Majestically but mysteriously, hidden behind the tall trees of time, the Merion Golf Club's East Course stretches more than 6,800 yards of velvet-soft fairway. But that distance is perilously close to being too short for Merion to hold another major pro tournament, even if its valleys and white-sand bunkers and sinuous approaches are daunting and ethereal. In the dawn-gray emptiness, one can see -- or certainly, imagine -- the great ghosts of golf in their glory: Bobby Jones completing his Grand Slam in 1930, Ben Hogan following through with his iconic one-iron shot during his triumphant 1950 Open.
The sun will never go down on these twin monuments to golf, but neither are they likely to burn quite so brightly in memory if the historic course itself, one of the world's finest, is not occasionally brought to life by a tournament with the prestige of the U.S. Open. Four Opens have been played on the classic course, one of the world's best, but none since 1981. Merion's members want another Open, and the United States Golf Association, which runs the Open, also would like to unlock Merion's gates once more for the public to enjoy this trove of beauty and history.
The U.S. Amateur, being played here this week for the first time since 1989, may well decide whether Merion's future has a chance to add to the richness of its past. For certain, the event calls to mind the Jones and Hogan anniversaries: 75 years since Jones, the quintessential amateur, finished obliterating the "impregnable quadrilateral" -- the British Open and Amateur and the U.S. Open and Amateur -- and then, classically, retired from competitive golf; 55 years since Hogan produced the comeback of sports comebacks, 16 months after a car crash almost killed him.
But this week's big-hitting amateurs may answer the crucial question: Has golf technology rendered Merion too short for major tournaments, or will the careful lengthening of many holes make it possible for the long-absent Open to return and help prevent the venerable grounds from becoming more an heirloom than a familiar place that speaks to achievement and possibility?
The scheduled 36-hole final Sunday is no more significant, in a sense, than two days of stroke play Monday and Tuesday over Merion's par-70, 6,846 yards (and another course) to cut a field of 312 to 64 for the start of match play solely at Merion on Wednesday.
"Stroke play is a factor," said Bill Iredale, Merion's general chairman. "If many of the young players come in with 65s, then maybe the course is not difficult enough for the pros."
"Is the course long enough? I believe it is," said David Fay, the USGA's executive director. "They have lengthened their traditional long holes to the point they are really long. It's a lot closer to 7,000 yards than one thinks. And they have sexy short holes, [par] 4s and some 3s."
Merion faces another difficulty as a U.S. Open site, apparent the first few yards inside the entrance. It's a small place, fitting snugly into a neighborhood on Philadelphia's fashionable Main Line. Where would all the corporate tents go? And what of the crowds? Jones packed the people in, 18,000 by the time he closed out Eugene Homans 8 and 7 in 1930. But major tournaments now attract more than double that number daily. Lack of space off the course may be a bigger problem for Merion and the USGA than advances in golf-club technology. The course held up well through two days of stroke play, granting only six sub-par rounds, all of them just 1 under.
"It's by far the best test of golf there is," said Charlie Beljan of Mesa, Ariz., presumably in his experience, anyway, after shooting a 76 -- 12 more strokes than he needed Monday at Philadelphia Country Club.
Merion is a test, all right, with its "white faces" -- the sandy bunkers -- and "the quarry," a gigantic hole in the earth that comes into play on the last three holes. One "back door" to the grounds leads from a public street with lavish homes, past an apple tree to the 11th green, where Jones, on Sept. 27, 1930, completed his career.
The hole looks peaceful, but it's a treacherous 367-yard par 4 with a blind tee shot, the fairway falling abruptly into a valley. A mirror-clear Cobb's Creek slices past the front of the green, around to the right and behind it. A Merion member, recalling Jones, called it "the sacred hole."
Jones's last shot was a putt to within inches of the cup; when Homans missed his putt, he conceded Jones his putt, walking across the small green to shake the legend's hand as the crowd, which had been as silent as worshipers, sent up a roar.
There are photos of Jones wearing a white cotton shirt and gray linen knickers as he played the course, and one of him at the first tee alongside the clubhouse veranda, where luncheon parties gathered this week shaded by wide green awnings -- a portrait of America at leisure.
But the most famous photograph of Merion -- and one of the greatest sports photos -- was taken by Hy Peskin. It appeared in Life. It was of Hogan, on June 11, 1950, following through with his 1-iron, his second shot on the final hole. Examining the photo, one can almost feel the pressure Hogan experienced hitting his approach shot within 40 feet of the hole, leading to the par he needed to force a three-way playoff the next day.
Peskin shot from behind Hogan. The crowd stretches down both sides of the fairway. Women wear dresses; many of the men have straw hats, or those white saucers, "Hogan hats." (One can buy a large, framed copy at the Merion clubhouse for $325.)
Times change, but some things remain almost the same.
The tee has been set back so that now 18 is a 505-yard par 4 -- and still, many of the amateurs drove beyond the spot from which Hogan took his second shot, identified by a flat marker embedded in the fairway.
Yet eerily, the large left-side bunker still contains bushes that seem almost identical to the ones in the photo. The American flag is near the clubhouse, where it was when Hogan took aim, straight ahead. It looked familiar for one who stood behind Keven Fortin Simard, a Canadian, as he hit his second shot from the left rough about 20 yards ahead of the Hogan marker.
"I'm very pleased because what has happened was what we had hoped would happen," Iredale said. "We have a very, very difficult golf course. It's tough. It's fair. It's not too short."
If so, Merion might have its wish: a U.S. Open in 2013.