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The driving force behind landing Merion

Former USGA executive director David Fay says he never gave up on getting the U.S. Open to return to the storied course.

Golf's self-proclaimed hardest test is returning this June to a course that has hosted more USGA events than any other. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Golf's self-proclaimed hardest test is returning this June to a course that has hosted more USGA events than any other. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

One in a series of articles getting you ready for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, June 13-16.

SOMETIMES, WHEN most everyone else is fixated on the many reasons why something probably can't happen again, maybe someone has to ponder why not.

In all the back-and-forth as to whether Merion's famed East Course still had whatever it took to host another U.S. Open, that voice mainly belonged to David Fay.

The former executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, who retired at the end of 2010 after 21 years on the job, has been credited with driving many initiatives aimed at bringing the organization into the 21st century. That's why its flagship event went to public facilities such as Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines, and will soon be at nearly unknown courses Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, as well.

It's also why golf's self-proclaimed hardest test is returning this June to a course that has hosted more USGA events than any other, a course that's ranked sixth in the country, a course where Jones, Hogan and Trevino (over Nicklaus in a playoff) have left their indelible fingerprints.

And also a course that was thought to be outdated for modern times, given the logistical monster that the Open has become.

"I kept saying, 'I'm not giving up on Merion yet,' " said Fay, who was honored in April by the Golf Writers of America at its annual dinner on the eve of the Masters with the William D. Richardson Award for his outstanding contributions to the game. "I talked to Mike Davis [the USGA executive director and the man responsible for setting up Open layouts and Fay's eventual successor].

"We both love Merion. Who wouldn't love Merion? We went there, it might have been about 2000 or 2001. The club found a way to get bigger and stronger, more robust, yet retain that wonderful character. As a result, the long holes became even longer, and the short, sexy holes are still short, sexy and challenging.

"To paraphrase the [automobile] commercial, it's not your father or grandfather's Merion. It is, but it isn't. The par 3s, with the exception of 13, can all be played well over 200 yards. You see additional length on holes like 5, 6, 14 and 18. You know those are big increases.

"They used creativity, because there wasn't a lot of room to work with. But they [optimized] what they had. And what they have now is a stout course."

Even though it can only be stretched to some 7,000 yards, short by today's championship standards. In the 2011 Open, Congressional played to more than 7,500. Next year, Pinehurst No. 2 will be almost that long. When Merion last hosted the Open in 1981 it measured 6,544, the same as it had a decade earlier. According to the U.S. Open Almanac, in 1950 and '34, it had actually been about 150 yards longer. Pebble Beach, which hosted the 2010 Open and will do so in another 6 years, played at a little more than 7,000 3 years ago, even though it's a par 71 for this major (72 at all other times).

When David Graham won the Open at Merion in 1981, his score was 7-under. But only four others broke par. Still, nobody had ever done that before at Merion. If you understand how the USGA feels about that kind of thing, then you can certainly grasp the level of trepidation. But the stats from the 2005 U.S. Amateur, which served as an unofficial audition for the USGA, suggest that Merion could more than hold its own, at least with those guys. There were only four under-par rounds.

Now it will be taking on the very best in the world. As it should be, given the historical context.

"There have been so many memorable moments there," Fay said. "Again, the membership was able to retain that great quality that everyone loves about Merion. Yet, they've made it contemporary. The club took all the necessary steps it should have taken, like buying the piece of land to the right of 6 that will serve as the main entrance . . .

"Every Open at Merion has been a success, met all the tests. But in '81, the feeling was it had gotten small. And it had. It really had not changed, going back to its first Open."

To be successful, it has to work not only from a competitive standpoint but financially. The Open is the only one of the 15 championships the USGA conducts that turns a profit. So it has to make enough to support everything else. That's not easy, especially when you're limited with space to the point at which you can only put 25,000 people on the course each day, or about half of what can be done at sites such as Congressional and Pinehurst. The USGA obviously knew that when it made the choice, which shows just how special of a place Merion holds within the game's tradition. And there is a bunch to be said for that.

"When we started to go to public courses, almost by definition they tend to be bigger Opens," Fay said. "When you're doing a financial budget, you're working on maybe a 5-year plan. So you take a smaller Open as long as it's offset against that. You can play with it a bit more . . .

"Merion's been so important to American golf. But there have been gaps before. It would have had an Open well before 1934, but Merion felt at the time that amateur golf was the bigger deal. So I think the members identified more with that, and match play. But you had that period from 1950 to '71, that's a long time. And now this one. But I think it'll be worth the wait."

Maybe it's also no coincidence that hospitality tents first made their impact in 1980 at Baltusrol in North Jersey. Corporate folks who are willing to spend for that want to be as close to the action as they can. That won't be totally possible at Merion, although it hasn't stopped the people in charge from basically selling out what they did have to offer. It'll just be, well, different, since much of that will be taking place at nearby Haverford College. There was just no other way to put the puzzle together.

"The USGA's bank account is nice and healthy," Fay said. "When you do your planning, it allows you to mix and match. You have some classic, great, old private clubs, weaving them in with public courses either owned by the state or county. It's a nice blend. It's great that a new generation of golfers will be able to see Merion in its glory."

The weather, as always, will have a great deal to say about how the course plays. Davis has called it the Boutique Open. We'll see about that, too. There's only so much you can do on 110 or so acres.

"It's still Merion," Fay said. "I don't know if I'd use that term, but I don't think it's inaccurate or misleading to use it. The property's going to feel crowded, no matter what. And that's OK. There's some school of thought that it isn't a big event unless you feel like you're in a traffic jam headed to it.

"Just the fact that it's Merion gets hearts beating a little faster. People are looking forward to it. Even though it's been lengthened, some will probably still think it's too short. Again, to be determined. You can speculate all you want.

"If the decision makers at the time didn't think they'd come away with having another great Open there, they wouldn't have voted for it. We put a lot of effort and investigation into it. There are too many options.

"It's going back for all the right reasons, because the members refused to accept no. And they were able to find a way to make it a reality."

So maybe, if it works by however that's defined, this won't necessarily be the last Open at Merion. So what are you doing in say, 2028?

"No doubt about it," Fay agreed. "Assuming the club wants it, and we always have to ask them, because it might be too much of a hardship to go through, but if it plays out the way those of us who are fans of the club and the course think, hopefully there could be another one. But that goes back to, if you didn't have that attitude then you shouldn't be there in the first place. Now that doesn't make sense."