x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US Open: Perhaps Merion will prove bigger is not always better

This weekend will tell if smaller courses such as Merion are throwbacks to a simpler game or should just be thrown out as relics of a bygone age.

Tiger Woods retrieves his ball as fans crowd the hills at the ninth hole during practice for the US Open at Merion Golf Club, 11 miles west of Philadelphia. Merion will play at 6,996 yards compared to 7,170 at last year’s tournament at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Tiger Woods retrieves his ball as fans crowd the hills at the ninth hole during practice for the US Open at Merion Golf Club, 11 miles west of Philadelphia. Merion will play at 6,996 yards compared to 7,170 at last year’s tournament at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Like many before him, Ernie Els this week dropped a ball near the plaque situated in the middle of the 18th fairway at Merion Golf Club, a marker denoting the position from which Ben Hogan hit a crucial shot during his victory at the 1950 US Open.

Given that the game's best players have never before competed at Merion, which has not hosted a US Open since 1981, nearly everybody has taken a few whacks from the same spot, for the sake of history, posterity, curiosity and perhaps even a bit of vanity.

"There are a few divots around that plaque already," Els said.

Like with Hogan's shot, commemorated in one of the game's defining and classic photographs, some players have even posed for photos at the fabled spot, if not tossed down a few dollars to buy copies of the real thing.

"I bought the Hogan poster in the pro shop," Adam Scott said.

It is a black-and-white snapshot in a Technicolor time, for sure, because attempts to replicate history in a game that has evolved as much as golf can be a risky proposition.

Els and his peers are living proof.

When the South African star dropped a ball and hit a shot from near the Hogan marker, he whipped out a 4-iron.

Hogan used a 1-iron, a club that has been relegated to the trash bin of the modern game.

Likewise, Merion's comparative obsolescence is expected to be the biggest talking point of the week during the 113th US Open, especially since rain has made the short course even more vulnerable.

"I think that is intriguing, and maybe the storyline going in, almost more so than who is the favourite," the ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said.

The host US Golf Association, in a move that was roundly saluted by the sport's many traditionalists, elected to return to Merion for its flagship event, despite the venue's shortcomings.

The 6,996-yard course, built into a cramped 111 acres in an area surrounded by a college, pricey homes, busy streets and a railway line in suburban Philadelphia, had long been considered too cramped for the modern US Open circus.

Given the rain that has pelted the area over the past week, lessening the course's few defences, the logic suddenly seems more flawed than the Liberty Bell, famously cracked.

"I'm hoping it's not going to be a score-fest," said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 Open champion and the runner-up last year.

"I hope it's not going to be a low-scoring US Open. We'll see. I think the golf course has enough defence."

It is a gamble that appeals on several levels for aficionados, but if the US Open - marketed as the toughest tournament test in the game - blows up amid a barrage of birdies, it could signal the end for smaller venues like Merion having a chance to host the game they made famous.

In a unique nod to its past, which dates back over a century, Merion uses red-wicker baskets instead of flags atop the pins

They look like red balloons, or perhaps matchsticks, which seems metaphorically apropos either way - the traditionalist balloon could burst and the place could get torched by the world's best golfers.

In the battle of tradition v titanium, the outcome seems almost predictable.

Webb Simpson, the defending champion, said that on the short, opening portion at Merion, he envisions hitting a pitching wedge into the green at least nine times in the first 13 holes, a recipe for more birdies than even John James Audubon could count.

Tiger Woods, the world No 1, said the US Open is ideally about conditions that are "hard, fast and crusty", adding, "that's obviously not going to materialise this week".

It is not often that talk of somebody shooting a 62 - which would represent the lowest score in majors history - permeates the pre-tournament discussion. For players keeping balls out of the deep rough, the short course's lone defence at the moment, 62 is not an inconceivable number on a wet, par-70 layout.

Even before the rain hit, staging a US Open at cramped Merion was akin to recommissioning the Queen Mary.

The tournament's practice range is not located on the property.

Ticket sales have been limited to 25,000, about half of what a large venue like Bethpage Black on Long Island, New York, can handle. Hospitality tents are few.

The USGA is taking a calculated hit, financially.

But beyond the dollars, the game faces a black eye if a treasure like Merion is made to look like an antiquity.

After all, in placing Merion in the Open line-up, the USGA has rolled back the clock.

But they have not rolled back the golf ball.

"It's nice to come back to these places that have played such a big part in golf's history, because we don't get to do it that often," Scott said.

"We're moving to a lot of new places that have become part of golf's history."

As is the case in any sport steeped in tradition, bigger is not always embraced as better.

If an old dowager such as Merion becomes the victim of a veritable purse-snatching - 450 yards were added since the last Open was staged there, in 1981, but it will still play at around 6,900 yards - it could have political implications that resonate well into the future.

While there is predictable public sentiment to make the game easier to play, building and maintaining bigger courses required to accommodate howitzer-calibre drivers and balls is expensive.

It slows down the pace of play, and fans no longer can relate to players hitting 350-yard drives.

Power is being disproportionately rewarded.

Almost nobody argues the points.

The USGA already this season announced a forthcoming ban of anchored putters, and there will be a renewed push for letting the air out of the turbocharged modern golf ball if Merion is embarrassed by players.

The rain merely raised the probability of head-turning scores another notch. Mike Davis, the USGA executive director, said a wet course could mean a difference of 18-20 strokes relative to par, and that the winning score could approach 14-under par.

That would mean a winning score of double-figures under par in two of the past three US Opens. Hardly the institutionalised pain and suffering that has defined the tournament for 100-plus iterations.

Small venue.

Bigger stakes.

Davis's former boss, David Fay, did not blink when the question was posed in a magazine story about whether the Measurement at Merion represents a referendum on the game itself.

"Of course it is," Fay said.




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