Rubenstein: Merion rich in golf history
As the year ends I find myself looking forward to the 2013 season. More than anything, I’m excited about the U.S. Open that will be held June 13-16 at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, a Philadelphia suburb. No course has hosted more USGA Championships. The list includes four U.S. Opens, six U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Women’s Amateurs, and the 2009 Walker Cup, which the U.S. team won.
My anticipation about the 2013 U.S. Open derives from my love of golf history. Merion, with its East and West courses, is steeped in it. The East course in particular is the one most golf history enthusiasts think of when Merion comes to mind. It will host the U.S. Open. The first was held in 1934, when Olin Dutra defeated Gene Sarazen by a shot. The last was held in 1981, when David Graham won.
Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam and ended his career at Merion when he won the 1930 U.S. Amateur. Jones had won the U.S. Open, and the [British] Open and Amateur, that year, before he came to Merion’s East course, which club member Hugh Wilson had designed and which opened in 1912. Jones defeated Gene Homans in their final match to win the Amateur and take the then-Grand Slam: wins in the U.S. and British Amateurs and Opens.
Jones, only 28, retired from golf seven weeks later. Twenty years later, in 1950, Ben Hogan came to Merion for the U.S. Open. Hogan had suffered multiple injuries in a car accident in Texas in February 1949, and there was a question as to whether he would walk again, let alone compete at the highest levels of the game.
But compete he did, and he struck a magisterial one-iron to the final green in regulation play that finished 40-feet from the hole. Hogan two-putted to par the hole and make it into the 18-hole playoff the next day against Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. He won the playoff and went on to win five more majors, giving him nine during his career. David Barrett tells the story of Hogan’s win beautifully in his book Miracle at Merion.
Merion’s next U.S. Open was in 1971, and that’s one I’ll never forget. It was the first U.S. Open I attended. I drove down to Ardmore with my father. Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus were tied after the regulation 72 holes. My dad and I waited by the first tee for the 18-hole Monday playoff to begin. The first tee is almost against Merion’s clubhouse. There’s an intimacy about Merion that is palpable.
Nicklaus was sitting beside a tree when Trevino walked up to the tee, talking fast and chewing gum. Tension was in the air. Trevino opened a zipper in his golf bag and what do you know, he pulled out a rubber snake about three feet long and flipped it at Nicklaus’s feet. Nicklaus was startled, but, to his everlasting credit, laughed and who knows, maybe he was even grateful for Trevino’s tension-busting gesture. Trevino, for his part, said, “I need all the help I can get.”
Or maybe Nicklaus wasn’t grateful for the gesture. He quickly fell behind, and Trevino went on to shoot 68 to defeat Nicklaus by three shots. Trevino, then 31, had won the 1968 U.S. Open and now he had won his second, and last, U.S. Open, at historic Merion.
“I’m a lucky dog,” Trevino said after his win. “You gotta be lucky to beat Jack Nicklaus because he’s the greatest golfer who ever held a club.”
The U.S. Open returned to Merion in 1981, when Graham won by three shots over George Burns (the 1973 Canadian Amateur winner at the rich in history Summit Golf and Country Club in Richmond Hill, Ont.). Merion’s East course was all of 6,544 yards that year. It never played longer for a U.S. Open. Its length and the fact that the course is on only 135 acres and can’t accommodate 40,000 and more spectators a day are a few reasons why the U.S. Open hasn’t returned there since Graham’s win in 1981.
Finally, however, the U.S. Open is coming back to Merion. The course has been stretched to 6,900 yards. That’s still very short by today’s standards. Let’s hope the USGA doesn’t trick up the course. Corporate tents will be set up on the front lawns at homes on Golf Club Road adjacent to the club; owners have leased their properties out for that purpose. The practice area will be a mile away on the West course. Many other changes have also taken place so that the club could host the U.S. Open; more on these another time.
One thing will remain the same: the red wicker baskets that are used instead of flags to mark the hole locations. That’s traditional at Merion. One theory as to why they’re used is that Wilson, who was born in Scotland, noticed that shepherds carried their lunches in wicker baskets on staffs. Whatever their genesis, the club has always used wicker baskets. Players might have a bit of trouble reading the wind up by the greens. Wicker baskets don’t blow in the wind.
Meanwhile, I’m counting the days until I drive to Merion again for a U.S. Open. I’ve been back to play the course, though. One of my most memorable golfing experiences was when I played Merion and Pine Valley Golf Club in Clementon, N.J., but only a short drive away, the same day. I’ve always made a point of reading as much about Merion as I could, and I’ll do the same before next June’s U.S. Open.
One more item: It’s impossible, at least for me, not to appreciate a club that has its own historian and archivist. That’s long-time member John Capers III. He’s won the club championship on a number of occasions and his mother was club champion nine times between 1942 and 1967.
Merion is so deep in history, and the club will make more history next June. If you’re into the game, and if you’ve read this far, you must be, mark the dates: the week of June 10-16, 2013, Merion Golf Club, the U.S. Open. Maybe I’ll see you there.
RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein