"Nobody wins the Open. It wins you." These are old words, coming back to us from some forlorn contender groping for daylight from beneath the matted elephant grass of Olympic, or gurgling from under the ponds of Oakland Hills or stranded in the furrowed bunkers of Oakmont. The words tell us of the pressure and the torment, the glory and the glitter, of this thing called the Open Championship of the United States Golf Association—the National Open, as it is known to pedestrians without striped ties, blue coats or armbands. And after next week there will be more evidence of how indecently the human spirit can be wrenched and twisted by a mere game and a mere trophy. For now we go to Merion again, and even on this hallowed ground the Open will go to the man who loses it the least.
One of the things that makes the U.S. Open so fascinating is that it moves around, from year to year, like a carnival. It goes from the ancient golf world to the new, and back again. This time we find it shifting from the farmlands of Minnesota to the Main Line of Philadelphia. Neither Hazeltine nor Merion would know what to think of one another, for varying reasons, but they share the same history. An Open course gains a distinction that stays with it forever. To stage one Open is enough to turn a country club into a golfing shrine. Merion now joins a select group of clubs—Baltusrol, Oakmont, Oakland Hills, Inverness, Chicago Golf and the Myopia Hunt—that have held the Open three times. And much of next week's suspense will revolve around the hallowed ground itself. Can old Merion stand the test of time? Will the big hitters rip apart this museum of memories?
Not to wish any of the Arnies or Jacks bad luck, of course, but everyone who is familiar with Merion will be rooting for those lovely 127 acres near Philadelphia. They will be cheering for Merion's par of 70 to stand up for all four rounds and hurl the 150-man field into the 280s. Why? Because Merion is a classic course in the old-fashioned sense.
In brief, Merion is short, elegant and cerebral. Compared with Hazeltine, where Tony Jacklin won a year ago, most of Merion's holes will seem like pitch-and-putt. Its length (only 6,550 yards) and excellent condition make it highly vulnerable for the player who can keep it straight off the tee. There are par-4 holes that the Nicklauses can almost drive. And the greens they reach, though speedy, will putt as smoothly and honestly as any in the land.
June 13, 1971
This will provide the opportunity for a few sizzling low rounds, and maybe Merion will get beaten down the way Baltusrol, Olympic and Oak Hill were—down into the 270s. But this famous old course, underdog though it is, has weapons to fight back with. Quite aside from the usual USGA doctoring—the six-inch rough and narrow, target-shaped fairways—there is the curious pace of Merion itself. It simply isn't like any other course. Starting long and finishing long, with almost all of the birdie chances in between, Merion should play evil games with the modern competitor's tempo. It will put to a full and unique test the golfer's ability to adjust—three times in one round—his rhythm and his thinking.
Merion begins with both of its par-5s crowded into the first four holes, and the 5th is a long, sloping, narrow par-4. After that, for the next 10 holes the course shortens and becomes more and more inviting. But then come the famed quarry holes, the 16th through the 18th, where great length is demanded as well as accuracy for a 4-3-4 finish.
Merion got tapped a few times when the last Open was played there in 1950. A fellow named Lee Mackey Jr. sped around in 64 on opening day, and a better-known fellow named Johnny Bulla carved out a 66 the second day. There were 11 other rounds under par. But when everything was finished the lowest score (there was a three-way tie) was 287—seven over par—and Ben Hogan, who would win the playoff over Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, had to hit his fairy-tale one-iron on the last hole to get a piece of it.
History says it was a brilliant shot. Hogan doesn't. "I was 40 feet from the pin," Ben has recalled. "I probably should have hit a four-wood."
Hogan's most vivid recollection of Merion is the glass-slick greens. "If they're like they were in 1950," Ben says, "nothing will hold out of the rough, not even a wedge. I can remember being afraid at times to place the putter behind the ball because it might move."
Not everyone adores Merion. Julius Boros, who will be among the few in the field who know the course at all (he finished ninth in 1950), claims it is simply too short now. Lloyd Mangrum says it was too short two decades ago when he almost won.
"Even before '50 I'd always heard of Merion," Lloyd says. "Bobby Jones and all that. But all I did was hit a bunch of three-irons off the tee. What's so great about a golf course that keeps a three-iron in your hand off the tee?"
Mangrum was exaggerating, of course. Merion makes one reach for the three-iron when one gets sick of the rough that the driver keeps putting one in. The gamble is there on virtually every tee. Which again points up the charm of the place.
Whatever the mystique is, it even affects those manicuring the premises. Only the other day a Merion member stopped to observe a young man taking extreme care as he mowed one of the sacred putting surfaces. The member asked if the young man got any satisfaction out of helping prepare the course.
"I sure do," said the young man. "In fact, I'd do it for nothing."
Such is the lure of history and elegance. Such is Merion.