Finding Merion’s fairways at this month’s US Open will be akin to threading the eye of a needle.
I witnessed US Open preparations first-hand a year ago when I made the two-hour trip south from New York City to Ardmore, Pennsylvania to play the club’s famous East Course.
I entered the day with a few givens as to what the experience would be like.
I knew I’d be taking aim at red baskets for flagsticks, absorbing a traditional American country club vibe and playing a classic US parkland layout befitting one of the world’s ten best courses.
But I had no idea the USGA would already be hard at work getting the course up to scratch.
I didn’t think I would be sipping from US Open-labeled water bottles that were at the side of each tee and I didn’t think I’d be playing US Open-width fairways.
The fairways had essentially been cut in half as part of a USGA ‘dress rehearsal.’
On several of the par-fours and par-fives, we could see the original outline of a ‘members-width’ fairway that had been eroded on either side, leaving a narrow landing strip to aim at.
I was nervous enough on the first tee with a handful of members eating lunch not more than a number of feet to my left.
In fact, from the back tee on the first, the outdoor dining tables and any lurking patrons are very much in play, not much more than 20 degrees to the left of target.
But with respect to the narrow fairways, the especially daunting tee shot at the second hole is fixed in my mind.
It’s normally a straight away par-five, marginally uphill from tee to green, with a boundary fence and public road about ten metres right of the fairway.
But a subtle change had been made, leaving a terrifying tee shot.
The left side of the fairway had been grown into rough, while the right half had been pushed so far right that it was, at one point, no more than three paces from the out of bounds fence.
Hitting driver to a sliver of fairway that is almost melting into the out of bounds is no picnic.
I sent my subsequent drive a distance to the foul side of the road that I don’t wish to divulge.
The club hasn’t hosted the US Open since 1981 when our very own David Graham put on a clinic – hitting all 18 greens in the final round en route to a famous victory.
Critics are queuing up to knock the course that, at 6,996 yards, will be the shortest major course since the 2001 US Open.
But at least it will be interesting.
As the scorecard reads, it’s worlds apart from what is generally served up at the majors.
It’s not all back-to-back-to-back brutal par fours because the USGA has injected some much-needed diversity.
Along with Pebble Beach, which hosted the 2010 US Open, Merion is one of a shrinking number of major courses with classic short par-fours.
There are five par-fours at 367 yards or less and the 115-yard par-3 13th, which plays right up beside the stunning and old-fashioned clubhouse.
They’re offset by two par-fours over 500 yards and a trio of diabolical one-shotters at the third, ninth and 17th measuring 256, 236 and 246 yards respectively.
Isn’t that mix of long and short more interesting than cloning hole-after-hole that is unquestionably difficult yet unquestionably boring?
The USGA have placed their trust in a collection of holes, many of which can be birdied just as easily as they can be bogeyed, and they should be applauded for it.
Merion’s main calling card is that it’s a venue steeped in history.
Ben Hogan’s famous two-iron to the 72nd hole at the 1950 US Open at Merion remains one of the most famous golf photos ever taken.
The shot propelled him to a playoff victory just 16 months after he survived a near-fatal car accident.
Then there’s Bobby Jones achieving the only pre-US Masters ‘grand slam’ at Merion in 1930 by winning the US Amateur Championship after US Open, British Open and British Amateur triumphs.
A calendar year professional grand slam remains elusive.
But as we count down to Merion, Adam Scott is the only man who can still do it in 2013.
He, like the rest of the Aussies in the field, will have the omen of Graham’s victory in 1981 on their side.