US Open 2013: Quirky Merion is one major pull for the traditionalists

Organisers hit by rain deluge but it cannot dilute charm of historic US Open venue

Kevin Garside@GARSIDEK
Thursday 13 June 2013 14:22
The famous wicker baskets on a Merion putting green
The famous wicker baskets on a Merion putting green

On the wall of Adam Scott's Bahamas home hangs the iconic poster of Ben Hogan's one-iron to the 18th in the 1950 US Open. The Masters champion bought it from the Merion club shop on a visit a fortnight ago. He could have ordered it online but he wanted to do it here, the place where Hogan further embellished his legend and left an indelible imprint on the game.

Hogan was the Tiger of the day, a name that held within its two syllables all that it meant to be a golfer. He needed a par to take the tournament to a play-off and like the hero he was he pulled it off with the hardest club in the bag, a tool that hardly features today. The photo captures not only the shot but the mood of America in all its post-war ebullience; ambitious, confident, on the move. Hogan – impossibly stylish in tailored trousers, handmade shoes and white cap – is seen from behind with the galleries following the arc of the ball on a sun-dappled day.

"It's nice to come to these places that have played such a big part in golf's history because we don't get to do it that much" Scott said. "I bought the poster in the pro shop. I thought I'd buy it here because then at least it's from the place where he hit the one-iron. I think most of us appreciate the history of the game and understand everything that's happened before, and we all like doing that kind of stuff."

Hogan would go on to beat Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in the play-off. Twenty years earlier Bobby Jones completed his historic grand slam here with victory in the US amateur. We are back in America's north east, the new world's old country, where the game developed in the suburbs of cities and towns rapidly expanding into the 20th century. Philadelphia is at the heart of the story of America. Five signatories to the Declaration of Independence rest in the Christ Church burial ground, including the city's most famous son, Benjamin Franklin.

Time has transformed a region that once throbbed with revolutionary zeal into a defender of traditions. Merion has hosted more USPGA championships than any in America but it is in every sense a track from yesteryear. Stretched to its current configuration it still falls short of 7,000 yards, and were it built today would not come close to meeting the criteria of hosting a global event and all that comes with it.

The last time the US Open was staged here in 1981 the tented village amounted to 13 small structures on the practice range behind the 17th green. Today there are more than 200 tents and 80-plus support trailers, a good number sited beyond the 127-acre boundary, requiring the indulgence of neighbours acquired through cash compensations.

In coming here the host, the United States Golf Association, is making an important point about the game and its traditions. It is reminding club and ball manufacturers that enough is enough. Golf is on the limit of its own definition with a ball that carries more than 300 yards, hit by graphite devices with heads as big as saucers. Here the players will be hitting the same clubs as their forebears into many of the greens. There are five par-fours that measure fewer than 360 yards, including the 10th, which crests 300 by only three yards.

Though the course is comparatively short the long bits are brutal. There are two par-fives in the opening four holes, the second of which extends 627 yards, the longest hole on any major course this year. Three of the four par-threes come in at more than 200 yards with the third hole a hefty 256 yards. Try hitting that with your wedge.

In the thinking of these boys the course divides roughly into three sections; a testing start and a challenging finish wrapped around a land of opportunity in the middle. The most distinctive feature is the egg-shaped baskets made of wicker that adorn the pins instead of flags.

These were not uncommon on courses in mid-19th century Britain, but romance would rather they originated in the mind of course designer Hugh Wilson, who, on a trip to the old country in 1912, was said to have been influenced by a visit to the American ambassador's residence in St James's, where the ambassador's wife placed shepherd's crooks topped with flower baskets in holes on the private putting green. Today it is just one more quirk in a quirky setting.

The organisers have not been helped by weather from Wales. Think Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor and you will know how quickly a beautiful setting can turn into a ploughed field. Pools the colour of iron ore gathered all over the course as the heavy rains continued to wash out the muddy minerals from the fairway soils. Water was falling at a rate of two inches per hour on Monday afternoon and into the night, turning the public areas of Merion into thermal spas for hippos. Car parks were rendered unusable. Getting around the site was a torment for the golfers, never mind the punters. The distance from practice green, situated more than a mile away on the adjacent West Course, to first tee requires up to 30 minutes to execute on match days, playing havoc with pre-match routines.

But what nature takes away, she returns with the comfort of softer greens and moist fairways that will hold on to a ball instead of guiding it towards a crippling rough and bunkers bearded by long, wispy grass. In their wisdom the green-keepers treated the spring rough with nitrogen-based nutrients to promote growth. It was intended as extra defence to balance the short yardage book. Back then a series of tropical storms were not on anybody's radar. The effect of persistent heavy downpours this past fortnight has turned the rough into a wrist-busting penitentiary. No golfer wants to be imprisoned there this week.

Five quirky things about Merion

1. Egg-shaped wicker baskets not flags on the pins. A tradition borrowed from 19th-century Britain was copied at Merion in 1915, red on the outward nine, black coming in. From a distance they look like lollypops.

2. Covering only 127 acres, Merion is the smallest site on the major championship rota, and measuring fewer than 7,000 yards, the shortest, but it boasts the longest hole at a major his year, the 627-yard fourth.

3. The travelling time from practice range to first tee, a distance of more than one mile, is estimated at 20-30 minutes, raising fears of missed tee times for those not paying attention.

4. Crowds are limited to 25,000 a day. But they will be loud. Philadelphia is a revolutionary town, the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Things are calmer now but just as noisy.

5. Merion has hosted more USGA championships than any course in America but has not held the US Open since 1981. To mark its return the clubhouse hosted only the second US Open champions dinner in 118 years.

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