At 6,996 yards, Merion’s East Course is the shortest to host a U.S. Open since Shinnecock Hills in 2004, which played to the identical yardage. Whereas Shinnecock’s defense was firm greens, which ultimately got out of control, Merion’s is heavy rough. USGA Executive Director and chief setup man Mike Davis acknowledges the rough will be tougher than recent U.S. Opens, but says that is the personality of the course. The USGA has brought the deep stuff more into play by narrowing the fairways, particularly on the short par fours where players will be laying up off the tee. The rough also will be longer on those short holes, which can turn a birdie opportunity into a bogey with a poor tee shot. Plenty of rain in the weeks leading up to the tournament assures that the rough will be thick, so staying in the short grass will be important.
What’s the Number?
There’s a lot of speculation about how the scoring will be at Merion, but no certainty because it could vary so much according to conditions. At stroke-play qualifying for the 2005 U.S. Amateur, Merion played as tough as nearly any course used for that event, but after rain softened the greens, Italy’s Edoardo Molinari made seven birdies on the last 15 holes of his victory in a 36-hole match-play final. While there’s concern over what today’s long-hitting pros could do to the course, the thinking is that the added length (it was 6,544 yards for the last U.S. Open there in 1981) and need for precision will prevent an onslaught. The short holes aren’t necessarily any easier because they still require lay-ups off the tee, while Merion also features a number of longer, tougher holes that have been lengthened in order to keep their identity. If the course stays firm, David Graham’s winning score of 7-under 273 in 1973 probably won’t be topped; but if rain softens things, the winner could get to double digits.
If they keep the ball in the fairway and conditions permit, players can make hay on a stretch of mostly short holes from the 7th through the 13th (number 10, top of the page). But they had better hold on tight for the final five-hole stretch, which they will be happy to play in even par. The 14th has length (464 yards), the 411-yard 15th out-of-bounds tight to the left and bunkers right, and the 430-yard 16th (above) is the first of three holes that go back and forth across an old quarry now filled with bushes, long grass, and bunkers. The difficulty really ramps up for the last two, the 17th—a par three stretched to 246 yards—and the 18th, a par four with a new back tee at 521 yards. Ben Hogan hit his famous 1-iron to the green on the 18th in 1950, preserving his chance to win in a playoff the next day, but this is a hole affected by modern technology. The longest hitters might lay back off the tee to stay on a plateau, or else blast a driver with a chance to roll down a slope for a short-iron approach but a probability of being carried into the left rough.
Merion’s par threes provide stern resistance to scoring, especially with two of them having been beefed up since the 2005 U.S. Amateur to join the always demanding 17th. Davis calls them the toughest trio of par threes on any U.S. Open course. The uphill 3rd has been extended from 219 to 256 yards—making it a long iron, hybrid, or fairway wood depending on the wind and hole location—but the relatively generous green makes it a fair test. The downhill 9th has grown from 206 in 2005 to 236, making it a 4-, 5-, or 6-iron for the pros as it was in 1981 at 195 yards. Number 17 (below) has always been a bulwark of the East Course’s demanding closing stretch: It was boosted from 224 yards to 246 before the 2005 Amateur, but the green is so tough that the 224-yard tee will be used for at least a couple of the hole locations. In contrast to that trio, the other par three, the 13th, is only 115 yards, but a tough green and deep bunkers keep it from being a pushover.
Photography by Premier Aerials (hole 10), The Henebrys (holes 16, 17)