Prior to the start of the 2013 U.S. Open, my hope was that the over-the-top set up at Merion Golf Club that was designed to thwart the distance the modern golf ball is flown by touring professionals would be the story of the tournament.
I think that is exactly what happened. Nobody broke par and 12 players who made the cut shot 20-over or worse. One can only imagine what the numbers would have been had the ground been firm and the wind blew.
Sitting in Campbeltown, Scotland and spending every day on a wonderful true links golf course, Machrihanish Dunes, and getting a daily view of one of the world’s legendary links golf courses, Machrihanish Golf Club, it was sad to see how the USGA — because of its failure to take on golf ball manufacturers — was forced to render Merion, one of the great American golf courses, ridiculous in an effort to keep scores high.
(Read this piece, by former USGA agronomist Tim Moraghan, to find out how Merion was set up for the U.S. Open.)
The strategy of the Hugh Wilson design was all but lost. Fairways were narrower than any others in the history of USGA events and the rough was so deep and thick the world’s best players could do nothing but wedge an errant drive back onto the short grass with the same amount of energy it takes to sledgehammer granite.
Shotmaking was all but eliminated in an effort to defend par and thwart technology.
The result, golfers were wearing expressions usually found on the faces of roadside chain gang members. Did any of the players ever look like they were having fun? At best, they at times appear relieved.
Here are golfers who did not have a good time in the second round after posting a fine score over the first 18: Brandon Grace 70-83, Estanislao Goya, 71-83, and his Argentinian countryman and two-time major champion Angel Cabrera 74-81. There were 26 scores of 80 or over the first two days on the par-70 layout.
Here’s who didn’t have fun on the third day, each of whom had recorded solid numbers Thursday and Friday: Shawn Stefani 72-73-85, Kyle Stanley, 71-74-85, Simon Khan, 74-74-82, Kevin Sutherland 73-74-84 and Robert Karlsson 74-72-86. These guys aren’t club pros; they have won on the PGA and European tours.
In the third round some groups took over five hours to play. Ironic since the USGA is making faster play a priority.
Merion for the U.S. Open rewarded the longest and straightest hitters and put no value in recovery. Make a mistake and par was all but out of the question. Had tournament venues always been set up like this, we never would have heard of the likes of Arnold Palmer and Seve Ballesteros, among others.
Sitting in the lobby of the Royal Hotel a few days ago, I thumbed through the book True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Pepper. It profiles what the authors consider every links golf course in the world. The introduction by Tom Watson defines links golf and why it is a joy to play, the opposite whatever it was they were doing at Merion.
“Calculating the wind, allowing for the firm terrain, trusting your judgement and feel — that’s the joy of playing links. You need almost a sixth sense, an ability to adjust to all conditions and somehow to get your ball to travel the proper distance — whether through the air or on the ground. That’s the essence of links golf, ” Watson wrote. “It can be cruel and it can be beautiful.”
The sixth sense at Merion was probably the unrelenting feeling that one bad shot could ruin your tournament.
Watson told how on the 72 hole of the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry, needing only a par to win the tournament, his 8-iron approach landed exactly where he wanted it to, but the ball bounded off the back of the green and into rough. He made bogey and lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.
“That’s the unpredictability of links golf and still, I respect and love it,” Watson wrote.
Watson wrote that Bobby Jones said playing links golf requires “talent and imagination.”
At Merion, imagination was checked at the gate.
“There’s always some little favor of the wind or terrain waiting for the man who has judgement enough to use it,” Watson quoted Jones as saying.
The judgement required at Merion was this: don’t miss the fairways or greens.
Merion has done what I hoped it would, shown that the only ways to reign in the distance professional golfers hit the golf ball, and therefore hold down scores, is by either agronomically manipulating the golf course to the point of outlandishness (some fairways at Merion were 24 yards wide) or by adding hundreds of yards to existing courses or creating ones of almost infinite length.
It doesn’t matter to me if there is a different golf ball for professional and amateurs or if we all have to adjust to a new ball, but something has to be done or we’ve seen the last of great, great venues like Merion hosting major championships.