Merion puts game back in the ’burbs

When Jack Nicklaus said that Merion “acre for acre may be the best test of golf in the world”, he certainly wasn’t considering the course from the point of view of tournament logistics.

Merion puts game back in the ’burbs

Taking the US Open Championship to this classic layout to Philadelphia’s leafy suburb of Ardmore rather than to The Country Club at Brookline to mark the centenary of Francis Ouimet’s historic 1913 win is a bit like the R&A snubbing Muirfield to take The Open back to 6,500-yard Prestwick.

With a golfing footprint just 111 acres and only 125 acres on site, Merion’s East Course is so claustrophobic that considerable imagination and planning has gone in to bringing the US Open back to the Philadelphia area for a fourth time and the first since 1981.

Not only that, the United States Golf Association has had to take a significant financial hit, estimated at around $10 million, in terms of tickets sales as they’ve been forced to limit the attendance to just 25,500 rather than the usual 40-50,00.

While some will point out that the Old Course stands on just 83 acres, it has double greens and fairways and copes with massive crowds by generally keeping fans outside the perimeter of the golf course.

The East Course, with its classic layout, ribbon fairways, Scottish broom and steep-faced bunkers, is hemmed in by millionaire homes. But it’s also an official national monument as it’s the venue Bobby Jones won the 1930 US Amateur to complete the Impregnable Quadrilateral of Open, US Open, British Amateur — the original version of golf’s elusive Grand Slam.

No American club has hosted as many USGA championships as Merion East’s 18. The 1981 US Open was considered a success and yet it took 32 years for the men at Far Hills in New Jersey to take the decision to return.

David Fay, former USGA Executive Director, explained why in a piece for US magazine Golf Digest.

“Baltusrol, in 1980, was a seminal moment for the business of the Open — good or bad, depending on your point of view — as the USGA was introduced to the corporate-hospitality tent. A couple of dinky, Cub Scout-like tents had been erected on the platform-tennis courts at Inverness in 1979. “[In 1980] Baltusrol, using its Upper Course, sold 20 large ones. The era of the corporate-tent village arrived at a time when it was still a challenge for the USGA to make ends meet.

“We’d hired, in December 1980, former USGA president Harry Easterly as our senior executive director. We were adding programmes and people, and the culture of the whole operation was becoming more of a business. It wasn’t the place I’d joined in 1978 as the tournament-relations manager.

“Against this background, the comparison between Baltusrol and Merion was stark. At just more than 120 acres (the course plus adjoining land), far fewer daily and weekly tickets and just a handful of corporate tents could be sold.”

What changed, luckily for Merion, was the financial model the USGA uses to plan its championships.

“By the early 2000s, the USGA was flush, thanks in large part to increased broadcast-rights fees. Soon we were to have a stable of corporate partners for even more revenue. And introducing public courses like Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines to the unofficial US Open rota allowed us to bundle smaller-scale Open courses like Merion and Olympic with large-capacity sites.”

Having some clout within the USGA helped Merion’s cause considerably and it is thanks to the efforts of Merion’s former US Amateur champion and Walker Cup captain George “Buddy” Marucci and others that the USGA decided to vote for Merion ahead of The Country Club at Brookline for this year’s US Open.

The exercise has been a huge headache not just for Merion members, who had to give up their course to the USGA late last year, but also for the local residents. Front and back gardens have been commandeered to house player lounges, corporate tents, scoring, the media flash area and other related paraphernalia.

As Merion’s General Chairman Rick Ill, explained: “We have corporate hospitality over at Haverford College and on private lawns behind us on the 14th and 15th holes. In 1981 there were 500 volunteers totally putting on a US Open here. And when somebody told me that there were 5,000 (this year) I said, there can’t possibly be that many.”

The driving range at the East Course was so short that players are using the range at the West Course, more than a mile from the first tee, leading to a 20-minute bus ride for players to the course.

The Player Hospitality Centre is in a suburban family’s home.

“I’m sitting there eating breakfast this morning with some guy’s kid,” Mike Weir told ESPN’s Rick Reilly this week. “He was sitting on the couch, eating, oblivious to us even being there.

“Their dogs are running around. The guy’s wife is coming in and out. We’re watching “SportsCenter” and the kid changes over to the Golf Channel. I start to say, ‘Hey wait a minute, kid … ‘ and then I realised, oh, yeah, this is his house.”

As Pádraig Harrington pointed out: “It’s a complicated week. From the time you hit the range to the time you get back to the range it’s seven hours. It’s 20 minutes to and from the range to the golf course.”

Compared to the daily 17 hours this writer and others have spent at the course since Monday, that doesn’t seem so bad.

Covering the event has been a nightmare with the media centre close to 1,000 yards from the first tee and 1.4 miles from the driving range — a 20 to 25 minute bus ride with buses leaving every two hours.

The inconvenience is certainly worthwhile as its given us a chance to see one of golf’s most storied venues in all its glory. Still, many in the media and the players’ lounge will happily wait another 32 years before the US Open returns. The only people doing cartwheels today will be the champion and the local landscaping contractors who will be busy cleaning up and replacing lawns until Christmas.

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