Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2013

No Flood Of Low Scores At Soggy Merion

From the beginning it was a calculated risk. When the USGA decided to award the 2013 U.S. Open to venerable Merion Golf Club, the possibility of very un-Open like scoring lurked. Merion’s East Course, opened in 1912, sits on little more than 100 acres, less than half the ground of many championship layouts. Situated along suburban Philadelphia’s Main Line, the course is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, city streets, a commuter rail line and Haverford College. Many antique courses have responded to the technological advances in golf equipment that make 300 yard drives the new normal by scooping up adjacent acreage and stretching out holes to greater and greater lengths. But Merion’s location limited the club’s ability to follow suit.

When the Open was last played on Hugh Wilson’s design in 1981, Australian David Graham won on a course that measured slightly less than 6,600 yard and played to a par of 70. Graham’s four-day total of seven under was lower than the USGA liked, just as the total of ten golfers shooting par or better was higher. The philosophy of the USGA officials in their blue blazers is simple. Par is a concept to be fiercely guarded. Open layouts are characterized by brutal length, rough deep enough to hide small children, and lightning quick greens that make putting on a tile floor seem simple. Webb Simpson’s winning total of one over par at last year’s Open at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco was the kind of result to put a smile on the face of USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. Seven under is decidedly not.

The conclusion after Graham’s win, one that grew firmer as technology leapt ahead, was that for major championship golf time had passed Merion by. In the 32 years since the club’s last Open, only five winning scores were lower in relation to par. Three of those were totals of eight under, just one stroke lower. One was the twelve under par posted by Tiger Woods in 2000, but Woods was also the only golfer under par as he won by fifteen strokes. Then there was 2011, when Rory McIlroy torched the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club, finishing at sixteen under par. McIlroy was joined by 21 other golfers, more than a quarter of the field making the cut, with a final score of par or better. For the USGA, it must have felt like their premier event, the men’s national championship, had morphed into the PGA Tour’s weekly insurance company open. Never mind the fact that the D.C. area suffered through an unusually dry spring which kept the rough from growing to the length that the USGA wanted. Ignore the reality that the dry spell was then followed by heavy rains immediately before and during the tournament, which softened the greens and allowed the competitors to fire at the flags. Congressional is a great course, but it will take an act of Congress to get the USGA to return.

Yet while Merion’s relatively short layout had to give the USGA nightmares of a repeat of 2011, there were also obvious reasons to return. As golf’s governing body in this country the Association has an obligation to preserve and promote the history of the game, and few courses are as historic as Merion Golf Club. This is the 18th national championship to be held there, more than at any other golf course. It was on the East Course in 1930 that Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur. Following his victories earlier in the year at the British Amateur, Open Championship, and U.S. Open, the victory gave Jones the first and still only single-season sweep of the major championships of a golfer’s time. Seven weeks after accomplishing the Grand Slam, Jones retired from the game.

Two decades later Ben Hogan came to Merion for the 1950 U.S. Open. Just 16 months removed from the horrific car accident that nearly claimed his life, Hogan was in constant pain and considered quitting during the 36-hole marathon that ended the tournament on Sunday. Needing a par to force a playoff on the final hole, the Wee Ice Man’s 1-iron from more than 200 yards settled safely on the green, and is today marked by a plaque in the 18th fairway. A four shot win in the next day’s playoff gave Hogan the second of his four U.S. Open titles.

With the hope of being able to celebrate a historic course rich with stories of golfing greats, the USGA opted to return to Merion. The 2005 U.S. Amateur was played on the East Course as a sort of trial run, to see if the old layout could resist today’s big bombers. When that went well the awarding of this year’s Open soon followed. The club acquired what little adjacent acreage was available and the yardage was pushed to a bit over 6,900 yards, still 200 less than Olympic and 600 yards shorter than Congressional. The rough was allowed to grow in, pinching already tight fairways. The course combines relatively short holes and prodigiously long ones. Two par-4s measure just 301 and 340 yards, while two others stretch to 499 and 500 yards. The 102 yard par-3 13th is a sitting duck for the pros, while the 246 yard 3rd is one of the longest par-3s they will play all year. The unique layout means that birdies are certain but bogeys almost equally so. Finally, the USGA acknowledged that scores would probably be lower than at most U.S. Opens, even as Association officials hoped they were not about to witness a repeat of 2011.

Many feared that was exactly what was on offer when weather intervened with a vengeance. Over the weekend prior to the tournament more than three inches of rain fell on the course. Another deluge followed on Monday, wiping out the first day of practice. As the course grew softer and softer and the greens became ever more inviting there were predictions of record low scoring from start to finish, and forecasts that the single round record of 63 was surely about to be wiped from the history books. Under grey skies early Thursday morning the first threesome teed off. The group included a player with the unfortunate surname, for a golfer, or Yip. Canadian Ryan Yip and his two compatriots played Merion’s 1st hole in a combined four over par.

Before fears of a birdie barrage could fade more players took to the course and red numbers began to spread across the manual leader boards around the property. When the skies opened and play was suspended at 8:36, 53 golfers had played at least one hole and 26, or virtually half, were at par or better. But after a rain delay of more than 3 ½ hours old Merion began to fight back. With the long delay in the morning and another shorter one late in the day, much of the field couldn’t finish their opening round. But it is already clear that the deep rough, heavily contoured greens and many blind approach shots will make the old course a worthy test. Yes there will be sub-par rounds at this Open, and likely more golfers than usual at or below par when a champion is finally crowned. But there are also going to be a lot of rounds like Sergio Garcia’s opening 18: four birdies and an eagle; more than offset by three bogeys, a double and a quad.

As darkness fell on the U.S. Open’s first day, Phil Mickelson was the leader in the clubhouse at three under par, one of only seven golfers of the seventy-eight who finished round one to shoot par or better, a dramatically lower percentage than at one point in the morning. As Lefty said after finishing his round, “The golf course is playing easy, and yet Merion is fighting hard. It’s so demanding. It’s one of the best tracks I’ve seen for a U.S. Open.” There’s a long way to go, but if players and fans are repeating that last sentence come Sunday evening, Mike Davis and the rest of the USGA leadership will be smiling, knowing that the risk was worth it regardless of the winning score.

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