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Merion is golf's Fenway Park. It's a rolling and compact course on just 111 acres, surrounded by split-level houses and old stone mansions, bisected by a public road and a creek, near a train station and main-drag shopping and about eight miles west of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Rocky did his training. It's an oasis of charm and grace.
All that is wonderful, except modern golf, like a lot of modern things, has little use for charm and grace. Bubba Watson and the Bombers have a big gig at Merion next week—the 113th U.S. Open!—and the question is, Can the stage contain them?
Those radicals at the USGA have brought the national championship to Merion Golf Club for the first time since 1981, when David Graham of Australia put on a shotmaking clinic and won by three. Ten years before that, Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff to win his second Open. In 1950, Ben Hogan won a U.S. Open 16 months after (all together now) a near-fatal car crash. The place is golf.
Or it was. In '50 and '71 and '81, the game was played with persimmon drivers, steel shafts and mushy balata balls, and by men who looked like your uncle taking a break from the barbecue. Now everything in golf is big and brawny and machine made: the drivers, the golfers, the courses. If Merion plays soft next week—and with all the recent rain it won't play super fast—its subtle challenges, shots that have tested golfers since the Bobby Jones era, will be diminished. The ball will stop on command.
With its five par-4s less than 370 yards, Merion might prove obsolete for the pros, but that doesn't mean anything to us.
If you're an 85 shooter at your home course, you could play Merion, as it's set up this week, every day through Labor Day and never break 105, even though at 6,996 yards it is the shortest U.S. Open course in 12 years. The chasm between golf's high priests and us has never been more obvious, and the Open at Merion will surely demonstrate this again, with feeling.
The problem isn't the golf course but, in large part, the modern golf ball, which sails off into space when struck by a big-headed titanium driver traveling 120 mph. Golfers have been introduced to a new word in the past year or so, bifurcation, trotted out whenever the grill-room chat turns to whether the rules (like anchored putting) or equipment regulations should be different for elite players and duffers. This 2013 Open, on a short par-70 course, could (ideally) be a tipping point, and prove to many the wisdom of a tweaked game in which the best players would be required to use a ball that doesn't go so far.
In Hogan's day, Merion's spectacular 16th hole, requiring a second-shot carry over an abandoned quarry, was played with a driver and a mid-iron. Bubba and the other long whackers will likely play it with an iron off the tee and a wedge into the green. That's an insult to Hugh Wilson, Merion's genius amateur architect. More significantly, it means that golfers at the 2013 Open will be tested in far different ways than they were in the last three Opens at Merion.
In terms of land and water conservation, speed of play and cost per round, isn't a 111-acre playing field hugely preferable to the 220-acre sites on which most big-time tournaments are played? Merion could show us that golf's future is in its past.
Regardless of all that, people are way into this Open at Merion. When the golf talk this year has not been about deer-antler spray or fried chicken or incorrect drops, the Open at Merion has dominated the convo. "I've been, I think, to 25 U.S. Opens," says Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, "and I feel more sense of excitement for this one than I've ever felt. And a big part of that is that there's a whole generation of golfers who have heard all these wonderful things about Merion, but have never had a chance to see it." And now they will. The Merion Open will be a mystery, a historical drama and a reality show in one.