Examining Merion Then And Now
The author of an award-winning book on the 1950 U.S. Open examines how Merion will play 63 years later
Editor's Note: David Barrett is the author of Miracle at Merion: The Inspiring Story of Ben Hogan's Amazing Comeback and Victory at the 1950 U.S. Open.
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Sixty-three years ago, Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open on Merion's East Course in one of the most famous championships ever. It's remembered as the crowning moment of Hogan's comeback from a nearly fatal automobile crash 16 months earlier and for his 1-iron to the 72nd hole captured in Hy Peskin's famous photo.
Not quite as well remembered is just how tough the course played. The winning total was seven over par and nobody broke par of 70 in the final round. This year, conversely, the question is whether Merion will hold up as tough enough for a 21st-century U.S. Open.
The shortness of the course -- which now plays to a maximum of 6,996 yards -- is only part of it. While the scorecard yardage was 6,694 in 1950, it was in reality more like the 6,544 yards on the 1971 U.S. Open scorecard, the product of more accurate measuring. Even in 1950 that made Merion one of the shortest championship courses of its era.
The difficulty lay in the heavy rough, the looming out-of-bounds, the hard and fast greens, and the difficult hole locations. "The trouble with Merion is that it always has you on the defensive," said Hogan that week, noting that he rarely hit his approach shots at the flag. "There's no way you can take the offensive against it."
Attacking golf is more possible at Merion in 2013, though it still must be tempered with realism and executed with precision. The increased length off the tee is a big part of it, but often overlooked is that modern equipment also helps players to hit it straighter, escape the rough better, and, with an arsenal of wedges, save par around the green more often.
There was a brief glimpse of a vulnerable Merion in the first two rounds in 1950 when Lee Mackey shot a 64 and Johnny Bulla a 66 before the course toughened up. With recent deluges of rain keeping the greens from their desired firmness, such numbers wouldn't be surprising this week, though perhaps the winds forecast for Thursday and Friday and drying conditions expected for the weekend will keep players on their toes.
Here's a look at some of the key events, by hole, from the 1950 U.S. Open, with some thoughts about how the highlighted holes will play this week. What's striking is that most of the notable moments from 1950 were of players struggling, but that's what you get with only one subpar round on the 36-hole final day of regulation. The 1950 Open was high on human interest and final-round suspense, but the 2013 one might provide more exciting golf.
No. 1, par 4, 360/350 yards: Jimmy Demaret was one of the favorites in 1950 but he shot himself out of it by the second round, which he started with a double bogey after hitting into rough so deep that he could only advance his second shot 25 yards. "I need a scythe to play this course," he said. With all the rain leading up to this Open thickening up rough that is traditionally severe at Merion, many players may feel the same way in 2013. Jim Ferrier entered the final round in 1950 just three strokes out of the lead and yanked his second shot to the left and beyond the green, out-of-bounds onto Ardmore Avenue. He followed with another poor shot and made a crushing triple bogey. In all probability not a single pro will hit it out-of-bounds over the first green in the entire championship this year. With an iron off the tee and a wedge approach, it should be one of the easiest holes on the course.
No. 4, par 5, 595/628 yards: Sam Snead was another favorite who didn't contend in 1950, but in the third round he became the only player to reach the fourth green in two shots all week. The yardage was probably shorter than the scorecard said, but even if it was 580 or so that was two prodigious pokes for those days. At 628 yards to a wildly undulating fairway -- the hole is downhill overall but there are also side slopes and uphill portions -- and a creek crossing about 15 yards short of the green not many will have an eagle putt this year, either.
No. 5, par 4, 425/504 yards: Tied with Ben Hogan two strokes out of the lead through 54 holes, and playing with the Hawk, Cary Middlecoff hooked his tee shot into the creek to the left of the fairway and made a double bogey. The added length makes this perhaps the toughest hole on the East Course now. The creek lies in wait on both the drive and the approach, and the fairway and green tilt noticeably from right to left, complicating the second shot and making it one of the toughest putting surfaces to negotiate.
No. 7, par 4, 360/360 yards: George Fazio hit his tee shot out-of-bounds to the right in the three-way 18-hole playoff with Hogan and Lloyd Mangrum. Fazio was able to make a bogey because O.B. was a distance-only penalty at the time, but with Hogan making a birdie Fazio fell three behind. Players are laying up with less club off the tee these days, making out-of-bounds shots less likely. This hole and the similar eighth are definitely birdie holes but if the tee shot strays into the rough players will be happy with pars.
No. 8, par 4, 367/359 yards: In the third round, Hogan's ball moved on the green as he stood over the putt but he was not penalized because he hadn't grounded his club. Hogan said he intentionally hovered his putter off the ground all week for that very reason. The greens will be even faster this year, thanks to modern agronomy and grasses, but perhaps less of a shock to players' systems as they are more used to fast greens than they were in 1950.
No. 10, par 4, 335/303 yards: Middlecoff made his second double bogey in the final round to fall four behind Hogan, who by then was the leader. Both hit tee shots into the same fairway bunker about 60 yards from the green, but Middlecoff's shot caught the lip and stayed in the bunker while Hogan hit his ball onto the green. That bunker was installed at the behest of the USGA before the 1950 Open, but it was removed in the late 1990s when Merion restored the bunkering of the East Course to the way it was in 1930. The hole's shorter yardage today is perhaps a function of measuring the dogleg differently, but in any case it's certainly more drivable for today's pros, some of whom can get home with a three-wood. But it's a challenging shot, because with the tee set back in some trees it requires about 30 yards of right-to-left movement, so many will lay up.