Examining Merion Then And Now
*__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.
No. 11, par 4, 378/367 yards: The short par 4 with Cobbs Creek (known at this spot as the "babbling brook") cutting in front of and to the right of the green can cause problems, but probably not as many as experienced by 16-year-old Mason Rudolph in 1950. A future winner of five PGA Tour events, the teenaged Rudolph was perhaps not ready for the Open yet, as he hit three balls into the water and made a 12 in the second round. That's the kind of danger that could make a player lay up with a 40-yard pitch-out if his tee shot finds a not-so-good lie the rough this week, but a good tee shot affords a birdie opportunity.
No. 12, par 4, 400/403 yards: Tied with Hogan in the playoff, Mangrum made the first of two major blunders down the stretch, one that is less well known. His second shot airmailed the green, flying across Ardmore Avenue and out-of-bounds some 30 yards too long. With the distance-only penalty, he was able to knock his third shot on the green and make a bogey. Years later, USGA official Ike Grainger told Merion historian John Capers that Mangrum's caddie had handed him a 6-iron instead of the 9-iron he meant to, and Lloyd didn't notice. In a way, that seems hard to believe. But it's a better explanation for such a drastic overshoot than the "fading breeze" referred to in the New York Times account. With no room to extend the tee, this hole effectively plays much shorter than it did 63 years ago.
No. 15, par 4, 395/411 yards: Hogan wasn't always a machine, as he demonstrated in the third round when he hit his drive on the 15th out-of-bounds and made a bogey (thanks again to the distance-only penalty). Later Saturday he bogeyed the hole again, this time with a three-putt from 25 feet, as his lead dwindled to one stroke. This is one hole where you will see players hit out-of-bounds this year; the stakes are very close to the left of the fairway. A couple of added fairway bunkers on the right make it a very tough driving hole.
No. 16, par 4, 445/430 yards: Fazio's 70 matched the best score of the final round as he came from six strokes back to reach the playoff, but he could have spoiled the Hogan story if he'd been able to capitalize on a great shot on the 16th. Fazio's tee shot finished in a divot hole in the fairway and he considered laying up short of the old quarry (an area filled with long grass, bushes and bunkers) that fronts the green, but decided to hit a 4-iron from 170 yards. He hit a great shot to within four feet of the hole, but missed the putt. You won't see any 4-iron approaches this year; it's more like a 3-wood and a wedge these days as one of the great holes in the game has lost some of its teeth (the tee is up against the club's boundary so it can't be extended). The 16th is more famous as the site of Mangrum's two-stroke penalty for lifting his ball on the green to blow off a bug at a time when marking was allowed only if your ball interfered with that of another player. The penalty was assessed after Mangrum had made a dramatic par-saving putt to apparently stay within one stroke of Hogan.
__No. 17, par 3, 230/246 yards:__Hogan did play like a machine in the playoff, grinding down his foes with relentless fairway, green, par golf. His round of 69 included 15 pars, one bogey and two birdies, the last coming when he holed his longest putt of the week, a 50-footer on the 17th, eliciting a huge roar from the crowd as he virtually clinched the title. The previous day he had bogeyed from a bunker to fall into a tie for the lead, on a ball he thought he had struck well from the tee. The green is a challenging target for such a long tee shot, and for that reason USGA executive director and U.S. Open setup man Mike Davis says he will use a 224-yard tee for probably a couple of rounds this year rather than playing it all the way back at the tee that was built before the 2005 U.S. Amateur.
No. 18, par 4, 458/521 yards: The toughest hole at Merion in 1950 was the scene of Hogan's dramatic 1-iron to the green
in the final round that enabled him to survive into the playoff. There were a couple of other heroic shots that week. Unknown Lee Mackey hit a 3-wood to 10 feet and made the putt for a birdie to give him a then U.S. Open record 64 in the first round (he would shoot 81 the next day). And Ferrier hit a 4-wood to within a foot in the third round -- the only birdie on the hole in the double-round final day. The approaches weren't always with woods and long irons; Hogan hit a 5-iron in the playoff when he was less tired and the hole was slightly downwind. Even extended to 521 yards (a 505 tee will also likely see some action), many will be hitting 5- and 6-iron approaches this year. Some long hitters will likely lay up off the tee to avoid a downslope that could give them a downhill lie or carry the ball into the left rough. But the longest of the long could gamble and, with an extremely accurate drive, have a wedge or 9-iron to the green, a tee shot that could hardly even have been imagined 63 years ago.