2013 U.S. Open: Can an Older and Shorter Merion Golf Club Be Relevant?

Fred Altvater@@tolohgolfrContributor IIJune 10, 2013

Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion
Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion

Merion Golf Club, site of this year's U.S. Open, has a deep and storied history. The question is whether par can still be a relevant number at this historic venue this week.

The last time a major championship was held at Merion Golf Club, persimmon heads and steel shafts were still used on the PGA Tour, and David Graham played a nearly perfect round of golf on the final day in 1981 to win. He hit all 14 fairways and 18 greens for a 67 in that final round to beat Bill Rogers and George Burns by three shots.  

Bobby Jones played in his first national U.S. Amateur at Merion Golf Club in 1916. He also completed his Grand Slam there in 1930 by winning the U.S. Amateur.

Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open held at Merion just 16 months after his terrible car accident, hitting his famous one-iron on the 18th hole, a shot that is immortalized in posters hanging in every golfaholic’s den around the world.

Lee Trevino won the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion by beating Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff on Monday.

This year, Merion will max out at around 6,800 yards, which is extremely short for today’s long bombers. It only sits on 111 acres of real estate, not leaving much space for corporate hospitality tents. The tight design also does not allow much wiggle room for the large crowds to traverse the property as they try to catch sight of their favorite golfers.

The course’s main protection will be the severe and uneven rough and the small, firm greens. Long-ball hitters may choose not to use their drivers and play safe to the fairway. Short-ball hitters may become the favorites on this course that demands accuracy and patience.

The par-3 holes at Merion offer a difficult and diverse test. The first par-3 on the East Course—No. 3— can be stretched from 219 to 256 yards. The front nine ends with a 236-yard par-3 that will change drastically depending on the pin position. Only the bravest golfer will attack the back pin on the kidney-shaped green guarded by a green-side bunker.

No. 13 only measures 115 yards on the card, but players will be thrilled to take par and move on. The oval-shaped green is the smallest on the course, protected by a huge and very deep bunker that spans the front and obscures the players' views of the green.

No. 17 is the final par-3 and offers another dilemma. It can be played as short as 195 yards or as long as 256 yards from the back of the tee. The green slopes away from the player to the back-right corner of the green. Again, a par here is a bonus.

Even-par for the par-3 holes throughout the week could be a key for the golfer who will hold the U.S. Open Trophy when darkness descends on Sunday, June 16.  

Merion Golf Club has some short par-4 holes, as the first, seventh and eighth holes all measure under 370 yards on the front nine. Holes No. 10, 11 and 12 are all 400 yards or less on the back side.

It also mixes in length. No. 5 is a 504-yard par-4, and the par-4 No. 6 measures 487 yards. Perhaps the most difficulty lies on the back nine with the par-4 holes—No. 14 at 464 yards, No. 16 at 430 yards and No. 18 at 521 yards.

A golfer who can manage five pars over the final five holes will gain at least two shots on the field.

To add another complication, the only par-5 holes on the course are both on the front nine. No. 2 will play to 556 yards and No. 4 can be stretched to 628 yards.

The rough, per USGA directives, will be long and gnarly, meaning judging the flight of a ball hit from the rough will be difficult.  

The unique mixture of long and short holes, added to the degree of difficulty of the rough and the par-3 holes, will offer a great test for the best players in the world at Merion.

The USGA always tries to make par a relevant number. If the course plays firm and fast, there will not be too many red numbers posted at Merion. If course conditions become soft from rain, it may yield some low numbers.

Those golfers who can best manage their games and emotions over the four days of the U.S. Open will be the ones most likely to join Jones, Hogan, Trevino and Graham as major winners on this historic old course.