The love fest is in full swing for this year’s U.S. Open host — Merion

April 30, 2013

ARDMORE, Pa. — Looking down at the 18th fairway at Merion Golf Club's East Course, I noticed the plaque that marks the spot of The Shot — the place where Ben Hogan hit the immaculate 1-iron shot to the green and went on to win the 1950 U.S. Open some 18 months after his car-loses-to-bus accident.

I dropped a ball behind the plaque. My caddie, who asked for anonymity (the guys at his law office will never know!), gave me a yardage of 212. I don't have a 1-iron. I have never owned one and it's been a decade since I gave up my 2-iron. So it had to be a 3-iron hybrid. I hit it flush, a beautiful shot. It appeared to stop pin-high on the green, maybe 15 feet or less from the hole although it was hard to tell because the clouds were dark and low and it had only just stopped spitting rain moments earlier.

I knew I shouldn't but for the amusement of my fellow playing companions, I said loudly, "Suck on that, Hogan!"

A few moments later when we finally reached the green, I saw that my ball had rolled back off the green, which has a large false front. I now faced a 30-yard pitch up over the false front to a pin located on a crest. It was an easy double bogey.

Lesson learned. Don't mess with Texas or Hogan, and not necessarily in that order.

Monday was U.S. Open media day at Merion so after assorted press conferences and lunch, I was among the lucky media hacks who went out to play the vaunted East Course. It was an honor and quite a privilege to desecrate the place the way we did.

Here, then, are some observations from media day Monday (no relation to Rick Monday, in case you were wondering):

The East Course is tremendous. The 1981 U.S. Open here was the first Open I covered. Apparently, I'd forgotten how great this track is. Merion may or may not yield a few low scores during the Open in June but it would be among the top three courses in America if I was in charge of the rankings. It might even be No. 1. I'd probably have Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach up there, a hair-breadth ahead of Oakmont, Augusta National, Pine Valley and Oak Hill. Really, how do you rank those places? You may as well try to rate your favorite SI swimsuit issue models based on whether you prefer big, undulating greens or tight par-4s.

The 16th hole is going to be a star. This is a stunning uphill 430-yard par 4. Seen from above, the hole is shaped like a question mark. The tee box is the dot beneath the question mark, the fairway loops around a mess of quarry rocks, bunkers and shrubs-you do not want to be in there, trust me-and ends at the green, a long, narrow, sharply sloped surface with three tiers. It's an intimidating view from the tee. The quarry area to be avoided won't be in play for any pro who hits the fairway but those who find the rough and have a squirrelly lie (no relation to the squirrel of Oakmont logo fame, in case you were wondering) will have to decide whether they can carry it over that danger zone or lay up. This is a hole that should be painted by artists. Maybe even those starving artists who turn up at Holiday Inns to sell their stuff.

What's hot in golf? The short-short par 3. (Replacing the recently trendy drivable par 4.) Merion's 13th will also be a star and it's a hole to love at a mere 115 yards. No, that is not a typo. It is 115 yards — a sand wedge or gap wedge for the pros and it's a beauty of a throwback hole. A deep (and I mean deep) and gaping bunker guards the green's front, and mounding prevents a player from seeing exactly where the pin is located. That is, you can't see the bottom of the flagstick, so it's a partially blind shot. The green has all kinds of tilt. Even better, thanks to unique routing, the 13th is right by the clubhouse. So there should be big crowds milling around and watching at all times. It'll be an upset if there's not a hole-in-one there during Open week. It's my second-favorite Merion hole.

"That will probably be the easiest par 3 you'll ever see at an Open," said USGA executive director Mike Davis, "but it's a neat hole."

The two courses of Merion. Credit defending champion Webb Simpson for this view. He played in a U.S. Amateur and a Walker Cup at Merion so he knows this place pretty well. He said he considers holes 1 through 13 one course, a place where birdies can be made. Simpson calculates that a player may hit wedge into the green nine times in those 13 holes. He views the last five holes, 14 through 18, as a different course, a long grind of challenging holes with a brutal finish.

"The last five are going to be some of maybe the hardest holes we've ever had at the Open," Simpson said.

The 17th is a 246-yard par 3 from an elevated tee to a nasty green, a very good hole, and the 18th, which has a back tee at 521 yards, uphill and over the famous quarry that Hogan (and yes, I) successfully navigated. That's manly stuff and the reason somebody isn't likely to shoot 61 or 58 on the first Open course under 7,000 yards (Merion will play at 6,996) since Shinnecock Hills in 2004.

A sign of Open inflation. This stat courtesy of Open chairman Rick Ill, who noted that the 1981 Open at Merion featured 500 volunteer workers. This year, it'll be 5,000 volunteers on site. "I said, 'There can't possibly be that many,'" Ill said. "Well, I'm about to go to the training sessions for the marshals and others, which start Saturday, and I can assure you that there will be 5,000 people there waiting to be trained."

Prepare for a love-in. You're going to here gushing comments from golfing purists about the Open returning to Merion and it's understandable. The modern Open is about maximizing profits but the limited land available — the course is squeezed into 111 acres — make the Merion Open a labor of love, not a profit machine. Oh, there will be plenty of hospitality suites and such, but crowds will be limited to about 25,000 per day. Here's Davis on the Merion love-fest in progress:

"The place is just magical. It's historical, it's an architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, you could easily say it's a landmark. It's hard to think of a moment in golf in the U.S. that was more important than Bob Jones winning the Grand Slam here at Merion."

The Hogan 1-iron. Davis borrowed the famous club from the USGA museum and brought it along Monday for show-and-tell. "If you get a chance, look at this iron," Davis told the group of writers, wielding the club as deftly as Luke Skywalker wields a light saber. "You can't believe it. You'd think that Ben Hogan shanked every shot he hit when you see where he was hitting the ball (on this clubface)."

Just who does Webb Simpson think he is? Some grumbling writers wondered this Monday when they found out that the defending Open champion didn't attend U.S. Open media day. As Ron Burgundy might say, it's kind of a big deal. It's one thing to skip media day if you're the defending Reno-Tahoe Classic champion but quite another to stiff the USGA when you're the U.S. Open champ. Simpson did an interview via a Skype hookup on-screen and made sure he had the Open trophy next to him in the shot. He was at home in Charlotte, a 90-minute flight away. Simpson was chock-full of Merion info and offered some good insight into the course and his victory, but the interview was far too short, barely ten minutes. Had he been on-site, as most Open champions are, he could've done local TV interviews and scrummed with writers who needed more material, as most Open champions historically have done.

Then again, if Simpson's absence was his way of making a statement about the USGA's stance on anchored putting, more power to him and his friends in the Rebel Alliance in their battle with the Empire. Simpson uses a belly-putter and has been among the outspoken players who have questioned the USGA's proposal to ban all forms of anchored putting. Although he still would've scored more points with the media by showing up and talking about that subject instead of sitting at home.

The media hacks did not chop up Merion. As members have been doing since last winter, media golfers Monday hit shots from the fairway off tiny mats carried by the caddies and therefore didn't take any crater-sized divots. Good move.

Potpourri for $200, Alex: While the par-3 13th is a shorty, the others aren't. The third, ninth and 17th hoes will all play in excess of 230 yards, with No. 3 listed at 256… Merion has only two par 5s, the second and the fourth holes, and is par 70 (36-34)… The Open's merchandise tent will have a wide-ranging variety of stuff but the item that caught my eye in the Merion golf shop was a painting of a flagstick with the traditional Merion red-wicker basket (instead of a flag) in front of some sand and fescue and hills. The list price was $165 and I bet they sell out… If Merion plays firm and fast, Simpson says, "Even par will be an incredible score."… Few American courses feature totally blind shots, shots where players can't see the landing area at all. Merion has blind or semi-blind shots on 11 of 18 holes, Davis figures. That's counting shots where the bottom of the flagstick can't be seen as semi-blind… After Simpson offered his sharp analysis of Davis said,"See how Webb picked apart the golf course. Now you see why he won an Open."…

Because of Merion's relative lack of length, it's really a mix of short holes and long holes. Davis predicts, "More players can potentially win this U.S. Open than any other Open venue we go to."… One subtle thing about Merion worth noting is the fairways, which are often canted. That is similar to last year at Olympic Club, although Merion's slopes aren't quite as severe. Still, Davis said the fairways, normally mowed to about four-tenths of an inch, may be raised to half-an-inch so the balls don't roll through the fairways, especially at the fourth, fifth and 12th holes. Another benefit of longer fairways would be reduced length, making Merion play slightly longer. Augusta National, are you listening?… The wicker flag-markers, a Merion tradition, weren't used in the 1950 Open won by Hogan, according to Davis. I didn't know that… You will see more out-of-bounds penalties at Merion than any other recent Open. In the setup, a number of fairways were pushed closer to the property edges (and Ardmore Avenue) to bring out of bounds into play. The best one is the second hole, a reachable par 5 where anything right of the fairway is likely to be on a street and Oscar Brown (OB).

Highlights, lowlights and Bud Lights from the Van Cynical Mailbag:

I read that you were going to Merion. So what did you shoot? — Doug in Scottsdale, via email
I shot a newspaper 73 with a bogus double at 18 and birdies at 7 and 10. It's a newspaper score only, not one I'd post, because we not only hit off mats, we took other liberties with the rules to speed up play and have fun. I also took a sort of mulligan at 16 — we teed off there in a shotgun start and I made double so I played it a second time as our last hole and scrambled for a bogey. I wrote down a 5 on the card. But I wouldn't have had an official score.

Gary, I know your opinion on anchoring. But if it is not an advantage, then why ban it? No one should care, right?-Eric Houser via Twitter
The proposed ban seems to be for two reasons. Anchored putting use has increased in the last few years, up to something like 11 percent on the PGA Tour. That troubles the rulesmakers. I think their big issue is that as traditionalists, they don't like the way it looks. Especially now that good players are winning majors with it. I'm surprised the ban hasn't already been made official. I assumed that five minutes after the conclusion of the 90-day discussion period, it would be a done deal. The fact that the USGA and R&A haven't made an announcement makes me wonder if they're reconsidering because of the unexpected backlash. Maybe they're just pretending to be thoughtful.

Van Sickle, I enjoyed your story on the new Masters hospitality facility. Is that $6,000 price tag for one day or for all week? Just curious!-Rob Shahan via Twitter
For six big ones, Rob, you get all the oysters, single-malt whiskey you can drink, putting sessions on the three replica greens and greetings from Lynn Swann and Condoleezza Rice you can handle in a week. Even the Masters can't sell a $6,000 daily ticket. Or could they?

Who's your early pick to win the U.S. Open?-Kirby, via email
According to Webb, a guy could hit nine wedge shots into the first 13 greens at Merion if everything went as planned.I haven't yet sorted through the PGA Tour's Shotlink stats to figure who's the leading wedge stud but names such as Justin Rose, Tim Clark, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis and Tiger Woods come to mind. I'm leaning toward Clark pending further research.