ARDMORE, Pa. — On the eve of the 113th U.S. Open Championship, USGA officials today briefed reporters on the set-up of Merion Golf Club’s East Course and other aspects of the championship. This is the fifth Open to be contested at Merion, although the first in 32 years.
USGA Championship Committee Chairman Tom O’Toole revealed that the USGA received a record 9,806 entries this year. Anyone with a 1.4 handicap or less is eligible to compete in qualifying events. The 156-person field includes ten amateurs and 43 first-time participants. “The U.S. Open is also the most democratic, the most inclusionary of all major championships,” said O’Toole. “So anyone who has the skill, the passion, the determination, can compete for the title of America’s champion.”
Alluding to the rain-softened East Course which is likely to yield lower scores than typical of U.S. Open competition, O’ Toole stressed that the Open “is not about a score.” Noting that the course was doused by torrential rains Friday and Monday and that more rain is expected tomorrow, he remarked that “it’s not a perfect world. It’s not a perfect game. But we take what we’re dealt with. But what is important is that we revel and celebrate about a club.”
Echoing O’Toole’s comments, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis commented that “there were a lot of people at the USGA, including myself, that never thought this would happen. And it’s not because of Merion the golf course. It’s because we couldn’t figure out how to fit a modern day Open on this amount of property.” Davis credited the club, the neighboring community, and Haverford College (which is nearly adjacent to the club) for pulling together to make the event happen. Davis said that “to come back here and to have today’s players measure themselves against [Bobby] Jones and [Ben] Hogan, that’s neat. That can’t be done everywhere.”
Despite its length (it will play to less than 7,000 yards), Davis feels that Merion has stood the test of time well as any classic course. He observed that “there’s great movement to the property,” and that “there’s this wonderful balance to the course in terms of an ebb and flow. There’s opportunities for catch up with birdies, but there’s also holes that are as hard as any that you’ll see in any U.S. Open. It really is magical.”
Davis reviewed some of the unique features of the East Course. He said that there is no “theme” to the greens. “You’ve got big and small. You have ones that slope back to front, side to side, some that are relatively flat, some that have ridges to it, some that have plateaus, some are kidney shaped. It’s an intriguing golf course architecturally. There aren’t many level lies here,” said Davis.
Davis noted that the creeping bent grass greens have a lot of grain, which will challenge the players. “If you get down grain on these things, they really go,” he said. “And if you’re putting up to it, it’s really slow.” Davis said the greens will run from 13 to 13 ½ speed wise. “And that seems to Merion’s, for a championship, ideal green speeds, where you don’t lose hole locations, but you’re also really testing the players and you’re using the – when you get to that speed, some of the undulations, and the movement in the greens really come alive.”
Davis also noted that players will face some blind and semi-blind shots. “Merion is about precision,” he added. “When you think about golf courses and what they are, this to me would be a golf course that it’s one of the most precise in what it requires a player to do of any Open we go to.” Davis said that the penal rough “requires you to be in the fairway, otherwise you’re going to pay a pretty good price.” He said that the rough has been cut to four inches on the longer holes, and five inches on the shorter holes. The rough at Merion is an amalgamation of grasses, which will produce very different types of lies.
In recent Opens, the USGA has experimented with using different teeing grounds on some holes to create risk-reward situations, such as drivable par-4s. Davis noted that the 303-yard 10th hole is a candidate for such an approach. “We want to see kind of how the golf course is playing and the wind conditions,” said Davis. He emphasized that such decisions are driven by the risk-reward calculus and a desire to remain true to the architecture of the hole.
Note: Tomorrow morning a detailed hole-by-hole review of Merion’s East Course will appear at this site. Jack Ross is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly and is on-site at Merion this week.
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