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Muddy Merion Holds High Ground

ARDMORE, PA. — With the first round of the U.S. Open interrupted by thunderstorms, the Top 50 in-box has been flooded with questions about our rating system. “You seem to adjust your rankings hourly,” writes a gentleman from Maui’s Iao Valley. “Will Merion wash out of the Top 50 by noon?” Another fellow, corresponding from Cherrapunji, India, which gets roughly 500 inches of rainfall per year, writes, “I can’t wait to see Merion go over the falls.”

US Open Grandstand

Inclement weather has only slightly dampened spectators’ enthusiasm for 36th-ranked Merion. (John Garrity)

Contrary to their expectations, Merion Golf Club clings to its position at No. 36 as thunder booms and rain pelts the fabric roof of the US Open Media Center, where I am moonlighting as a correspondent for my former employer, Sports Illustrated. This despite the fact that Merion’s creeks are spilling out of their banks and its greens resemble rice paddies in monsoon season.

Normally, the Top 50 algorithm takes the relevant weather data from all points of the compass and adjusts the rankings on the fly; and yes, “unplayability,” whether due to rain, wind or subniveal rodents, usually consigns even the greatest courses to the lower tiers. But we operate with a “major championship exemption” that freezes the ranking for iconic golf courses on days of competition. We do this because the majors are televised world-wide, providing entertainment to millions, if not billions. So while a Merion or a St. Andrews Old might be temporarily unfit for golf, they maintain a firm hold on viewers, who love those images of collapsed hospitality tents and workers vacuuming brown water out of greenside bunkers.

The exemption applies only to the days of competition. This past Monday, for example, torrents of rain forced a shutdown of Merion’s 11th hole, the short par 4 where Bobby Jones closed out Princeton’s Eugene Homans in the 1930 U.S. Amateur to complete his Grand Slam. Reduced to 17 soggy holes, Merion promptly plummeted to the second 50.* By Wednesday afternoon, however, sunny skies and brisk winds had dried out Merion sufficiently to restore its Top 50 ranking.

*Unfairly so, in my estimation. Seventeen holes of Merion is better than 18 holes of many of the stretched-out tree farms that pass for major-championship venues these days.

I should add that Merion’s ratings bounce-back was in no way influenced by the splendid meal I enjoyed Tuesday evening at Minella’s Diner in nearby Wayne, Pa. (My open-face hot turkey sandwich was piled high with genuine sliced turkey and real turkey gravy, which so surprised me that I teared up and considered overtipping.) Off-site attractions almost never figure into our course assessments, the obvious exception being goods and services provided in return for promotional consideration.

Merion's 16th fairway

Merion’s famous “quarry hole,” the 16th, can take a good drenching. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Merion last hosted an Open in 1981, but I had the pleasure of covering the 1989 U.S. Amateur, won by Chris Patton. My story began thus:

Until Sunday, the East Course at Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia was hallowed ground—the site of 14 previous USGA championships, the shrine where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930, the vale of tears where Ben Hogan came back from a bloody car wreck to win the 1950 U.S. Open. Henceforth, Merion will also be remembered as the place where a college senior built like Refrigerator Perry won the 89th U.S. Amateur, beating a balding Tennessean in shorts with a swing so ugly that birds stopped chirping to watch.

For the record, the “balding Tennessean” was Danny Green.

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