As US Open week unfolds expect there to be a large amount of verbiage spent on the host golf club – Merion. Golf course setups are always a hot topic for US Opens, but not the courses themselves. Since the announcement of its return to US Open history, Merion has been noteworthy. Recently I asked St. Louis attorney and Vice President of the USGA, Tom O’Toole, if he had been in the room when the Merion vote was taken would he have been a strong proponent. O’Toole lawyered up by dropping the word “strong.”
Merion has already hosted four US Opens and more total USGA Championships than any course in history. So why the “buzz” as O’Toole described in the run up? In this case size is what matters. Not only is the course itself short by contemporary major standards at under 7000 yards, but it’s overall footprint represents a logistical challenge to the USGA operation.
Hopefully years of preparation and planning have resolved the logistics issues but no amount of planning can change the fact of a course nearly 500 yards shorter than the year’s first major venue – Augusta National. What has made Merion viable in the past has been a firm fast set up that threatened the players off the tee with penal rough and even more menacing out-of-bounds markers. The hope has always been that a proposed Merion conditioning would negate the obsolescence equipment advances have brought to the game vintage courses.
Two years ago at Congressional Ireland’s Rory McIlroy demolished that course for four days. After two days he was already eleven under par and finished off the field with two additional rounds in the sixties and a sixteen under total. The red numbers caught the attention of the media and on Saturday night O’Toole and Jeff Hall of the USGA visited the press center to talk about the scoring. The explanation given was that heavy rains the week prior and some additional precipitation early in the week denied the organization the course they wanted that week. Congressional was 600 yards longer than Merion will be.
When the press session ended I talked briefly with O’Toole and asked about Merion. I said the USGA didn’t need to worry about Olympic in 2012 but what would similar weather mean for Merion. O’Toole admitted concern but they could only deal with that when the time came.
In my recent conversation with O’Toole I again raised the question of weather and Merion’s viability. I asked if they got Congressional weather at this year’s US Open would the course be viable enough to handle soft conditions or would they be facing a “nightmarish” circumstance. O’Toole didn’t hesitate in agreeing it might be nightmarish.
With the first tropical storm of the year working its way slowly up the east coast it started raining in Philadelphia on Thursday of the week past. It has rained each day since and the forecast includes rain through Wednesday. Any hopes of a firm fast golf course have long since disappeared. Some are already speculating that the bombers will be back in the mix at this year’s Open and the record book could be in jeopardy.
It’s still the US Open with all the pressure that attaches. The rough will be even be more challenging with a week worth of seasoning. The USGA has shown some magic in preserving green speeds if not green softness. But just as the USGA had plans for Merion and the media had assembled their notes in advance both have been visited by a perfect storm and we can hope the Chairman of Competitions for the USGA and the heir apparent to the Presidency, Tom O’Toole, can confine his nightmares to his waking hours.