by Clark Groome
Who were you rooting for at golf’s U.S. Open? Luke Donald? Sergio Garcia? Billy Horschel? Hunter Mahan? Rory McIlroy? Phil Mickelson? Justin Rose? Steve Stricker? Bubba Watson? Tiger Woods? Someone else?
Me, I was rooting for the golf course. Not generally someone who roots for inanimate objects – with the exception of airplanes on which I, or someone I care about, is flying – I really wanted the Merion Golf Club’s East Course to live up to its reputation as one of the best and toughest courses in the country.
It is, after all, one of the most historically important in the country. It has hosted more United States Golf Association (USGA) championships – 18, including last week’s Open – than any other club in America. It’s been the site of five U.S. Opens: 1934, 1950, 1971, 1981 and 2013.
Among the historic moments that have taken place there are Bobby Jones’ victory at the U.S. Amateur in 1930 to complete his grand slam.
Ben Hogan, only 16 months after a near-fatal automobile accident that had doctors predicting he might never walk let alone play golf again, won the 1950 Open there. The photo of Hogan’s 1-iron shot on the 18th at that tournament is one of the sport’s most famous pictures. In 1971, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino fought to a regulation tie. Trevino went on to win the 18-hole playoff by three strokes.
Nestled in residential Ardmore, Merion East was considered too small to host a modern Open. The club and the USGA worked for more than a decade to arrange for it to host this year’s tournament. It took tremendous cooperation with neighbors and with Haverford College to make it work. All was set for what has been called, somewhat disparagingly, a “boutique” Open. And then the rain came.
Predictions from the experts were that the course would be a mess, that the seven inches of rain that fell in the days before the Open officially began would leave parts of the course under water and make it so damp that winning it would require shooting something in the 10 to 15 strokes-under-par range.
Other experts noted that at less than 7,000 yards it wouldn’t be a true test for modern golfers, who are known for their ability to hit the ball a very long way.
The course, we kept hearing, wasn’t really up to the challenge. Even though it had been significantly lengthened since the 1981 Open, it was still just a glorified “old time” course. And besides, you could only get 25,000 spectators onto the 110-acre property.
Well, golf fans, the course’s reputed difficulty and subtlety were neither too wet, too easy nor too short. The tough greens made many a putt look easy and then veer off in some odd way. The rough, which seemed to be made of steel wool in places, puzzled and terrorized the golfers. Several holes, most notably the final five, caused the troops a lot of grief. This is a course that demanded skill, not just strength.
The result? There were very few sub-par rounds and when the final duo of Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson holed out on Sunday no one had broken par for the tournament. The “quaint” course had held its own against the best in the game. Its extraordinary design and surprising challenges made for a remarkable four days.
Justin Rose, who won the Open with a one-over-par tournament, had nothing but praise for the place. So did Phil Mickelson, who looked to be on his way to winning his first Open but ended up as the runner-up for the sixth Open of his career.
It’s nice when these historic venues pay tribute to the past and act as reminders of a sport’s traditions. What’s nicer is what Merion did. It coupled unparalleled golf history with a remarkably exciting and challenging U.S. Open that anyone playing in or viewing will remember for a long time.
The “experts” who predicted disaster were wrong. Many have said that this was Merion’s last Open. Let’s hope it’s not.