By Matthew Wurzburger
Architect Hugh Wilson designed the par-70 course in the early 1910s and Merion’s East Course was open by the end of 1912. Wilson spent much time in the British Isles to study the finest places to play golf on the other side of the pond. The features of Merion are direct evidence of Wilson’s trip. While standing in one of many bunkers so famously dubbed the “white faces of Merion,” a golfer might believe his errant shot had landed in Scotland, not Pennsylvania.
Total yardage at Merion has fluctuated from year to year. The 156-player field for the 2013 U.S. Open will play on a course which measures 6,996 yards. Merion East might be short by modern standards, but it still remains a very difficult course. The United States Golf Association will ensure Merion is as difficult as possible in the hopes that Rory McIlroy’s complete dismantling of Congressional in 2011 is never duplicated.
U.S. Open tournaments held at Merion tend to invite special moments. Consider the 1950 U.S. Open. Three players found themselves tied for first at +7 at the end of play on Saturday. On Sunday, Ben Hogan shot a 69 to win the three-way playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio and claim his fourth major title and second U.S. Open. Hogan was lucky to be competing at Merion since he nearly died after colliding head-on with a bus just 16 months earlier in February of 1949.
In 1971 two of the game’s best players dueled for the U.S. Open trophy. Lee Trevino shot a 69 on Sunday to post even par for the four days. Jack Nicklaus would finish Sunday with a 71, placing Jack with Trevino at the top of the leaderboard. Yet another playoff would be required to determine a winner at Merion.
The legend of Monday’s playoff began before either player teed off. Trevino famously pulled a rubber snake out of his bag and tossed it to Nicklaus, inciting several screams from the gallery. Nicklaus did not begin on a high note, finding bunkers on both the second and third holes. The famous bunkers confounded the Golden Bear as he needed two strokes to get out both times. Jack would bogey the second and double bogey the third. The strokes lost on the two holes would prove to be the margin as Trevino bested Jack by three shots.
If history is any indication, this week’s action at Merion should prove compelling. The world’s best golfers have assembled to take on one of golf’s great championship courses. Expect a winning score near even par (or perhaps much lower if rains continue to soften the course), expect some well-played golf, as well as some ugly shots, and do not be too surprised by anything out of the ordinary—like a rubber snake.
Matthew Wurzburger is a University of Virginia student who covers sports for The Cavalier Daily.