Magnificent Merion

Walter Hagen, what a card! He knew a good joke when he heard one, and just the thought of his fellow foot soldiers running roughshod over Merion in 1934—the year the U.S. Open first pitched its tent in Ardmore—had The Haig doubled over and slapping his thigh.

“That’s a laugh,” he roared, after test-driving the East Course some months before the gathering. “If any of the boys think they are going to knock over this course it is a case of them hitting for the wrong green from the wrong tee.”

Hagen’s voice rang with as much authority as it dripped with sarcasm. Merion would mark his 20th Open—he’d won the thing twice—and though he hadn’t played the East Course in a decade, he still bore the bite marks from the wolf behind its genteel door. He knew Merion’s clever combination of long, formidable holes and short, enticing ones, and the elegant rhythm of how they fell together. He knew the arduous five-hole finale and the daunting challenge they presented both individually and in aggregate: 14 and 15, long par fours along Golf House Road with OB beckoning on the left, before turning back to the trio that challenges a quarry and as stout a finishing hole as you’ll find in golf.

But word was already spreading. That Merion was too small. That Merion was a pushover. That Merion was passé, a defenseless antique where any concept of par was plainly in peril.

Oh, really?

“Instead of our best pros making a toy course of this—myself included—it is apt to be a heartbreaker,” he warned, and he supported his words by settling on a winning number: 12-over.

Turned out Hagen was being generous. Thirteen-over earned the laurels for Olin Dutra. As for the rest of the boys? Only one returned a single round in red.

Makes you wonder what they were thinking, even then. Hardly four years had passed since the Grand Slam and the direct ascension of Bobby Jones from Merion’s 11th green into golfing apotheosis. Had everyone forgotten the Immortal Bobby’s own assessment, about how Merion is a course you play primarily with your head because accuracy is the legal tender and length about as seductive as fool’s gold?

Yet, how many times through the years have we heard the same old same old about this delicate diamond of a par 70—36 out, 34 in: 4 par threes, 12 par fours, 2 par fives—that Hugh Wilson cut from an exhausted patch of Philadelphia farmland a century ago? Too short. Too demure. A museum piece from a lost galaxy of winged collars, plus-fours, and brightly-painted wicker baskets where flagsticks are supposed to be. Why bother with a caddie? Find a docent, instead.

Funny thing about Merion, though, and Hagen appreciated the punch line. The diamond not only has a sheen, it has an edge. And whether the diamond scratches you or you scratch the diamond, it’s the diamond that leaves its mark in the end.

Consider the scuff to the pride of Johnny Miller, who was convinced his Open-record round of 63 would topple at Merion in 1981. “They’re gonna shoot lights out here,” he audaciously suggested. They didn’t. Nor did he. “I didn’t envision some of the problems the course can cause,” Miller soon recanted through a mouthful of crow.

Will they never learn?

Whenever the Open returns to Merion—as it will for the fifth time this month—the old canards start quacking, and the smart money smugly predicts the kind of pathetic surrender envisioned by Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray in 1971. “They’re holding the Open in a telephone booth,” he sniped. “It’s not a tournament. It’s an assassination. They should blindfold the course.” Ask Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus—they shared the 72-hole lead at even par before Trevino triumphed in a playoff—if they happen to agree.

I did. They don’t.

I’ve asked a lot of people a lot of things about Merion over the last two years in my role as cobbler of the club’s new history, and if there’s one overriding truth that’s remained consistent from its dawn as a championship venue with the 1916 U.S. Amateur it is this: You can’t judge this golf course by its yardage. Though never stretching much beyond 6,500 yards until this go-round, Merion has held up splendidly. And in Dutra, Ben Hogan (and his unforgettable 1-iron on the 72nd hole), Trevino, and David Graham it has winnowed from the masses an esteemed and deserving champion every time.

Which is precisely what it was designed to do.

From the day of its unveiling back in 1912, the East Course has consistently rewarded deftness over distance and strategy over strength—as it will again, no doubt, this year. “This is the way golf is supposed to be played,” insists Trevino. “You’ve got to think when you play a golf course like this. It’s like a chess game. You can’t just stand on the tee and say ‘I’m gonna hit this bastard 340 and take my chances from there.’ You just can’t do that at Merion. Put the ball in the wrong position and you’re not gonna be able to get to the green.”

And know this: Merion has lots of wrong positions.

With so much focus on length, it’s been easy to overlook Merion’s width; there’s so little of it generally, a fortification intensified when the course is groomed for Open play. Consider this: Of the 120 cozy acres the East Course sits on, just 26 normally comprise its fairways, and 8 of those have been converted to rough in the last two years. Which translates into eight more acres of wrong places.

Ignore Trevino at your risk.

Of course, there will be bombers who try, though you can hear Hagen’s chortle all these years later in Nicklaus’s voice. In 1971, he left his driver in the bag everywhere but Merion’s two par fives—the 2nd and 4th holes—and its treacherous 18th. “That’s the only way to play this golf course,” he maintains more than four decades later, though he’s quick to add, “Today, you’ll probably have some idiots who’ll try to drive the 11th green.” Some might even succeed, but the East Course will ultimately rebuff them. With its arsenal of White Faces. With its magnificent, vertiginous greens, ratcheted to warp speed. With its Scotch broom and thick marram grass. With all those wrong places. As Hogan observed in 1950, the best offense at Merion is a good defense.

A smart and calculating defense.

Like the one thrown up by Graham over the last 18 holes of his brilliant march to the title in 1981. Playing within himself—that horribly undervalued concept—relying on driver sparingly, he missed a single fairway that day (the first, by barely a few inches on the preferred left side), and only three greens (each by a hair and he was able to putt from their collars). The consensus was that this was a round for the ages.

There was a concurrent consensus, as well—exacerbated before the end of the decade when maintenance issues around the 1989 U.S. Amateur produced a playing surface even the staunchest proponents agreed wasn’t ready for prime time—that Merion’s time as a suitable site for contesting an Open had passed. And even then, the overriding problem was more one of infrastructure than the course itself: How can you cram golf’s golden egg into a hummingbird’s nest?

But opportunity knocks in unexpected ways. When a perfect storm of heat, drought, and a creeping infestation of Poa annua closed the East Course for several months in the mid ’90s, a core of new leaders within the club began to ponder what it was that had made the East Course so exceptional for so long—architect Pete Dye once observed, “Merion isn’t great because history was made there; history was made there because Merion is great”—and why, hard as it was to accept, that no longer seemed so. The course had changed character over time, they realized. Trees were choking a once open playing surface. Greens had shrunk. Strategic lines had been erased, and features were out of position for the modern game.

There was a record, though—a clear photographic record—of the golf course at its transcendent best, on that streamlined afternoon when Jones capped his quixotic quest. With that as a guide, the club made a conscious decision to return the East Course to the way it looked and played that day, to do it in increments over several years, to add significant length to the journey, and, in essence, reach for the future by embracing the past.

Would that be enough, though, to return Merion to a spot in the championship rota? Under protective cover of the Slam’s 75th anniversary, the USGA stealthily administered a test: the 2005 Amateur. By the end of the second day of qualifying, the answers filled the scoreboard. Over 312 rounds at stroke play, the young guns could shoot just six in red numbers, with none redder than one stroke below. The 78.2 overall scoring average was the highest in Amateur competition in more than a decade. USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, as ardent a supporter as Merion had in Far Hills, remembers thinking to himself, “What are the naysayers gonna say now? It looked like a no-brainer.”

Still, questions remained. Even if creative solutions might present themselves for corporate pavilions, merchandise tents, a modern press center, and the like, how do you reduce an Open to less than 7,000 yards and not be hooted off the stage? By turning a shortcoming into a long suit that boldly says something that needs to be said about the game: A great golf course doesn’t have to juice to stay competitive. Both Davis and the club wanted the first digit in the last box on the scorecard to be a six, not a seven, and it will be: The course will max out at 6,996 yards, the first dip below the 7,000-yard threshold since Shinnecock Hills in 2004. “A number is just kind of a number,” says Davis, “and I have never been caught up in that. In the case of Merion, this is symbolic.”

And likely instructive. Because, numbers be damned, Merion is plenty long where it needs to be, but it is also plenty short, cagily short, where that very compactness will make itself most interesting: the five enthralling par fours—7, 8, 10, 11, and 12—that range from 303 yards to 403 yards. It’s amazing how many good rounds, and championship dreams, have come a cropper on 8 and 11 alone.

In 1971, Trevino bogeyed the former twice en route to the championship, and credits a rain shower in the playoff for turning what had been a rock-hard green receptively tame at just the right time for him. (The elements are essential to Merion’s security. When conditions are dry, firm, and fast, the overall journey is far more complex; a little water turns its greens into welcome wagons.)

As for the 11th, what Gene Sarazen did there—while leading the Open in 1934—isn’t fit for recounting in a mainstream periodical; suffice it to say it ended in a triple. Moving ahead to 1971, what would Nicklaus have given to have gone bogey-bogey on 11 in the first two rounds instead of the bogey-double he had to sign for?

At Merion, it’s the little things that can kill you.

And it’s the little things that must be heeded. Like the tee boxes that line up away from anything remotely resembling an optimal line of play. Like the preponderance of bunkers lounging on the first few holes to instill the illusion that the White Faces are everywhere. Like the Jones plaque at the 11th tee and the Hogan plaque in the 18th fairway, reminding all that they’re playing against history as well as the field.

Like the wicker baskets and Scotch broom, they help make Merion Merion. As does the enduring sound of a last laugh.

Philadelphia-based freelance writer Jeff Silverman is author of Merion: The Championship Story.

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