Merion's size means big changes, less revenue for U.S. Open

Merion's size means big changes, less revenue for U.S. Open
April 30, 2013, 10:00 am

Merion Golf Club will host the 113th U.S. Open from June 13-16. (USA Today Images)

Have a house in Ardmore? If you can't rent it out -- more like, if you haven't already -- maybe you can host a corporate-sponsored tent on your lawn.

We're now six weeks away from the 2013 U.S. Open to be held at the Merion Golf Club from June 13-16. So for the next month-plus, you'll still be able to drive on Haverford Rd., Ardmore Ave. and the other surrounding thoroughfares.

And then, the week of the Open, you won't be able to get within miles of the place without a ticket or some solid documentation.

The U.S. Open hasn't been held at Merion -- or any other Philadelphia-area venue -- since 1981. The common misconception has been that the USGA was hesitant to return to Merion because the course, constructed in 1912, is too short by modern standards and lacks the room to undergo the kind of aggressive redesign other classic tracks have opted for over the last decade.

Plenty of tweaks have been made to the layout in advance of the tournament (see story), but the real issue with Merion, according to USGA executive director Mike Davis, was never actually about golf.

"It had nothing to do with the golf course in terms of how it played, in terms of a test of golf. But it had everything to do with how do you fit a modern day U.S. Open on this 111 acres," Davis said at Monday's media day.

"This would never have happened with some really out-of-the-box thinking from some key people here at Merion. … And to think that you're going to have a practice range a mile down the road at Merion's West Course, to think that there's neighbors here that would give up their lawns, their houses, to have different functions in them. Merion, the club, acquired some property.

"You've got a situation where, well, there's just so many out-of-the-box things that had to happen for this to occur that it's great."

Out of the box -- like co-opting the East Course's main putting green and turning it into the new 14th tee. Or having tour pros go through all their pre-round preparation about a mile from the course they'll actually be playing. Or starting those players on holes No. 1 and 11, rather than the traditional 1 and 10, because the 10th tee is up a hill, into the woods and butted up against a fence, separating it from someone's backyard.

Those people should have a nice view.

"If anybody out there feels that the logistics were not complex in putting on a U.S. Open," said Rick Ill, chairman of the Open at Merion, "I have found out firsthand that the word of the day is logistics. Especially in an area that is as small as Merion in regard to the golf course and the surroundings."

So while other tournaments can fit the majority of the event's constituent parts all on one piece of land, Merion and the USGA had to think "outside the box," meaning outside the property.

The players will warm up on Merion's West Course -- just down Ardmore Ave. from the East, where the tournament will be contested -- the East's putting green is out of commission for the reason previously stated, and the U.S. Open merchandise tent and media center are currently occupying the driving range.

So the players, just like the fans, will have to be shuttled onto the East's grounds. The surrounding roads will all be closed the week of tournament play.

Speaking of the fans, there will be fewer than usual. Merion, as unique as it is, is very much like a number of the other local courses built roughly a century ago -- tee boxes are right next to greens, holes run parallel to roads, and there isn't a ton of extra room.

Consequently, there won't be more than 25,500 fans on the course on any one day. During a typical Open week -- like the ones at Congressional and Olympic Club in the last two years -- the USGA typically welcomes something like 230,000 spectators. Fewer fans, of course, means fewer dollars, too.

"We don't look at this as a one-year financial exercise," championship committee chairman Tom O'Toole said. "We look over a period of years and we're perfectly comfortable that we could come back and have a less financially significant Open, but with the history here and what's gone on and what we think the experience is going to be here in 2013, we would be excited to have that opportunity again.

"Our board of directors deserves a lot of credit," Davis added. "Because for us this is taking what has become just a huge championship and saying, 'You know what? For the good of the game, we can't not come back to a place like this. It's too important from an historical standpoint, and it means too much architecturally and it's still a great test of golf.' So credit to our board of directors that they were willing to take an Open and shrink it in terms of the number of people and corporate and so on."

Some of the usual hospitality tents will remain on-site, or just slightly off it. A few of the private homes that sit beside the 14th and 15th holes will have those tents plopped on their lawns come June. Most of the other corporate hospitality areas, however, will be erected down the road at Haverford College.

There will even be something called the U.S. Open Experience staged at Independence Mall, with "interactive exhibits where fans can recreate historical moments from Merion's U.S. Open history or learn about the science behind the game at a mini‑replica of the 14th hole putting green to U.S. Open merchandise and Jumbotron viewing of live golf, Independence Mall will be the next best place to be part of all the U.S. Open action," according to Davis.

In all, it's an undertaking that requires not only the formal USGA staff and Merion's 1,200 members but also a team 5,000 volunteers all working together to bring the club it's fifth U.S. Open.

"Many questioned whether we could stage a U.S. Open at Merion, from a pure operations perspective," O'Toole said. "But all of the officers and staff here at Merion knew it could be done. We wish to thank them for getting us here, and for their role in preparing for what we expect will be a memorable 113th U.S. Open Championship."