In less than two months, Merion Golf Club will open its doors to the 113th U.S. Open championship, an honor nearly eight years in the making.
On Monday, the hallowed Main Line course held its media day and pulled out all the stops, including a Skype chat with last year's champion, Webb Simpson, and a gourmet lunch buffet. USGA officials outlined the changes in course dimensions, while re-iterating just how much work goes into planning the U.S. Open.
"Many questioned whether we could stage a U.S. Open at Merion, from a pure operations perspective. But all of the officers and staff here at Merion knew it could be done," said USGA vice-president Tom O'Toole. "We wish to thank them for getting us here, and for their role in preparing for what we expect will be a memorable 113th U.S. Open Championship."
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O'Toole even pulled out the iconic 1-iron that Ben Hogan used to force a playoff victory at Merion back in 1950. Hogan was 16 months removed from a near-fatal car accident and went on to win the tournament.
Simpson, who won the event last year by one stroke over Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson, elaborated on the challenges Merion will present for the world's best golfers. Simpson finished in 72nd place at Merion when he played there in the 2005 U.S. Amateur. Even with that bad taste, he still called Merion one of his favorite courses in the world.
"I think this U.S. Open is going to be so unique in the sense that I don't think a long player or short player has an advantage," Simpson said. "I think a guy with a good wedge game and a good mind will have the advantage because you'll have your birdie opportunities, but what I remember about Merion is the second that you think I got an easy hole, an iron and a wedge, is the second that you probably will make a mistake."
The U.S. Open is slated to be played from June 13-16 at Merion. Organizers are expecting crowds close to 200,00 — and 5,000 volunteers — to line the narrow fairways and greens. The championship rounds are already sold out, but tickets remain for practice rounds.
Changes to the course
The biggest question when Merion first attempted to secure the U.S. Open was: How do you fit a modern-day U.S. Open on 111 acres?
Well, thanks largely to course superintendent Matt Shaffer, the dream is a reality. Merion, with some slight tweaks, is ready to host its fifth Open. And, yes, the wicker baskets are staying put.
"It's one of the things that makes it, gives Merion, one of the many that things that give Merion its personality," said USGA executive director Mike Davis
The changes were minimal, according to Davis. Aside from a few fairway alterations and tee box changes, they tried to keep Merion true to its storied history.
The crew inserted a new tee back on hole No. 4 that really makes the golfer consider the bunker in the drive zone. There's really only two options, go for it all with a driver or lay back with a 3-wood.
On hole No. 15, they added a new middle bunker that forces the player to make a choice about working the dogleg left to right. Davis called it the "scariest tee shot at Merion."
No. 18 underwent a small change, too, as they brought the fairway back 20-25 paces closer to the canyon. It's another hole where they want to encourage the use of drivers on the 505-yard, par-4.
"I would consider 18 the toughest finishing hole in all of the U.S. Opens," Davis said. "It requires a great tee shot, a great second shot, and it's one of Merion's most challenging greens."