The 2013 U.S. Open Championship is still more than a year away, but preparations are already in full swing at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., the host of one of the sport’s highest-profile events.
The course where legends like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino made history will now be a test of shot-making for a new generation of players who may never have heard of Merion in its 30-year absence from the golf tour.
Merion last hosted a U.S. Open in 1981 (in addition to several thrilling and memorable ones in 1934, 1950, and 1971). As golf’s popularity increased in the modern era, and its television viewers, spectators and corporate participants swelled, the likelihood of another U.S. Open here diminished as other courses (more suitable for larger crowds, more sponsor tents, and longer layouts for the new breed of power-hitters) got the nod for hosting.
But after some smaller, but significant golf events were held at Merion in the past decade, including the U.S. Amateur and Walker Cup, the United States Golf Association announced in 2006 that the U.S. Open Championship would be coming back to Merion for the fifth time in 2013.
From that moment, the work of coordinating a major sporting and media event had begun. That process is now in full gear as teams of USGA, Merion Golf Club, and area officials partner to prepare the course and its facilities for the world.
As the general chairman of the U.S. Open committee at Merion, Rick Ill’s role is overseeing the planning and preparation from the Merion Golf Club perspective, in coordination with an on-site team from the USGA. That’s no small task considering the unique challenges a 100-year-old course, on a postage stamp size 138 acres, in a residential neighborhood, will entail. But Ill’s team has been busy addressing all these issues since early 2010.
“Obviously this course was built in an era that didn’t have the size and scope needs of spectators and media, and moving this many people around, so we had to come up with lots of solutions,” Ill says.
“On site we are looking at major grandstand areas to keep people in one spot, hopefully, with seating for 17,000 people, to ease some of the course congestion and keep people in strategic areas. Likewise, some of the corporate and hospitality areas will be adjacent to the club grounds on private property, and we are working with the local neighbors and some other off-course sites to make all that happen.”
The USGA has set a 25,000 spectator limit for ticket sales for the 2013 Open by event standards a much smaller gate than for larger venues over the years. That number will be closer to 33,000 when adding the media and volunteer force. “Just getting this many people to the course is the first hurdle, so we have been working with area venues to discuss parking and shuttling possibilities from the soccer facility in Chester, Villanova University and Haverford College, etc.,” Ill says.
The checklist of items that need to be finalized before the event kicks off in June 2013 sounds dizzying when you consider such things as dealing with government officials to shutting down Ardmore Avenue and Golf House Road the week of the event, working with SEPTA to build pedestrian bridges, coordinating member and corporate sponsor events, building an area volunteer and course marshaling corps, working with the USGA for course and grounds upgrades, security, emergency, weather contingencies, and the list goes on.
Yet for all of the challenges that are being met regarding the grounds and facilities, Ill is most animated when talking about the East golf course—no surprise being that Ill is an avid golfer and former Merion Golf Club president from 2006-2011.
“It’s exciting to bring the Open back to Merion. We thought we’d never see it here again,” he says.
“The East course will play well under 7,000 yards, and it can’t be lengthened simply because we are out of room. But we have made a lot of changes that affect shot value, and with the USGA setup from Mike Davis (executive director of the USGA) and his folks, I really don’t think the pros will tear this course up.”
New changes in store for the course include the addition of strategic bunkering on holes 2, 15 and 16. Hole No. 3 will play from the back tee area of current hole No. 6, creating a 265-yard, uphill par 3, a monster shot by any standards. Add fairways that will be narrowed to 22 to 24 yards wide, greens running at a slick 13.5 on the Stimpmeter, and the usual U.S. Open high rough, and you’ll have a course that should provide a fitting challenge for the best golfers in the world.
“A lot of today’s greatest tour golfers haven’t played here, or maybe didn’t even know about Merion until it came back into the U.S. Open lineup again,” says Hank Thompson, the USGA’s championship director. “Based on the number of tour players who came over to play Merion while they were in town last year for the
AT&T National at nearby Aronimink Golf Club, I’d say there is quite a mix of curiosity and excitement.”
Thompson will call the Philadelphia area home for a two-year period leading up to June 2013 with his on-site duties coordi-nating activities that take place “outside the ropes” (golf speak for the areas that will accommodate the spectators and general public, outside of the playing course).
“This is a great event for the game to bring the U.S. Open back after 30 years to a sports-crazy area like Philadelphia, to a course as rich in USGA tradition as Merion,” he says. “And it’s our job to make sure that excitement comes through in as great a spectator experience as we can provide.”
Tickets for the 2013 U.S. Open Championship (June 10-16) go on sale to the general public Monday, June 11, 2012. For more info, visit usopen.com or usga.org. The event has sold out in years past, and with a smaller ticket distribution for 2013 due to the size of Merion, spectators are advised to get their tickets early.
• Merion Golf Club is founded in 1896.
• Then-unheralded course architect Hugh Wilson designs the East Course in 1912, and the West Course in 1914.
• Bobby Jones wins the U.S. Amateur here in 1930. The term “Grand Slam” was coined after this win. He had won the three other majors prior to that year: the British Open, British Amateur and U.S. Open.
• Ben Hogan hits the famous 1-iron shot on the 18th hole to force a playoff, and wins the next day to capture the 1950 U.S. Open. The accomplishment is even more notable after his comeback the final day, playing 36 holes while limping. Hogan had been in a traffic accident a year prior, sustaining potentially crippling injuries.
• Lee Trevino bests Jack Nicklaus in 1971, winning the U.S. Open in a playoff.
• Host site for five U.S. Open Championships (1934, 1950, 1971, 1981, 2013)
• Has hosted more USGA Championship events than any other course
• Jack Nicklaus on Merion: “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.”
The production of such an iconic sporting event requires years of planning—a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make four days of golf enjoyable for all. Consider that a small city will need to be built in order to accommodate media, spectators, golf officials, players and their families. These numbers help in visualizing the magnitude of just what is needed:
(for the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion, there were 500 volunteers)