ARDMORE, Pa. — There is no golf course in the United States richer in championship history than Merion Golf Club, the site of the 113th U.S. Open which commenced today.   This event marks Merion’s 18th USGA championship (more than any other course) and fifth U.S. Open.

One look at this small, striking course characterized by rolling hills; narrow doglegging fairways bordered in places by tall fescue reminiscent of Scottish gorse; and deep, sometimes steep-walled bunkers (known as “the white faces of Merion”) , and it’s easy to see why the USGA keeps returning to the East Course.   Not to mention the unique wicker baskets that replace flags on the flagsticks.   Jack Nicklaus once said of Merion:  “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.”

The club has its origins in the Merion Cricket Club, founded in 1865 in a Main Line suburb of Philadelphia.  In 1896, some of the members opened a golf course in Haverford.   In 1910, Hugh Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, was hired to design two new courses on a different property in Ardmore.   Wilson spent over a year studying courses in England and Scotland, and the East Course was completed in 1912.  The West Course followed two years later.

The first USGA championship played on the East Course was the 1916 U.S. Amateur.   Five more followed, along with five Opens and four U.S. Women’s Amateurs.   It’s only fitting, as the best players in the world today tee off at this historic site, to reflect on some of the golf history made at Merion.   Some of the greats – Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Lee Trevino – participated in historic major championships on this hallowed ground.

The Grand Slam

Bobby Jones, a child prodigy along the lines of Tiger Woods, played in the 1916 U.S. Amateur at Merion at age 14, and surprised the golf world by winning two matches.   Jones ultimately became the greatest golfer of his day, but never turned pro.   One of his greatest legacies was the founding of the Augusta National Golf Club, which in time became the home of the Masters tournament.

In 1930, Jones returned to Merion for the U.S. Amateur, having already won the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the British Amateur earlier that year, which then comprised the first three legs of the Grand Slam.   He won convincingly, breezing through all of his matches, and shortly thereafter retired from competitive golf to pursue a career in law.  He remains the only player in the history of golf to win the Grand Slam.

A 1-iron Caps a Miraculous Career Comeback

In February 1949 – two weeks after appearing on the cover of Time magazine for having won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship the previous year – Ben Hogan and his wife Valerie were driving across Texas on a foggy morning when a Greyhound bus swerved into their lane to pass a truck.   The bus hit Hogan’s Cadillac head-on.  Both he and his wife survived, but Hogan suffered multiple injuries including a fractured collarbone, broken pelvis, and broken ankle.  Life-threatening blot clots developed, and he remained in the hospital for two months.  Doctors were skeptical that Hogan would ever walk again – much less play golf.

Remarkably, through sheer force of will, Hogan returned to professional golf in 1950, playing a limited schedule.   When Hogan arrived at Merion for the Open, he was viewed as no more than a sentimental favorite; there was some question as to whether he had the endurance to play 72 holes over three days (at that time the final 36 holes were played on Saturday).   But Hogan always felt his precise game was suited for Open competition, which featured narrow fairways, long rough, and fast greens.

Standing on the 18th tee in his final round, Hogan needed to par the demanding 458-yard par-4 hole to make the playoff.   After a perfect drive, he hit a 1-iron from 213 yards onto the green to within 40 feet of the hole and two-putted for par.   A photograph of his 1-iron shot has become one of the most famous in golf history.

Hogan won the playoff, and captured the third of his four U.S. Open titles.   However, the famous 1-iron was not in his bag.  The club was stolen from Hogan’s locker the night before, but was recovered 33 years later and now resides in the USGA museum.  It was on hand at Merion this week, and no doubt was the only 1-iron on the premises as the club has been relegated to golf history.  (See http://www.mynegm.com/u-s-open-notebook/hot-topics-at-merion-mud-balls-sergio-tiger-the-pairing-and-1-irons/)

The Rubber Snake

The U.S. Open returned to Merion in 1971, and culminated with a playoff between two of the leading players of the day, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.   Ironically, earlier in the year, Nicklaus had been very complimentary of Trevino, and told him “you just don’t know how good you are.  You can win anywhere.”  Trevino was energized by the endorsement from the Golden Bear.  “For the best player in the world to tell me that filled me with confidence,” he said.

On the first tee of the playoff, Trevino, ever the jokster, pulled a rubber snake out of his bag, producing a laugh from the normally staid Nicklaus.  However, Trevino credited a rain delay – not the rubber snake antic– for his victory.  “I was a low-ball hitter, and the rains softened things up enough for me to be able to hold the greens with my approach shots,” he said.  “That was a huge break for me.  Merion was the hardest damn course I’d ever seen.”   He later reflected that his Open win at Merion was the most important win of his career.  “After that, I knew I didn’t have a lot to prove.”

Who will follow the footsteps of Jones, Hogan, and Trevino into the pages of golf history this week?  We’ll know Monday.

Jack Ross is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly and is on-site at Merion this week.