Will the 2013 U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club be the final straw in the golf equipment debate?

With the next United States Open Championship being played at the venerable Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia next June, everybody involved with the game and business of golf has to be wondering how Merion will hold up against the technology arsenal of the world’s best professional golfers.

With juiced up golf balls and drivers made out of the newest hard metals lashing out drives of over 360 yards by the pros, this golf tournament has a lot more riding on it than just the national golf championship and a major title. Depending on the outcome, this could be the event where golf equipment technology crosses the line for the USGA and forces the golf governing body to act on this issue.

The 2012 PGA tour season saw some incredible distance numbers from the touring professionals, especially in the driving category. It seemed like everyone was hitting drives of 315 yards or more on a consistent basis, and drives below 300 yards were considered too short. Whether catching a tournament round in person or on television, it appears many golf course architects, fans, and the media believe the professional game of golf is turning into a driver wedge party far too often, turning PGA Tour event venues into a mere weekly pitch and putt routine.

It has been 31 years since the U.S. Open was last played at Merion. Some said the tournament would never come back to the Philadelphia Main Line club as the layout was too short for the ever evolving golf equipment technology and the property’s 126 acres too small to hold the vast corporate and merchandising tents of a major golf event.

But thankfully the USGA and the great members of Merion brought our nation’s championship back to one of the unique and great courses of the world. It may only be approximately 6700 yards for next year’s tournament but it should be one of the most anticipated and intriguing United States Open championships in many years.
It will be interesting to see if the professional golfers and their juiced up golf balls and magic sticks will overcome one of the great old school golf course layouts of the world. Several of the short holes at the East Course at Merion will definitely provide unique golfing theatre and drama during the Open.

I believe the most anticipated hole will be the play at the short par four 10th hole, one of my favorites at Merion, which also plays downhill. Will long-hitting golfers like Bubba Watson choose to rip his world-famous pink driver with a high fade into the opening on the right side to get his tee shot onto the green, or will he lay up off the tee with a mid-iron and land it in the fairway at all cost to avoid the 6-inch rough?

Mr. Watson and his counterparts will definitely be testing this theory out during the practice rounds. Other holes of golf technology versus Merion interest will be first hole and the world famous 11th hole, where Bobby Jones won his historic grand slam. Both holes are short par fours by today’s tour player standards and will make them think twice before choosing their club on the tee shot. Another interesting note will be the play on the tee shot at the16th hole, better known as the “quarry hole” at Merion.

Once again It will be a brain teaser for the players whether or not to hit the driver or three wood up the right side of the fairway for a better angle into the green on the approach shot, or will they go the direct route to the green and just hit an iron off the tee and go up the left side of the fairway to carry the quarry on their approach shot. And lastly is the eighteenth hole, where in 1950 Ben Hogan hit a driver and 1 iron to reach the green in the Open that year.

This year the 18th hole will be a driver wedge combination unless the USGA narrows down the fairway. (Wait …was a one iron mentioned there??? Do the guys on tour like Rickie Fowler and Rory McElroy know what a 1-iron is?) With all this talk about drivers versus irons off the tee at Merion and not that this is unusual talk for a U.S. Open, but one has to wonder if anyone will not carry a driver at all in their bag? Will guys such as Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods, or Phil Mickelson leave their drivers at the hotel, or even at home? Will this U.S. Open become an “iron fest”? Or God forbid…a “hybrid and iron fest?”

But the biggest question for the 2013 U.S. Open will be how low is the final winning score? Will a final 72 hole score of fifteen to twenty under par be inevitable or will Merion with its red wicker baskets, rustic bunkering, ultra deep rough, and off the chart stimpmeter greens find a way to humble the world’s greatest golfers one more time with final winning score of not lower than five under par.

If the latter scenario occurs, I think golf club and ball equipment manufacturers will be in great relief, the golf industry will keep moving forward status quo, and the members at Merion will be wiping the sweat off their brows. It would also mean that Merion is still a formidable task for golfers of all levels and the U.S. Open would indeed come back again to Merion and the golf mecca of Philadelphia in the future.

But if the first scenario happens, it could mean the biggest changes in the use of golf equipment in USGA events since the great square grooves debate of the 1980s. Who knows what could happen then. Would the USGA promote a unified golf ball to be used in its events? Will it ban certain shafts and heads in the latest models of drivers? Who knows what will happen at the 2013 U.S. Open, but whatever does occur will have an impact on the future of golf.

John graduated from Cornell University with a degree
in landscape architecture and was trained by golf course architect Tom Doak while at Cornell. He Previously worked at Nicklaus Design performing golf course design. He has been involved with 31 golf course projects both domestically and internationally. John’s contact info below.

Hierarchy Golf Design, LLC

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