seem to have the in-between holes, the boring in-between holes,” said Johnny Miller, who played in two Opens at Merion.
“It's either possible birdie holes or possible bogey holes, so that makes for a more exciting course in my opinion.”
Given the rain that’s fallen, the course will play soft and the US Open scoring record — 16 under par set at Congressional in 2011 by McIlroy — may fall, but Davis will protect the shorter holes with tight fairways and gnarly rough.
Miller applauds the idea of rewarding accuracy because he feels the less penal graduated rough of recent years has made the US Open "more like a PGA Tour event."
“I think it lost its identity, personally,” he said. “I don't agree with that one bit. To me, the US Open is supposed to be the ultimate test.”
Whether Merion provides the ultimate test remains to be seen, but it will, in a sense, become the fairest US Open in years because the bombers won’t have an advantage.
Players will need to make decisions off the tee, not automatically rip the cover off their driver. Accuracy will once again become king.
“Everybody's got a chance this week because of the length,” said Paul Azinger. “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.
“The cream will always rise to the top in a tournament like this because of pressure and the you-know-what sinks to the bottom.”
Just as it’s always been at Merion.