Sports: How Merion Got Its Groove Back

The inside story of how the venerable Main Line golf club pulled off the biggest sports upset since ’Nova beat Georgetown — landing the 2013 U.S. Open

ON THE LAST Friday of each September, the members of Merion Golf Club celebrate Bobby Jones’s ascension — on September 27, 1930, to be exact — from mere golfing legend to American cultural icon. Nestled in its leafy Ardmore enclave, Merion has witnessed much golfing glory through the years: No club has hosted more USGA national championships or been more central to the Jones fable. It was here that Jones, armed with immeasurable talent and a putter named Calamity Jane, walked away from the awards presentation — into retirement, myth and divinity — with his fifth, and final, U.S. Amateur title. With it came the Grand Slam sweep of golf’s four major titles all in the same calendar year — something no one has managed to do since.

So members annually convene to mark the moment. After lunch and a round of foursomes, they change into black tie for a traditional march, led by a bagpiper, out to the first fairway, across Ardmore Avenue, past the plaque on the 11th tee commemorating Jones’s triumph, ending at the spot on the hill where Jones hit his final approach. Champagne is hoisted. The president offers a toast.  

Merion’s members are understandably proud of their club, its history, its tradition, and its significance; its wicker-basket flag sticks, its shrubby Scotch broom, its 18th fairway, where with a one-iron Ben Hogan launched one of the most famous shots in golf to propel him toward improbable victory in the 1950 U.S. Open. It’s one of only two clubs in the country anointed National Historic Landmarks, and its premiere East Course, perennially ranked among the world’s finest, is revered. “Acre for acre,” Jack Nicklaus, loser of the ’71 Open in a playoff at Merion, once observed, “it may be the best test of golf in the world.”

But after the 1981 U.S. Open — Merion’s fourth — there seemed to be a sense that there wasn’t enough of that acreage to ever lure back the game’s topmost road show, and the estimated $50 million-plus it can infuse into the local economy. By modern championship standards, Merion was simply too short, its infrastructure too compact, to accommodate professional golf’s crowds, corporate hospitality tents, and everything else that goes into such an extravaganza.

Which is why the Jones celebration held in 2002 was so important. David Fay, the executive director of the United States Golf Association (USGA), which puts on the Open, was coming. Fay doesn’t choose Open sites — that’s done by a championship committee — but his voice carries weight. And the course was looking better than it had in years.

Still, Fay concedes, “It really wasn’t on our radar.” But as he walked around the course that day six years ago, Fay liked the landscape. A lot. “It’s not like there was a revelation that day where the skies opened,” he says. “But my eyes saw something.”