August 24, 2009

Resurrecting Merion

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

sHORT AND STOUT: The green at the par-4, 360-yard eighth is both deceptive and treacherous, a worthy example of the challenges Walker Cup competitors will face Sept. 12-13.

sHORT AND STOUT: The green at the par-4, 360-yard eighth is both deceptive and treacherous, a worthy example of the challenges Walker Cup competitors will face Sept. 12-13.

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."

Indeed, in addition to their golf course, Merion members take great pride in the club's understated elegance. The clubhouse, which grew from an 1824 farmhouse, is smallish by today's standards. The men's locker room is positively spartan. During a clubhouse renovation several years ago, nothing was done to upgrade the drab metal lockers.

Ostentatious displays of wealth are considered boorish and reason for a guest to never be invited back. The only thing worse is talking down to a caddie or wait staff. Traditions die hard at Merion. Only this year, after much consultation with the actual traditions committee, did the club take the leap of adding erasers to its scorecard pencils. The use of laser rangefinders got a thumbs down.

Just to get the Girls' Junior, Merion had to first make amends with the USGA. For that to happen, it took a new slate of officers—Iredale as golf chairman and Bill Greenwood as green chairman.

To begin the healing process, Lew Rawlings, a former Merion president, was asked to break the ice with a call to Buzz Taylor, then vice president of the USGA and his old roommate at Princeton. A meeting was arranged at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. "We absolutely were going into that meeting hat in hand," recalls Iredale.

Greenwood, who was also there, concurs. "We wanted to make sure they understood that there was a new outlook and, frankly, a new guard at Merion," he says.

The USGA listened and responded with an offer: the '98 Girls' Junior.

After that championship, which went well, Merion was hungry for more. It quickly applied for and was awarded the 2005 U.S. Amateur, pegged to the 75th anniversary of Jones' historic Grand Slam. Then, thinking U.S. Opens were a thing of the past, the club also sought and got the 2009 Walker Cup, another boutique event but a prestigious one it had never hosted.

Merion's renewed enthusiasm certainly contributed to the success of the Girls' Junior, but so did an ongoing course-restoration project. It had begun quite inauspiciously five years earlier, in 1993, under the new slate of officers, not as a grand or long-range plan but rather as a simple project to remove a number of trees. By 1995 Greenwood and his golf committee had turned their attention to Merion's greens, which they wanted to recast to remedy an unwanted strain of Poa annua grass. While studying the club's vast archives, they were surprised by what they saw in old photos. Over the years greens had shrunk by as much as 25 percent, and several fairways had been altered due to mowing patterns. And it was impossible not to notice the deterioration of Merion's famously craggy bunkers, with their jagged edges and Scotch broom. Now, their walls were constantly caving in, and they filled with water when it rained.

Gradually, as the green and golf committees discussed what to do, the idea of a wholesale restoration began to take hold. But to restore it to when, what time in the East Course's then 83-year history?

Once the entire membership was on board, the club eventually settled on returning to the course to how it had been in 1930, the year of Jones' historic conquest. The reasoning was that by then the East Course, which was designed by a Merion member, Hugh Wilson, an insurance salesman by trade, and William Flynn, the mastermind of half a dozen of Philadelphia's greatest courses, was 18 years old, fully mature, yet unsullied by future changes.

Tom Fazio, a Philadelphia-area native and longtime friend of Merion, was consulted but didn't formally oversee the restoration; it was done by committee. "Out of the kindness of his heart, Tom came by and blessed what we were doing," says Iredale. "But no one person did the redesign. Tom was one of several who had a hand in it. Buddy Marucci had a hand in it, and [superintendent] Matt Shaffer and Bill Greenwood did, too."

The restoration wasn't completely blind to concessions to modernity. They kept the irrigation system that wasn't in place in 1930, for instance, and they added several new championship tees that stretched the par-70 course to 6,846 yards.

"Back to the future," is how Marucci, a green-committee member, described the project in August 2001 when it was almost complete.

Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, had had his eye on Merion for a while. A native of Chambersburg, Pa., Davis was a longtime fan of the course and respectful of the club's place in the game. He had also been in that original making-amends meeting at Far Hills, so he knew the effort Merion was putting forth.

In the fall of 1998, Davis, then deputy to Tom Meeks, had been invited to Merion to examine the changes, both underway and planned. And there was something else.

"I was asked by Buddy [Marucci], 'Could you come down and tell our board why we can't have another Open?' " recalls Davis. Therefore, it was not a trip Davis relished. "It is easier telling somebody their kids are ugly," he says, "than telling them their course can't hold an Open."

But a funny thing happened on that visit as Davis played a round with Marucci, Iredale and Greenwood: He became something of a believer in the possibilities for Merion. He marveled at the improvements, especially the new tees and the removal of trees that had clogged pedestrian traffic during the '81 Open.

Still, knowing the outside-the-ropes problems, Davis figured the Open was a moot issue. Later that day, he delivered the bad news to the Merion board.

As the Amateur approached, however, Davis continued to visit. It was during one of those trips, in late 2001 or early 2002, over lunch in the Merion grillroom, that Davis dropped a bombshell. He said he liked the changes so much he had broached the subject of trying to figure a way to bring the Open to Merion with his boss, USGA executive director David Fay.

"We were stunned," recalls Iredale.

Immediately, the conversation turned to the outside-the-ropes obstacles. That's when someone at the table wondered aloud about maybe using the acres and acres of wide-open space a stone's throw away—the athletic fields at nearby Haverford College. During the '81 Open, those same fields had been used for parking. Why wouldn't they work for corporate hospitality tents?

"We got up and went straight over to look at it," says Iredale. The Haverford fields were perfect, but given the scale of the modern Open, they would still need more room.

How about Merion's West Course, two minutes further up Ardmore Avenue? And what about the mansions along Golf House Road, adjacent to Merion? Could they put hospitality tents in their yards?

By the end of that day, Davis was all the more convinced Merion could pull off another U.S. Open. Not a giant Open, such as Bethpage or Pinehurst, with 45,000 spectators a day. But a smaller Open, similar to Winged Foot, with room for 20,000 or 25,000 spectators per day.

"I remember it like it was yesterday, walking into David Fay's office when I got back, saying, 'We can do this, we can hold an Open at Merion,' " Davis recalls. Fay listened but was not convinced. That soon changed, too, in September 2002, when Fay was invited to be the keynote speaker at Merion's annual celebration of Jones' Slam, a day that included golf and a black-tie gala.

During his round Fay began to grasp all that Davis had been telling him. "You would have had to be blind not to appreciate the changes that had been made," says Fay, who suddenly was also in Merion's corner. Ultimately, though, the prospects hinged on whether the logistics could be overcome and if Merion could stand up to the longest hitters in the game.

As the 2005 U.S. Amateur approached, it was clear the event, filled with college-aged bombers, would be a make-or-break test for the Open. By the second day of stroke-play qualifying, the results were in—Merion had passed with flying colors. Of 312 players, only six broke par, and none of them had better than 69. The scoring average on the East Course was 78.2.

"By Tuesday night, we were high-fiving," says Iredale, general chairman of the Amateur, knowing the verdict was unofficially in.

Next, they went to work on the logistics. Haverford was quickly on board, as were the homeowners along Golf House Road. That would give them room for 60 tents on the athletic fields and another dozen or so in the neighbors' yards. The East Course's practice range will be transformed into the sprawling TV compound. The West Course will be used for the practice range and for hospitality for the players and their families. Not everything has been figured out.

"Fact is, several large things are still up in the air," says Iredale. "We've not decided where the media center or the central merchandise tent will go."

Of course, the final decision about returning the Open to Merion was up to the USGA's 15-member executive committee. Its vote was still months off, in February 2006.

Craig Ammerman, then a member of both the USGA's championship committee and the executive committee, not to mention a Philadelphian and Merion supporter, vividly recalls the vote and the discussions that preceded it.

"No potential Open site had been through such rigorous review," he says. "And I can tell you, the Executive Committee voted to go to Merion because Mike Davis and [deputy executive director] Mike Butz provided answers to every question we had—good answers."

The vote was unanimous.