U.S. Open: Merion is everything a championship venue should be, but rarely is

Thomas Boswell
Columnist June 14, 2013

At last, the U.S. Open is no longer a test designed to identify the best boring golfer on earth. Get the defibrillator paddles for a championship weekend that is designed to be a merciless test of every aspect of the game yet also provide constant thrills. Instead of an Open played by masochists for the amusement of sadists, this one is about aesthetics and excitement.

Gorgeous tiny labyrinthine old Merion Golf Club and USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, the secret subversive who wants to bring chills to our Open, have achieved the synthesis that the USGA has been seeking for several years. In the most dramatic change in tournament philosophy in any of golf’s majors in decades, the USGA has tried to find courses and set them up in ways that promote birdies, bogeys, double bogeys — and (shudder) “others” — not just the damnable four-day salute to adoration of accuracy and par: hit-the-fairway, hit-the-green, two-putts, next.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The winning score at this U.S. Open may well be the hallowed “even par,” or close to 280. But it will be done, thank heavens, in an entirely different way. Merion has been set up so that almost no hole is a true par 3, par 4 or par 5. The “hard par,” difficult but manageable with accuracy, has been the backbone of a century of Opens. It has been detonated.

Instead, the majority of the holes here play as if they were par 21 / 2, such as the 115-yard 13th, or 31 / 2, such as the easy, 303-yard 10th, or 41 / 2, such as the monstrous, 504-yard fifth hole, or even 51 / 2, such as the 628-yard fourth. Three other par 3s are so long and difficult — at 256, 236 and 246 yards — they are almost par 31 / 2.

Such brain-testing in-between holes were a central aspect of Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie’s great design at the Masters. With the years, and equipment changes, Augusta National has added so much length, it has lost a tad of its thrill appeal.

The stodgy U.S. Open has, ironically, picked up that knack here at Merion. One of the nation’s oldest great short courses — still just 6,996 yards — has adapted itself remarkably, just as it did from hickory shafts to steel.

Merion and Davis also have combined to create a track that plays in streaks. The fourth through sixth holes, and the 14th through 18th, are two of the most difficult runs of holes in the sport.

“They get you in a rhythm,” Rory McIlroy said, dryly. “But it’s not the rhythm you want.”

Stand behind the fifth and 14th tees and watch stars as they slam their drivers into water coolers, wave their hands at their balls in disgust and mutter at caddies. Ernie Els thought about slugging three separate inanimate objects after one sprayed drive, then sighed and just dropped the stick to earth. Lord, let this club pass from me.

That’s Open hell. But there’s heaven, too. The first, seventh, eighth, 10th and 11th holes are five humble, though tricky, par 4s, all from 303 to 367 yards. Hackers see pars. Pros gobble birdies.

For 100 years, the U.S. Open was praised, or accused, of crowning the man most likely to aim away from the pin, avoid the rough and make 72 consecutive somnambulist pars. For generations, the blue-blazer set bragged that the stolid dependable Open winner “had no pulse.” Those years may return, but Davis, whose first Open as USGA boss was at Congressional, has made it clear that he wants a stern test but also one that lights up the scoreboard with red and green numbers, not just black pars. He didn’t want a record low score in ’11. But when McIlroy shot 268, he didn’t disown it.

“Do we want it to be difficult? Absolutely. That’s our DNA,” Davis said. “But at the same time this is not all about difficulty. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We really want to test every shot, every club in the bag.”

Sometimes, those tests could be a 5-iron off the tee on a short par 4.

“Merion is about precision,” Davis said. “This Open is also exposing Merion [to] so many people who haven’t seen it before. . . . Wonderful architecture. . . . There’s great movement to the property . . . this balance of an ebb and flow. There’s opportunity to catch up with birdies, but also holes as hard as any. It really is magical.”

For beauty, Merion is my favorite Open site on the East Coast. It swoops and twists with many blind shots. The exposed-rock terrain is starkly forbidding. Elevation changes, rough as deep as Scottish heather and greens that range from tiny to huge give the course constant variety; yet the whole is all of one winding piece. Unfortunately, it’s not suited to huge crowds. Merion is a literal labyrinth of dead ends and double backs, which make it infuriating to walk as a spectator unless you’ve spent hours plotting your route.

In many years, the par-doting Open has gotten what some of us think it deserved: too many mediocre winners decided by dumb-luck bounces, too many Monday playoffs in the wake of final-nine train wrecks and lots of forgettable champions.

Will Merion produce another classic champion to go with famous winners here in Lee Trevino, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones? In theory, this track might favor a player who has birdie streaks and hits it a ton but also makes amazingly creative par saves from jail.

“I told Mike [Davis] this is the best setup I’ve ever seen in the U.S. Open,” Phil Mickelson said. “What I love is . . . they’ve made the hard holes even harder. They moved the tees back. That made them even tougher pars. If you’re playing well, you’re going to be able to make pars and separate yourself from the field.

“But on the easy holes, they didn’t trick them up and take away your birdie opportunities. They gave you [a chance] to get those strokes back.”

The stage is set: not for 18 pars and a formal bow to blue-blazer restraint, but to a weekend of who-knows-what.

It’s about time: “While we’re young!”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

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