What it takes to prepare Merion Golf Club for a U.S. Open
As a young man at the 1971 U.S. Open, Richard “Rick” Ill drove the world’s best golfers to and from the practice areas at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore.
But when one of golf's majors returns for a fifth time to the Main Line’s historic course, Ill will have played the role of Merion’s U.S. Open Committee chairman — the club’s point man for the 113th national championship of golf.
"In 1971, when [Lee] Trevino beat [Jack] Nicklaus in a playoff, my job at that time, the company I worked, it had an RV. … I drove that back and forth and I only destroyed two mirrors,” Ill said in an interview at the club last week. “There are some narrow roads around here and I wasn’t used to driving them, so I sheared off two mirrors during the week. But other than that, it was successful.”
Success for Ill this summer will be measured by a much higher standard, considering one of the country’s premier sporting events is in his hands. The 113th U.S. Open will be played June 13-16. With Tiger Woods back at number one in the world rankings and a strong start among American professionals on the PGA tour this year, the 25,000 daily spectators should be amped up for great golf in two months.
The preparation to get Merion and the entire community around the course up to par for the massive event began for Ill many months ago.
He took a trip to Olympic Golf Club in San Francisco last year when that course hosted the 2012 Open. Ill said he was as much interested in the last-minute planning as the large-scale logistics.
"The things we have a lot of time to do, like get the course ready, not that it’s easy, but there was time to do it," Ill said. "I was more concerned with the things that come up tomorrow morning that we have to hustle to get done and things that come up June 1."
Details as small as golf balls could become a major headache for organizers, Ill found out.
"They had a problem at the final minute about the golf balls for Tiger Woods. They didn’t show up on time, so he didn’t have his Nike golf balls to hit," Ill said. "That caused a little hiccup, but those are the things we’re working on now to pre-determine that all the golf balls needed to hit are here."
Ill, who served for five years as Merion’s president before taking on the job as head of the club’s U.S. Open committee, has already spent months making sure everything from road closure approvals to medical staff arrangements have been set up.
The logistics of a national event has grown drastically since the U.S. Open was last at Merion 32 years ago.
"For the 1981 Open, there were basically 500 volunteers," he said. "The 2013 open will have over 5,000 volunteers."
Packing 25,000 spectators onto the tight confines — by today’s golf course standards — of Merion’s 126 acres will also prove to be a test for USGA officials and Merion organizers.
There will be a concerted effort on the part of organizers to make sure fans utilize the grandstands more than ever.
"There’ll be grandstands for 16,000. The idea is for the limited space the course has, we’ll want fans to be situated in grandstands," Ill said. "The grandstands will be situated so fans can see more than one hole."
He thinks the course will provide a unique challenge to players in golf’s new age of super long hitters. It will play between 6,970 and 6,995, he said, making it one of the shortest courses to host a U.S. Open in the last 20 years.
Narrow fairways (averaging between 22 and 24 yards wide), no secondary cut to separate the fairway and rough that will average about four inches deep and slick greens that will read about 13.5 on the stimpmeter should give the pros all they can handle, Ill said.
But Merion’s best weapon against players scoring well will likely lie in its par 70 layout. Ill said the course, with only two par 5s and several very long par 4s and par 3s, plays 300 yards longer than its measured yardage.
(The par 5s are on holes 2 and 4, which means some of the professionals’ favorite scoring chances are over with very early in the round.)
Ill said the par 3 9th hole will measure a chilling 237 yards to the center of the green.
"If they play it to the back left, it’ll be 245," Ill said with a smile.
Looking at scorecards from previous Opens, Ill noticed the distance of the par 3 17th that stretched 230 yards in 1934.
Some golfers couldn’t even reach the green from the tee 82 years ago.
That won’t be the case this time around, but Ill said precision will still be valued over power at Merion.
"I think someone who’s going win the tournament is a guy who’s going to hit it straight and not necessarily the longest hitters on tour," Ill said. "There will be a lot of holes where they won’t have to hit driver."
Now less than 80 days from the first round, Ill said he’s happy with the preparation and tireless work by the club’s volunteers and the USGA. Hosting an Open turned out to be tougher than he thought it would be, but he said the USGA has proved a more than capable partner.
And perhaps the best news to the 350 or so regular golfing members of Merion: the course will only be closed two weeks despite all the hoopla surrounding the event.
"This will be our 18th USGA event, so we’ve been very USGA-oriented," he said. "Most of the members are very supportive. This club, as with any other club, there will be a minority who doesn’t like it. But on the other hand, it contributes to the history and tradition of Merion and the members are very proud of that."
Contact Brian X. McCrone at 215-854-2267 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @brianxmccrone on Twitter.