Despite heavy rains, Merion will pose a tough test for competitors this week. (Hallowell/Getty Images)
By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM contributor
Given three days, Matt Shaffer says, Merion Golf Club still could show off the firm and fast challenge that the U.S. Golf Association envisioned when it chose to give the historic layout a chance to measure up to the modern game.
Alas, that stretch of rain-free days doesn’t appear on the U.S. Open’s horizon this week.
“Unfortunately, Thursday is looking a bit threatening,” Shaffer, in his 12th season as Merion’s director of golf course operations, said during a lull in a very busy Monday that featured two lengthy rain suspensions.
“You really need three days to get it firmed up again. But it is what it is. It’ll still be fun; it’ll still be good. I just think the scores will be lower, that’s all. And I think people will understand.”
Anyone that caught a TV glimpse of crews hustling to restore a water-filled bunker at Merion’s famed 11th green could get the picture. After all the rain dumped by Tropical Storm Andrea last week, Monday brought another 1-1/2 inches to the suburban Philadelphia layout.
In all, Merion absorbed more than 5 inches of rain in a four-day span that began when Andrea blew through last Friday. By comparison, average rainfall for the entire month of June in Philadelphia amounts to just 3.29 inches.
“I’m disappointed for our members and the USGA,” Shaffer said. “I think everybody was anxious to see it firm and fast and how it would hold up to the likes of the world’s best golfers. If we don’t get those conditions, it’s too bad.”
Merion’s East course is among the USGA’s favorite venues, selected 17 times previously for various national championships. But because of its short measurement – 6,996 yards from the tips – and small acreage, it had been bypassed for U.S. Opens since 1981.
Of greatest concern is the 11th green, the site where Bobby Jones finished off the 1930 U.S. Amateur final and completed the Grand Slam. The putting surface, though, is at the lowest point of the property and where two streams converge into Cobbs Creek.
Shaffer recalls perhaps 15 instances of flooding there during his time at Merion, and the club had worked in recent years to move water away from the streams before they got to the 11th green.
Last week, sandbags were at the ready in case Andrea dropped too much rain for the banks to hold. “We came within a half-inch of going over the top,” Shaffer said, “but we lucked out.”
In addition to his usual 50-man staff, Shaffer also can call upon some 125 volunteers to get the course back to optimum conditions. That includes superintendents at some former U.S. Open venues and other high-profile clubs.
Among them are Paul Latshaw, Shaffer’s mentor at Augusta National and now Muirfield Village chief, and Oakmont’s John Zimmers.
“They’re not only passionate about what they do,” Shaffer said, “when it’s ‘Go Time’ they can grind with anybody. It’s great to have them on board.”
Shaffer laments that the Open couldn’t have taken place last week. Five weeks of dry weather had Merion’s green running at nearly 14 on the Stimpmeter – on the brink of an optimum test for the world’s top golfers.
“We were trying to hold back and not peak too early,” he said. “A couple of extra double cuts and we were home free.”
Now Shaffer estimates the greens to be a little above 12 – still speedy, but more receptive and less inclined to separate the cream from the rest. However, he suggested the USGA has a great equalizer in executive director Mike Davis.
“He is, in my opinion, the best setup person in golf,” Shaffer said. “I’m sure he’s thinking about what he can do with these conditions. Our rough is vicious and our fairways are still narrow, so it remains to be seen what happens.”