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2013 U.S. Open: Despite challenges, Merion has sparkled

Ron Green Jr.
Ron Green Jr., a former Observer staff writer, will write golf columns occasionally for the newspaper.

ARDMORE, Pa. Among the many things about which I’ve been mistaken – OK, wrong – add these to the list:

•  Quaint old Merion Golf Club would be savaged by the world’s best golfers if it so much as sprinkled rain for a few hours.

•  Graeme McDowell was, along with Tiger Woods, the player to beat in this U.S. Open.

•  And, I would stay away from the cookies in the media center.

I could go on but…

By early Sunday evening, the winner of this U.S. Open will be Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald or whomever ends up cradling the silver trophy, assuming a champion is determined on Sunday rather than Monday.

(As an aside, now that the USGA has done the right thing about anchoring and is at least making amusing commercials about eradicating the slow-play epidemic, it needs to get over the 18-hole playoff idea. Like balata golf balls and “Two And A Half Men,” its time has passed.)

Regardless of who wins, the star of this U.S. Open is Merion, which has proven beyond the shadow of a double bogey that the genius in golf course design isn’t in yardage but in character.

“It’s that hard, it’s that difficult, it’s that long,” McDowell said after rounds of 76-77 made his the most surprising name on the missed cut list.

By modern standards, Merion isn’t long. It’s listed at 6,996 yards, but it hasn’t been set up at that length in any of the first three rounds. It’s not necessary.

“It’s a testament to a golf course that it doesn’t have to be 7,800 yards to be a great golf course, and Merion will always stand the test of time,” Jim Furyk said after missing the cut.

Not everyone is so enamored with how Merion is set up. Zach Johnson said Merion has been “manipulated,” into being something different than it is. U.S. Open courses are always manipulated.

The rough is higher than normal, the fairways have been narrowed and some have been shifted slightly, but the essence of Merion remains and it is confounding the game’s best players.

This is an old-school U.S. Open.

The hard holes – the five-hole finishing stretch is tougher than advanced calculus – are wicked. The short holes are dangerous. There’s no middle ground at Merion. There’s middle of the fairway, middle of the green and nothing else.

Like virtually everything about this U.S. Open, getting from Point A to Point B successfully is the challenge.

The manipulation at Merion has been in the way the USGA, the club and the neighbors found a way to make it all fit. The golf course sits on 111 acres, a tiny footprint for any golf course, and that was the biggest reason it was thought the Open wouldn’t return after it was last played here 32 years ago.

It’s cramped. The practice range is 1.2 miles from the first tee. Houses around the perimeter of the golf course are being used for scoring, player hospitality and corporate entertainment. Patience is essential.

Because of how the course is laid out, players starting on the back side actually begin on No. 11 rather than the 10th hole. After playing the 13th hole, they walk across the first fairway to get to the 14th tee which is, literally, on the practice putting green.

Players who finish on No. 18 walk away from the clubhouse, go over a bridge, wind around a sidewalk and sign their scorecards downstairs in someone’s house. If they want something to eat, they go to another house still occupied by the family that lives there.

Spectators face their own challenges. If they’re lucky, they’re in the 5,000-seat mini-stadium surrounding the 17th green, which sits near the bottom of an old quarry. Otherwise, they’re scrambling to see the action.

Imagine an overhead view of Merion’s East Course. Draw a line around the perimeter of the property. That’s where spectators spend most of their time. Bouncing back and forth between holes in the interior of the course? Save that for Pinehurst.

Despite the challenges, Merion has sparkled. When the 1981 U.S. Open ended, there was a sense the national championship would never return to this Main Line club.

Because of the logistical challenges, some say this is the last U.S. Open that Merion will host.

I hope, like me, they’re wrong again.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post ( www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.
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