Perhaps no golf course in all America offers quite so classic a test of all-around championship skill as the site of this weekend's US Open -- and certainly no course this side of St. Andrews in Scotland is more steeped in the heritage and tradition of the game.
It was here at the Merion Golf Club's East Course in 1930 that Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam. It was on the same layout two decades later that Ben Hogan, still not fully recovered from the injuries he had sustained in a car-bus accident the previous year, struggled through a 36-hole final followed by a playoff to score the most memorable victory in US Open history. And these are just the two most famous moments in a veritable litany down through the years.
The association of Jones and Merion was so close, in fact, that it is hardly possible to think of one without the other. In 1916 as a chubby "boy wonder" of 14, Bobby came here to play in his first US Amateur, reaching the quarterfinals. In 1924 he won his first national amateur title on this same course. And finally there was the historic afternoon of Sept. 27, 1930, when he completed his never-to-be- equalted sweep of the US and British Opens and Amateurs in a single year.
As for the US Open, this is the fourth time the classic has been held at this picturesque course in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The first one, in 1934, was won by Olin Dutra, but is far better known as the Open that Gene Sarazen frittered away by taking a triple bogey seven on the 11th hole of the final round. Next, in 1950, came Hogan's unforgettable comeback. Then in 1971, it was Trevino beating Jack Nicklaus in a playoff.
Now 156 of the world's best golfers are gathered here once again for the 1981 renewal, which continues through Sunday, and who knows what new piece of history will be added to the old course's lore? It could be Nicklaus becoming the first man ever to win the Open five times; or Tom Watson finally capturing this one big title that has so far eluded him; or perhaps some lesser-known player rising up to carve his own page in golfing history at this most appropriate site.
In all, the US Golf Association has chosen Merion as the locale of 14 championships tournaments or international matches -- more than any other club. Two of these -- the Women's Amateurs of 1904 and 1909 -- were played on an old layout which no longer exists. But the other 12 have all been contested on the fabled East Course.
So what is the magic of Merion? Certainly not its size, for at 6,544 yards it is about 500 yards shorter than championship courses are supposed to be. Those who see it for the first time, in fact, often expect today's talented pros to tear it up. This never seems to happen, though, and in fact no one has even broken par for the entire tournament in the three previous Opens held here.
As Trevino said after winning in 1971, and as others have echoed, Merion may appear easy, but it plays a lot tougher than it looks.
Some of the problems are well known. There are the famed "white faces" -- the 128 bunkers placed strategically to punish the slightest inaccuracy. There is the "baffling brook" 11th hole, where Sarazen lost his chance in 1934, and where many another good round has been dissipated. There are the narrow fairways and thick rough (Sam Snead used to complain that they grew the stuff up as high as the tops of his thighs). And there are the fast, undulating greens, which have turned prospective success into nightmarish failure for even the best of putters.
Mainly, though, it is the ingenious overall layout of this little course compressed into just 127 acres. Instead of unduly favoring one type of player over another, it is more likely to reward the man with the most complete arsenal of shots -- thus providing a true test of what the game is all about.
It is also a "thinking man's course," or as Golf Digest puts it, "Perhaps no other course requires a player to shift gears so drastically and so often in a round . . . giving an edge to the smart player who knows when to advance boldly and when to take his par and go quietly."
The creation of the East Course in 1912 was the work of a young club member named Hugh Wilson, who spent seven months looking over courses in England and Scotland before launching the project, and whose careful study obviously paid off handsomely. Touring pro Bert Yancey cites what he calls its "phenomenal resemblance" to the Old Course at St. Andrews. And the British flavor is apparent to all in such touches as the Scotch broom (shrub-like vegetation) dotting many of the bunkers and the famous wicker baskets used instead of flags -- the latter a throwback to golf's origin hundreds of years ago, when it was a shepherd's game and such baskets were used to keep food in.
These quaint touches have their effect on play, too. Scotch brooms make the traps that much more dangerous, while the absence of flags at the holes makes it more difficult to judge the direction and velocity of the wind. Add these little annoyances to all the other difficulties and one begins to understand how , despite its lack of size, Merion has held up all these years against the assault of ever-improving talent and equipment.
No less an authority than Nicklaus, in fact, has called it "acre for acre, perhaps the best test of golf in the world." But it was golf architect Pete Dye who put it best of all.
"Merion is not great because history was made here," he said. "History was made here because Merion is great."