2013 U.S. Open: Will Merion Force the USGA to Visit More Classical Courses?

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2013

Jun 16, 2013; Ardmore, PA, USA; Justin Rose celebrates with the championship trophy after the final round of the 113th U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
JD Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

What do you get when you put 156 modern day touring pros on a classical American golf course which challenges every aspect of their game?

You get the Merion Massacre.

Heading into the 2013 U.S. Open, many so-called “experts” had predicted that the top players in the world would tear apart Merion’s short 6,996 yard East Course.

And when Mother Nature dropped more than three inches of rain on the course during the week leading up to the Open, turning Merion’s lightning fast and severely undulating greens into nothing more than large sponges, many thought it was a near certainty that more than a few U.S. Open scoring records would be shattered. 

Needless to say, just about everyone who had made a bold prediction on how easy Merion would play during the 113th U.S. Open left Ardmore, PA with their tails between their legs on Sunday evening when not a single player finished under par for the tournament. 

Merion reared her teeth right from the opening tee shot on Thursday morning and wound up being one of the more difficult U.S. Opens venues in recent memory.

So how is it that a soft 6,996 yard golf course wound up giving the world’s top golfers absolute fits for four consecutive days?

Well, the so-called experts didn’t factor in one key aspect of Merion’s historic East Course – it’s a course that demands precision in an era of bomb and gouge golf.  

The USGA grew out the rough, narrowed the fairways and put the pins in very difficult locations on Merion’s severely undulating greens.

Miss a fairway and you are dead.

Short-side yourself on an approach shot and you are dead.

Heck, even players that managed to find the green in regulation but positioned themselves poorly were bringing bogey or worse into play.  

Modern day touring pros are not used to the style of golf. The modern day game involves bashing 350 yard drives and if they happen to hit the fairway, great, and if not, oh well, they can just gouge a wedge shot out of the short rough and still give themselves a good look at birdie. 

Of the top five players in the World Golf Rankings, four are within the top 30 in driving distance on the PGA Tour while just one player ranks within the top 50 in driving accuracy.

The average distance ranking of the top five players in the world is 41st while the average accuracy ranking is 82nd. Players within the top five in the World Golf Rankings also have an average ranking of 66th in the PGA Tour’s strokes gained putting category.  

This clearly speaks to the style of play that is most successful in the modern day professional game.

Merion played so difficult for most of the field during the 2013 U.S. open because it completely combated this style of play.

A player could blast 350 yard drives all day long and still wind up shooting shooting a 79 if he missed even half of the fairways off of the tee.

Merion was a perfect example of how golf course architecture has gone in the wrong direction with regards to their quest to curb the explosion in distance and challenge the best players in the world.

Instead of creating more classical golf courses such as Merion, which challenge every aspect of a player’s game, modern day golf course architecture has gone in the direction of flat 7,700 yard courses which need 8-10 mile pieces of property to construct.  

For years now the golfing industry has been complaining about the increases in distance as a result advancements in golf ball and golf club technology.

“Pretty soon we will need 10,000 yard courses,” is a phrase you may have heard quite often around the water cooler.  

But what has been happening is that golf course architects have been playing right into the hands of these technological advancements by creating long flat courses which challenge virtually nothing other than a player’s ability to bomb the golf ball.  

Courses such as Merion combat virtually all advancements in equipment and golf ball technology because distance is just one of many aspects of a player’s game that will be tested during a single round of golf. Hitting a 350 yard drive is worthless at a course like Merion if the drive misses the fairway or is simply not positioned within the proper portion of the fairway.  

“This place is just magical,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said of Merion. “In so many ways, it's historical; it's an architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, I think you could easily say it's a landmark. And there are so many wonderful moments in time.”

While the USGA might have publicly stated that their decision to return to Merion had more to do with the historical aspects of the East Course, one can certainly surmise that the USGA was also using Merion as something of a test run, the outcome of which could very well determine the future of the USGA’s course selections.

If Merion were to hold up against the modern day game, it could open up courses such as Riviera, Garden City Golf Club, The Country Club, Southern Hills, Scotio Country Club, Interlachen Country Club, Aronimink Golf Club, and many other classic designs to consideration for future U.S. Open venues.

Needless to say, Merion passed this test with flying colors.

Merion’s East Course, which was built over 100 years ago, challenged the world’s best golfers as much, if not more so, than any 7,700 yard U.S. Open track.

So the question now becomes, how will the USGA proceed from here?

Will the USGA continue targeting these mammoth 7,700 yard courses on seemingly never ending pieces of property, or has the USGA learned that classical American golf courses are not only magnificent from a design and historical significance standpoint, but they can also put a hurting on the world’s top golfers who play a game built more on power than precision?

Who knew that this ongoing battle between classical golf and technological advancements in golf balls and equipment could be all but ended by simply taking the game back to courses that were built more than 100 years ago.


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