The Big Bet On Merion
The USGA's former executive director explains why he championed bringing the open back to a course considered 'too short'--and why, weather permitting, it could be a heck of a test
Since the day Merion's East Course was announced, seven years ago, as the site for the 2013 U.S. Open, naysayers have been challenging the wisdom of the choice: Too short...Too small...Wrong historic golf course. Add the conspiracy cynics who believe the USGA is going to Merion to either (a) prove there's no distance problem in today's game, or (b) demonstrate there is a distance problem, and it's no wonder this Open is one of the most anticipated in years.
In an effort to address these questions and others, Golf Digest Contributing Editor David Fay sat down with his alter ego, former USGA Executive Director David B. Fay, to get his perspective on a decision that was made on his watch.
After Ben Hogan's famous 1-iron in the 1950 U.S. Open, it took 21 years for the USGA to return to Merion for the Open. Why so long?
The popular theory is that the USGA and Merion were spooked when Jack Nicklaus, in the 1960 World Amateur Team Championship, pulverized the golf course with a score of 66-67-68-68--269, which was 18 strokes lower than Hogan's total 10 years earlier. But that's not the full story. The World Amateur event was played in early fall, and Merion was set up far shorter, softer and easier in all respects than it would have been for an Open or an Amateur. It didn't have an elite field. There were 58 scores of 90 and above, including eight scores in the 100s.
Personalities played a huge role. The USGA's Joe Dey had become enamored with the work of architect Robert Trent Jones, and Trent was all about big and brawny. After reworking Oakland Hills in 1951 into a course described by Hogan as a "monster," Jones had strengthened Baltusrol Lower in 1954. Both these clubs were 36-hole operations, with plenty of staging room. Dey saw this as the future, so it's no wonder that the Open went to large facilities like Congressional (1964), Bellerive (1965), Champions (1969) and Hazeltine (1970). It's funny how these newer courses produced shorter-hitting champions like Ken Venturi, Gary Player and Tony Jacklin. Anyway, I give full credit to Dey's key assistants--P.J. Boatwright and Frank Hannigan--for influencing the change in the USGA's Open mind-set, including the decision to return to Merion in 1971.
Merion has never been a course that emphasized the use of the driver. Never. My successor, Mike Davis, wants players to hit drivers at six holes this year: the two par 5s and four par 4s (5, 6, 14 and 18), though he acknowledges some will choose to hit 3-wood "to work the ball and better hold a fairway, but that's their decision." And yes, players might be hitting wedges into seven or eight holes (five of the par 4s are less than 400 yards). But Merion's strength has always been the brilliant weaving of short, sexy holes in the middle (7 through 11), combined with a stout five-hole finish. "If those aren't the hardest finishing holes in a U.S. Open," Davis says, "I don't know what are."
In 1971, prim and proper Merion proved that the game had not passed it by. The late Jim Murray summed it up when he wrote: "Nicklaus and Trevino shot even par and played off for the championship. Nicklaus lost and ended up one over par for the championship. Whatever else she is, Merion ain't no lady."
When the Open returned to Merion in 1981, David Graham won his second major with a surgically impressive final-round 67 for a total of 273--one stroke higher than Nicklaus had shot the year before at Baltusrol in winning his fourth Open. Only five players in the 1981 championship broke par. It looked like a continuation of the success story of 1971. So why did it take the USGA 32 years to return?
Baltusrol, in 1980, was a seminal moment for the business of the Open--good or bad, depending on your point of view--as the USGA was introduced to the corporate-hospitality tent. A couple of dinky, Cub Scout-like tents had been erected on the platform-tennis courts at Inverness in 1979. Baltusrol, using its Upper Course, sold 20 large ones. The era of the corporate-tent village arrived at a time when it was still a challenge for the USGA to make ends meet. We'd hired, in December 1980, former USGA president Harry Easterly as our senior executive director. We were adding programs and people, and the culture of the whole operation was becoming more of a business. It wasn't the place I'd joined in 1978 as the tournament-relations manager.