US Open golf: Everyone is talking about Merion
Hugh Wilson had never designed a course before turning his hand to laying out the East Course at Merion.
The Scottish immigrant and club member was appointed in 1910 to lead the then Merion Cricket Club’s committee to build a course and, in order to prepare for his task, was dispatched on an extended trip of the British Isles.
Armed with notes and some guidance from America’s course design pioneer Charles Blair Macdonald he set about a not-overly-spacious L-shaped ground that housed the remains of two farms and an old rock quarry.
He came up with a layout of 6,235 yards over just 126 acres and one that will stage its fifth US Open this month.
It has also held six US Amateurs, two women’s Amateurs, a Curtis Cup, Eisenhower Trophy and, four years ago, the Walker Cup.
Over the years the East Course has been modified with the bunkers, ‘the white faces of Merion’, becoming more visual and attractive, at least from the spectator’s point of view.
Americans took the honours the first three Opens here, it was at Merion that Lee Trevino tossed a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus ahead of a play-off in 1971, while David Graham became the first Australian to lift the title in 1981.
There is a saying at Merion that ‘the golf course starts at 14’. Graham birdied this hole and the next before parring in to overcome a three-shot deficit.
Edoardo Molinari won the 2005 US Amateur here when he came from three behind at lunch against Dillon Dougherty to win at the 33rd hole, helped by just 18 putts in 15 holes.
Here, the Italian explains how looks, on the scorecard at least, can be deceiving.
“It was a very difficult and tight course and quite unique in that it had so many long and short par 4s. It didn’t seem anything like the usual US Open set-up which tend to consist of plenty of 500-yard
“It had a nice mixture of holes and was popular with the players.
It is one of the best courses I have ever played.”
“Up until the 10th there are some birdie chances but from the 14th to the 18th it is very tough. If it is firm and fast then you can expect to see a lot of shots slipping away in those holes.
“The most difficult holes are the 16th to the 18th where you really have to keep the ball on the fairway or, at the 17th, make sure that you find the green. At the 17th I was hitting a 2 iron and the green is very long and narrow so it is easy to miss the green. I was five up in the semi-final at one point but was then pulled back to two when I stood on this tee. I managed to hit one to about 15 feet which was one of the shots of my week.
“The most difficult hole is the last. The tee shot has to carry a quarry of around 250 yards and then you have a medium to long iron off a downslope and sidehill lie to a green that slopes away from you. At the beginning of the week it was almost impossible to keep it on the green.”
“We sometimes tell players of all of the teeing grounds we’re going to use and sometimes we don’t,” says the USGA’s Mike Davis.
“We do think a part of the test of golf should be, can you think through a situation under pressure. When I say you, it’s not only the player, but the caddies get nervous too. We think that’s part of the test of saying we may throw something at you you just didn’t practise or you didn’t think about.”
the difficulty “There are not too many blind shots but, a bit like Augusta National, you have a lot of sidehill lies and it can be quite severe and that puts a lot of pressure on your game.
“The strategy is key; you have to stick to your game plan as things will go wrong and you can’t chase it around here.
“There might be a lot of shortish par 4s but that doesn’t necessarily mean birdie chances.”
I would go for someone like Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan or Justin Rose, players who hit a lot of fairways and greens.
The two par 5s
“There are only two par 5s and they come very early on at the 2nd and 4th. They both offer a lot of ways of playing it but both can be reached if you hit the right shots.
“At the 2nd the entire right side of the narrow fairway is flanked by the out of bounds of Ardmore Avenue while there is a brook that sits in front of the 4th green and this could present a third birdie in the first four holes.
“It is hard mentally as you feel like you have to birdie both of the par 5s as, after that, there won’t be too many chances. It might be easier starting at the 10th from a mental point of view.”
“You will see the graduated rough here,” says the USGA’s Mike Davis. “Because there are so many shots where you have lofted clubs coming in; you have wedge, 9 iron, 8 iron, which is just easier for these guys to hit out of the rough, it’s going to be thicker versus holes like 5, 6, 14 or 18, when you’re asked to hit a long shot in, we’re going to have that rough less penal.
“But relatively speaking we hope to get it where they can at least play out of it. But you’re going to see it, it’s just Merion’s personality that you’re going to see the rough being penal.
“You may see fairways at around 24-25 yards wide. Some of them get wider because they need to be wider with the slopes.”
“The 11th is a very nice hole, it’s not very long but you need to be very accurate and it is a typical US Open hole.
“The right half of the green juts out towards Cobb’s Creek and it is widely thought to be one of America’s great par 4s.”
“You would probably hit about seven drivers as you still need to hit it a good distance particularly on the closing holes.
“If it is firm and fast I wouldn’t expect anyone to be under par. When we played our practice rounds it was like this and, with the thick rough, it was absolutely impossible to score under par.
“The 10th is drivable, it was a good 3 wood in 2005 and the 8th you might be able to get close if they move the tee up.”
“I would concentrate a lot in practice on five to 10 footers which you will keep having for par as well as a strategy to hit as many fairways as possible.
“The greens are quite old-style – slopey and most of them run from back to front so it can be difficult to get the ball close.
“There are also half a dozen par 4s which are 400 yards or under so you will really need to get your wedges working well.
“The big problem in 2005 with the bunkers was the amount of rough around the sand so you often found yourself in this which was tricky to hit good chips from s you want to be in the sand.”
“I would go for someone like Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan or Justin Rose, players who hit a lot of fairways and greens.”