ARDMORE, Pa. — When the US Golf Association awarded the 2013 US Open to Merion Golf Club — bypassing The Country Club in Brookline — the decision stood out for a number of reasons, all having to do with this parcel of land 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
By bringing the US Open back to Merion for the fifth time, but first in 32 years, the USGA is breaking the recent mold of holding the national championship on sweeping, expansive layouts that can create large corporate-tent cities, stretch beyond 7,500 yards, and comfortably accommodate tens of thousands of spectators.
Merion doesn’t allow for any of that. Nestled in a neighborhood, the East Course sits on just 126 acres, about half the size of typical US Open venues. Most of the corporate areas are on the outer edge of the golf course, and tickets have been limited to 25,000 per day, because it’s all the foot traffic the course can handle.
But people will come — the tournament is a complete sellout for the 27th straight year — curious to see if a course that’s short by professional standards can still serve as a test worthy of such a championship, or if time and technology will render it outdated.
Merion, which dates to 1896 and has hosted 17 USGA championships, has the history. Will it provide the heft? It stands to offer the 156-player field a test. But is it also taking one?
We’ll start to find out Thursday, with the first round of the 113th US Open.
“Hopefully we can come back, because I really love these old-style, traditional golf courses,” said Ernie Els, who won both of his US Opens on courses that fit his description, at Oakmont and Congressional. “I just love the idea of the US Open coming here. Just a wonderful historic venue. I think all the players feel the same way.”
What they’re finding is perhaps the longest short course in all of major championship golf. The scorecard yardage at Merion stands out, because the number starts with 6, not 7. At 6,996 yards, it’s the shortest course to host a US Open since 2001, when Southern Hills played 6,973 yards. In the 11 US Opens since, the average yardage was 7,271, topped by the 7,643 five years ago, at Torrey Pines.
Merion is different because it offers so many short holes. Five of the par-4 holes are less than 370 yards — the 10th, at 303 yards, might be reached with a well-struck drive — and the par-3 13th is a downhill 115-yarder. Factor in the par-5 holes — there are only two, and they come early, at Nos. 2 and 4 — and players know that if they can position their golf ball, they should have plenty of good looks at birdie.
Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA who also has a heavy hand in course setup, predicted there will be more birdies at Merion than any other US Open in recent memory. And that was before this week’s rain, which should soften the greens that typically play so firm. Along with the high rough, the greens figure to be the two ways Merion will play defense this week.
“You go through the first 13 holes and if you drive it appropriately you can have, the way I figured it, nine wedge shots,” said Webb Simpson, the defending US Open champion who is one of the few players with experience at Merion (2005 US Amateur). “Everybody that I’ve talked to seems to really like the golf course. Everybody is trying to figure it out. But it’s so different than what we’re used to, because there is no one theme.”
Merion still offers some length. Three of the four par-3s will require long irons or even woods to reach the green: No. 3 is 256 yards, No. 9 is 236, and the 17th is 246. The par-5 fourth won’t be reached in two by anyone (it’s uphill, and measures 628 yards), and the five-hole closing stretch, starting with the 464-yard 14th, constitutes the teeth of the course, concluding with the 521-yard 18th hole, which plays as a par-4.
With apologies to Simpson, a theme has emerged at Merion: The short holes are really short, and the long holes are really long. While Merion offers some scoring opportunities, when the longer holes are factored in, it doesn’t seem to be a pushover, and isn’t expected to play like one.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a score-fest. I think it’s tough,” said Graeme McDowell, who won the US Open in 2010 and tied for second last year. “I think 10 or 11 of these golf holes on this course [are] as tough as any US Open I’ve seen. Driving, rough, green complexes.
“The greens, they’re soft and fast, which is a bad combination for tour players. We’ll spend the week trying to take spin off wedges. You’ll see guys over the back of the greens to back pins in massive trouble.”
McDowell said the two keys this week are finding fairways off the tee, and hitting wedges well. Merion demands it, especially this week, with the rough so high. Simpson lost two balls during his practice round on Sunday, despite missing the fairway by less than 5 feet.
Because of the narrow fairways, and the danger of missing them, many players will keep their driver in the bag for much of the tournament. Whether that’s an indictment on Merion or a sign of the current state of the game, time will tell.
There are plenty of people rooting for the course this week, instead of the players. They want jewels like Merion, constrained by space but bursting with history and nostalgia, to remain relevant, and having the world’s best golfers orchestrate a low-scoring assault might be the surest sign that they’ll never come back.
Which would be a shame.
“Merion’s considered an old-style golf course, under 7,000 yards, but yet we’re still having a US Open here in 2013,” Simpson said. “I think it’s pretty remarkable for them.”