Fewer trees makes Merion a better major championship venue
ARDMORE, Pa. -- I only visit Merion every quarter century or so. Most recently I was here to cover the 1989 U.S. Amateur, and I remember admiring a stand of mature trees that framed the approach shot on Merion's par-4 16th, the first of its notorious "quarry holes." Big trees covered the entire right rim of the former limestone quarry, forcing the golfer to hit a mid-iron over the excavated pit to the green. I thought it was a great hole, and I loved the trees.
This past Tuesday, I returned to the 16th hole and found it much changed. The quarry rim was still a botanist's delight, overrun with menacing shrubs and swaths of fescue gone to seed. But all the trees were gone, felled more than a decade ago under the banner of progress. And now it's even a better hole. I don't miss the trees.
It's as much a change in me as in Merion. I was your original tree hugger, having grown up on tree-lined Kansas City golf courses. My first U.S. Open course was Oklahoma's Southern Hills, which supported enough board feet of lumber to build a prairie town. Given a choice between sunbeams and shade, I always chose shade.
Two things changed me. The first was my growing appreciation for links-style golf, which began in 1992, when I covered my first British Open. Muirfield had some trees along the edges, but the core of the course was an unfettered dunescape. I was instantly enthralled with the panoramic views of distant flagsticks and grandstands and spectators silhouetted on jagged hillocks. I subsequently became an avid, if ineffective, player of links golf, attaching myself to arbor-free treasures such as Ireland's Carne Golf Links and Scotland's Askernish Old.
The rest of my transformation came with the news that Pennsylvania's Oakmont Country Club, a distinguished major-championship venue, had embarked on a radical deforestation program. This was in preparation for the 2007 U.S. Open, and it was so inimical to the values of many club members and outside interests that many of the trees were felled without notice and at night. I was horrified when I heard about it, and I stayed horrified until I saw the finished work.
The "new" Oakmont was, in fact, closer to the 1903 design of its founder, Henry Fownes, and as a tournament venue it was greatly improved. You could see Tiger Woods and his huge gallery from a half-mile away, and the roars for great shots carried from every point of the compass. I left Pittsburgh believing that trees still have their place on parkland golf courses, but they should never be allowed to spread indiscriminately and smother the corridors of play.
Merion, like Oakmont, followed the advice of agronomists in reducing its tree population. Turf grasses, to prosper, need lots of sunlight, drainage and good air circulation, and you don't get that under a forest canopy. Merion also shared Oakmont's restoration impulse, the desire to present modern golfers with the same challenges that Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan faced. Merion chose the year 1930 as its benchmark and hired famed golf architect Tom Fazio to manage the restoration. There were howls of protest, but the trees came down. (Forgive my rudeness as I punch the sky.)
Anyway, the quarry looks incredible now. The crater, which bottoms out below the way-high tee of the par-3 17th, is a sea of wind-bent grasses bordered by limestone ledges, and what used to be impenetrable undergrowth inside the curving 16th fairway is now a wild verge of rough, shrubbery, and barely-remembered sand bunkers. If the USGA is smart, they'll scrap their 18-hole playoff tradition and simply toss the balls of any tied contenders into this briar patch. You'll have your champion in 15 minutes.
I'll be watching from the shade of the nearest tree.