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The 113th U.S. Open: Traditional design vs. the modern game

By
Stephen Moskal
Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear on Merion East: Acre for Acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world. UPI/Kevin Dietsch
Jack Nicklaus. "The Golden Bear" on Merion East: "Acre for Acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world." UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo

WASHINGTON, June 12 -- This year's U.S. Open is particularly important because it is going back to the iconic Merion East golf course, a course that had seemed to be left to the wayside by the modern game. With Merion playing around 6,900 yards, this will be the first time that there will be a genuine clash between an old traditional golf course and the modern player. The closest earlier example of such a clash would have been the last U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which itself has not changed too dramatically over time. And yet, it still plays over 7,000 yards. Once considered impossibly long, 7,000 yards is now a bare minimum for championship golf. Merion also conjures up memories and stories of championships where legends were born. Bobby Jones debuted his major championship career at Merion at the tender age of 14. Lee Trevino attributes his success with having been able to defeat Jack Nicklaus at Merion. The "Very Major" Majors at Merion Whereas Merion hosted many important championships, two of them in particular have left a permanent mark in the history of the game. The U.S. Amateur Championship of 1930 was host to the ultimate feat, a feat that has been used to define greatness in golf (some say in all of sports) and has been the spoken and unspoken goal of nearly every golfer that has since played: The Grand Slam. Bobby Jones came to the Merion cricket club with having won the first three majors. His victory not only sealed his personal stardom but with nearly 18,000 spectators on hand to witness, it drew the nation's attention to the game of golf. Bobby Jones not only became the greatest golfer, but an American sports hero. In 1948 Ben Hogan won two majors and was at the turning point of a career, a career that had started off quite slowly compared to that of childhood rival Byron Nelson. Although not publicly announced until years later, one must wonder if he had not already started perfecting his "secret." Looking back, his car accident in February of 1949 ultimately turned out to be a minor hiccup in his career as he would go on to win six of his nine majors after the accident. Without losing stride, he worked himself back into prime form and Merion was once again host to one of the most memorable championships in history. The photo of his 1-iron shot that earned him a chance to play off for the victory, a victory that would later be dubbed as "The Miracle at Merion," remains one of the most iconic photos in the history of the game. As Hogan made his surprising comeback at Merion, Merion itself is back in the game against all odds. Deemed too short after the 1981 U.S. Open, Merion seemed condemned to host "only" amateur championships. How will it hold up and who has an advantage? It will hold up just fine. Why? Because it is not actually going to play that short. The total distance listed on the scorecard hides the tremendous length of many of the holes.

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There are only five holes that play shorter than usual and players will not be able to blindly attack those holes without fear of punishment. The rough is very thick, albeit not terribly tall throughout the course. The rain that has fallen in the past few weeks has made the course play very soft. This means that players will be able to shoot at more flags. But it also means that they won't be getting much roll in the fairways. With some holes playing extremely long, the soft conditions will make the course play even longer. Looking back at the history of the Open at Merion, I would not be surprised to see remembrance of times past. I can very well see a battle between two players with completely opposite styles of game.

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Reminiscent of the Nicklaus/Trevino battle, I predict just a couple of players getting around the hallowed grounds of Merion, each in his own style. One, hitting it hard and high like Jack and the other with a precision and accuracy in the style of Hogan and Trevino. Regardless of the score, in the end, it will come down to two players. I predict two opposites attracting and providing another unforgettable U.S. Open at Merion.

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