2013 U.S. Open at Merion- Why the 6,996 Yardage Is A “Player Marketing” Mental Trick and How Merion Will Show Its Gnarly Teeth

When’s the last time you saw a retail store of any kind list a price as $20.00 instead of $19.99?  Or how about gas sold for $4.00 instead of $3.99?  It’s not that these businesses are laughing away those pennies, but rather they’re fully aware of the mental barrier of what adding that extra penny onto the price does to consumer’s mindsets.  It’s Sales Marketing 101 people.  Wondering where I’m going with this yet in a golf blog?  Let me explain.

The bluebloods at the USGA are no dummies.  They want to uphold the traditions of the game more than anyone (see announced anchoring ban) and always strive to provide a stern challenge when setting up courses for their national events, particularly for their flagship tourney- the U.S. Open.  Never were there more cringes, gray hairs, curse words and corpses rolling over in their graves than when Rory McIlroy assaulted Congressional Country Club to the tune of 16-under at the 2011 Open.  Yes, the course was a total sog-house, turning the previously daunting track into a dart-throwing birdie-fest, but nevertheless, you can be sure that it caused an internal uproar so violent within the Far Hills, NJ headquarters that you can damn well expect the USGA to go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent that from ever happening again.

Now, back to the sales marketing $0.99 instead of $1.00 tune.  The course length for this year’s U.S. Open at Merion is listed at 6,996 yards.  Not an even 7,000 yards, but an eye-opening sub-7,000 yard number.  Not since the ’04 Open at Shinnecock Hills has a U.S. Open been played on a course under 7,000 yards and coincidentally, that ’04 Open also played that very same 6,996 yards.

So first I ask you, how could the USGA not find just four more yards somewhere among 18 holes to stretch the course over the has-to-at-least-be 7,000 yard mark?  I’m telling you here- it’s not that they couldn’t find it, it’s that they didn’t want to.  Surely Glen Nager, Mike Davis and even the Jungle Bird could’ve found an extra 4 yards if they wanted to.  The reason it’s listed as sub 7,000?  Let’s call it “Player Marketing.”

The bomb-and-gouge mentality of PGA Tour members these days has them making mincemeat of courses that used to seem intimidating.  330 yard drives, 215 yard 6-irons, 150 yard pitching wedges and driver/7-iron par 5s have rendered many classic courses nearly obsolete with this ghastly technology.   Many classic courses other than Merion that is.

You see, Merion is different.  She’s a tight, windy, devilish, challenging yet fair and traditional beast with the ghost of Hogan lurking at every turn.  It’s one of those courses where local knowledge and precision supersedes length and bomb-and-gouge is merely a recipe for a wrist tourniquet and a weekend off.

USGA Executive Director Mike Davis instituted the hallmark of “graduated rough” at the ’06 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, and has received rousing applause for such a setup since.  The concept only mildly penalizes drives that are slightly offline, as the first cut 20 feet off the fairway usually would linger in the 3-4 inch range and would allow players to take a chance at going for the green with their second shots, while the second cut would be in the 6-8 inch range and was highly more penal.  Think pitch-out-sideways or regret it later type of punishment.

As for this year at Merion?  No such graduated rough.  No slight misses and still firing at pins, no bomb-and-gouge, basically if you drive your ball offline this week, it’s just some take-your-medicine type deep nasty stuff where you hope to escape with par and sprint to the next tee.

Next, the fairways are 24 yards wide on average.  24 yards!  Think walking single file down the short grass type of look off the tee.  Imagine standing on a tee box knowing that the 46-inch driver or the punch 2-iron that you’ll need to hit has a margin for error of between slim and none…and to steal a line from Curtis Strange, “and slim just left town.”  These narrow fairways just bring the rough that much more into play this week, putting an extreme emphasis on driving accuracy.

As if that isn’t enough, there’s not even an intermediate cut of rough this week.  No well-I-blocked-that-slightly-it’ll-be-just-fine 4 feet of intermediate cut to catch drives this week, just fairway and then the half foot gnarly stuff that could swallow a pair of Foot-Joys.  Drives just one foot off the fairway will be pitch outs back into play.  The USGA has said that they will camber the grass away from the fairway, so if a ball comes to rest up against the deep stuff it’ll not catch the hosel of the club as badly, but that there surely will be no intermediate cut.

In addition to all of this, the USGA crew has moved the path of some of these fairways closer to the boundaries of the golf course.  What comes with newer age playability of new golf course construction (wider fairways) is also a downfall of such an approach.  How often do you see a PGA Tour player hit a drive out-of-bounds?  Practically never; however this week at Merion, it’ll be a common occurrence as officials have re-routed fairways towards the perimeter of the course, bringing OB, hazards, trees and double-bogey central more into play.

Oh yeah, and none of what I’ve covered thus far mentions Merion’s severely sloping greens (expect pins just 3-4 places from fringes and nearly on the tipping point of violent slopes), blind tee shots, deep bunkers or other local knowledge that will surely wreak havoc on the field this week.

The longest hole in the stretch of holes 7-13 is 403 yards, and there are 5 par 4s under 400 yards total on the property, which is unheard of for the PGA Tour, particularly for a major championship.  While this will build a birdie-fest mentality among most players in the field, there will also be doubles and triples lurking at every turn for all of the reasons that I’ve listed above, meaning a plethora of circles and squares on those scorecards will be commonplace this week.  We will see a 64 this week and possibly even a 63, but that very ghost of Hogan and those cruel traditionalist golfing gods merely laugh at the thought of a 62 being posted this week.  In fact I’ll go ahead and say that with the wetness of the course that a 64 or 65 will be leading after day one, but by week’s end as things dry out and Merion shows its 72 hole teeth, that 7-under will be hoisting the trophy on Sunday evening.  Not some ghastly double digit under par fantasy land video game stuff that some of those loonies at Golf Channel are predicting.

Overall it’s a a giant breath of fresh air to see the USGA bring the nation’s championship back to such a historic and modernly “short” venue.  Don’t be fooled, the 6,996 course yardage will only trick with player’s mindsets making them be extra aggressive in thinking they need to birdie every other hole to contend this week.  By week’s end it’ll only be the USGA who will be wearing that grin.


Joel Harrington

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