Merion is full of quirky tee boxes, tricky greens and old-school charm rolled into 111 acres that will look relatively tame on television. Yes, you’ll see Merion’s red wicker baskets instead of flags on your screen, but, much like Augusta National, you’ve got to be here to appreciate the difficulty the players will face. Dick Conway [right] has been a member at Merion Golf Club for 37 years and offered to serve as our unofficial tour guide this week.
Just like your television can’t show Merion’s complexity -- even in HD! -- the iconic picture of Ben Hogan’s 1-iron on the par-4 18th hole at the 1950 U.S. Open doesn’t do the course justice either. The image of Hogan’s perfect follow-through, shot by Hy Peskin, shows the eventual Open champ hitting off a level surface into a relatively flat green without any discernable dips in height.
That's not the case anymore. Standing on the tee box of Merion’s closing hole, stretched back to play 521 yards, players will see a fairway slanted dramatically from right to left -- where a 300 yard drive is perfect but a 310 yard drive is too far and in the rough -- and a green that’s shaped like a barrel lying on its side. Not quite the level plains from Hogan’s picture.
As Conway navigated through the tidy layout during rainy afternoon practice rounds this week, his recurring theme was that Merion is a thinking man’s course. Each shot requires more precision and thought than the next.
The tee shot on No. 2 is a prime example. The 556-yard par-5 had its fairway pushed closer to the road that runs along the entire right side of the hole, part of a project that reduced the acreage of the fairway down from 26 to 18 to prepare for the Open, while the rough was thickened on the left side. But the closer you flirt with hazards -- as is true in most places on the course -- the better position you’ll be in for your approach shot. A tee shot that hugs the right-hand side of the fairway will be in prime position to avoid the cross bunker looming 35 yards before the green. To reach level ground for a chance to go for the green in two requires a drive that gets far enough up the steady incline onto a level landing area.
And this is considered an easy hole!
“I think a local caddie can save a stroke a hole out here,” said Conway, who volunteered at the course during the ’05 U.S. Amateur and the ’09 Walker Cup.
The fifth hole will look tame on television. The dramatic sloping nature of the 504-yard par-4 isn’t apparent in the USGA’s flyover video above, but the players will understand the inherent risks. Several pros spent a chunk of their practice rounds hitting pitch shots to different areas on the green and watching each one funnel down toward a creek that runs the length of the hole down the left side. On their approach, players will hit a long iron off an assured side-hill lie to a green that looks like an adult sitting down on the left side of a seesaw across from a toddler.
“I tell all of my guests to aim for the left side of the green near the creek with your second shot because every ball winds up down there eventually,” Conway said. “It might as well be on your second instead of your third or fourth.”
The 11th green is the lowest point of the golf course, hence the flooding that occurred on Monday that led to it being closed for the entire day. But even closed, that green still affected every other putt on the course because every green has grain with varied intensity that pulls balls towards the 11th. Back-to-front sloping greens -- like the 6th, directly above the 11th hole -- lead to lightning-fast putts when you face a downhill putt with the grain pushing downhill.
The course is essentially split into two halves by Ardmore Avenue, and the 11th is in one corner of the course. The 16th hole is on the opposite end, but it still can’t escape the force of that green.
“It’s half a mile away, but when you’re putting uphill on that green the grain is so strong that I’ve taken a level out there to make sure I’m still putting uphill,” Conway said.
Other quirks not seen on TV: The course has nine east-to-west holes and nine north-to-south holes to allow for wind to give players a drastic different direction from hole to hole. Several shots are blind. Merion isn’t drastically hilly, but the Pennsylvania farmland paired with an old rock quarry allows for elevation changes that cause players to hit elevated greens from blind shots in valleys of fairways. The front of the small 8th green breaks from left to right while the back breaks right to left. (“I don’t think the players will notice that change immediately; it’s one of the hardest greens out here to read,” Conway said.) Stumpy wooden posts line many fairways that are adjacent to the road. Many of the posts on No. 14 and 15 were cut down in order to allow balls to run more freely into the street and out of bounds. The 8th tee box is four steps off the 7th green. When you leave the second green, you walk across the 6th hole to get to the 3rd tee box.
So much to soak in. And it doesn't get any easier.
“And I’m still learning things out here after all this time,” Conway said.