The site of this year's Walker Cup, Merion GC is again a venue valued by the USGA. Its comeback is a tale of heart, humility and hard work
For the longest time, when the conversation turned to great, classic courses that had been left behind by the modern game, Merion GC was cited as Exhibit A.
Set in the leafy and moneyed Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, Merion boasts one of the richest histories of any club in America, not to mention one of the longest and closest relationships with the USGA.
Merion has hosted more USGA championships than any club in the country—in fact, more than 31 states—dating to the 1904 U.S. Women's Amateur, in its original incarnation as Merion Cricket Club. Next month's Walker Cup will be its 18th USGA event, a number that will grow when Merion hosts the U.S. Open in 2013. That will be the club's fifth Open (1934, '50, '71, '81), a total matched by Winged Foot and Pebble Beach (after next year) and exceeded only by Oakmont (eight), Baltusrol (seven) and Oakland Hills (six).
Merion's greatest glory, writ large in history books, has come on the East Course, which opened in 1912, an architectural masterpiece that earns a perennial Top 10 ranking on Golf Digest's biennial list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
Most famously, Merion is the hallowed golf ground where Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam, followed two decades later by Ben Hogan stoically hobbling to victory in the 1950 U.S. Open, a year after his near-fatal auto accident. Perhaps the most iconic of all golf photographs—Hy Peskin's black and white of Hogan, from behind, following through after ripping a 1-iron—was taken on the 18th at Merion.
Merion members swell with pride over their stewardship of the course they regard as a treasure and over the club's role in hosting so many national championships.
"It's kind of in the DNA of the club," U.S. Walker Cup captain Buddy Marucci, a Merion member, says of the sense of mission and commitment that he and many others at the club feel.
"Acre for acre," Jack Nicklaus once said of Merion, "it may be the best test of golf in the world."
If only there were more acres.
Fact is, even in 1981, during its last Open, the conventional wisdom was that Merion, at only 6,544 yards, was too short for the latest generation of power hitters.
Equally problematic, at least for the prospect of future Opens, was the limited space, shoehorned as Merion is into little more than 100 acres. In '81, when daily galleries were only about 18,000 and there were just 13 corporate hospitality tents, Merion's rolling hills were packed cheek-to-jowl. How could it possibly accommodate the sprawling sports spectacle the Open has become, with 40,000 fans per day, giant media and merchandise centers, a TV compound and row after row of corporate hospitality tents?
And there was something else: In 1989, when Merion hosted its fifth U.S. Amateur, the course was not in its usual picture-perfect condition.
"The greens were bad, the fairways were soft, the bunkers were getting beat up and trees were growing out of places they shouldn't be growing," says Bill Iredale, chairman of Merion's championship committee and a former golf committee chair. "The USGA was far too polite to rip it. But we knew, and we knew that they knew."
Iredale and Merion president Rick Ill blame the condition of the course in '89 on cuts in the maintenance budget, which they attribute to a shift in the club's priorities during much of the 1980s and early 1990s. "We had a series of presidents and leaders on the board, guys who didn't have a serious interest in competitive or championship golf," says Iredale.
What resulted after the '89 Amateur wasn't a falling out between Merion and the USGA, but rather a stony silence between two old friends. Merion didn't fully disappear from the USGA's radar screen, but it became a faint blip. To be sure, the club was no longer part of discussions about future Open sites, which makes the turnaround two decades later that much more striking.
The club once again is cozy with the USGA. Not only did Merion host its sixth U.S. Amateur in 2005—a resounding success during which the course, lengthened by 400 yards, withstood the onslaught of 312 young guns—and land the 2009 Walker Cup, but against all odds it will see the return of the U.S. Open in 2013.
How did it come to pass?
For Merion, the road to redemption began with a baby step, the 1998 U.S. Girls' Junior.
It had come to that. After nearly a decade on the outs, in order to get back into the good graces of the USGA, Merion had to swallow its pride and host one of the least glamorous of the USGA's national championships.
Suffice it to say, Merion is not accustomed to swallowing its pride. Founded in 1896, the club has always been a cut above in Philadelphia, its membership not only affluent but among the city's most socially elite and connected. Although the initiation fee runs toward $70,000—it's not tops among Philadelphia clubs—membership has never been about the money. As Iredale says, "You can have a trillion dollars and not get in the front gate."