Women's golf helped Merion redeem self
While the golf world focuses on the men's game and our American national championship this week at Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia, a great argument can be made that without women's golf, holding this championship at Merion would not have been possible.
Club history tells us that golf at the club's original site in Haverford, Pa., was born largely because a member was longing for a course where his daughter, Elsie Cassatt, could learn the game. That was the year 1884. By 1904 the club, always open to women's memberships, had hosted its first U.S. Women's Amateur Championship, and it would host four more by 1949.
In 1954, Merion also hosted the Curtis Cup, the women's equivalent of the Walker Cup, a biennial match between a squad of the best American amateur golfers and their equivalents from Great Britain and Ireland. From that time through 1989, the club hosted four more USGA national championships, including two U.S. Opens and two U.S. Amateurs. The course condition for the 1989 U.S. Amateur was admittedly very poor, and shortly thereafter a very confident Merion GC and the USGA began to drift apart.
A national historic landmark, Merion had hosted 14 championships, including the last leg of Bobby Jones' Grand Slam in 1930, Ben Hogan's heroic U.S. Open victory in 1950 after nearly being killed in a car crash and Lee Trevino's 1971 U.S. Open playoff victory over the dominant Jack Nicklaus. But the club, a favorite site of the USGA, had fallen completely off the national championship radar. Most thought Merion would never see another USGA championship, let alone a U.S. Open in 2013.
Most ... but not all.
By the mid-1990s a group of Merion members, humbled by their exclusion from hosting big-time events, went hat in hand to the USGA leaders at their headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., asking what they needed to do to get back into the good graces of the organization. Back channels were opened and the club was eventually awarded the 1998 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, a championship well down the ladder of the 13 national championships the organization conducts each year.
The unspoken understanding was Merion needed to hit a home run with the girls' junior if the club was to ever get back into championship golf. Everyone at the club embraced the leadup to and week of the championship itself, eventually won by Indiana's Leigh Anne Hardin. Players and families still rave about the treatment they received from the club, its members, volunteers and how that girls' junior raised the bar for all clubs that hosted that championship going forward.
Because of the success of the girls' junior, Merion was eventually awarded the 2005 U.S. Amateur as bit of a test run for a potential return of an Open. In 2006, what had once thought to be impossible, became reality. The U.S. Open was coming back to Merion.
I am particularly thrilled to be covering this U.S. Open because it will be my first as member of ESPN's golf coverage team but also because the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship and Curtis Cup were so instrumental to my playing career. I played in just one girls' junior, in 1983, at Somerset Hills GC in Bernardsville, N.J. I come from a working-class family in upstate New York, and my parents simply didn't have the money for me to fly all over the country playing in top-level junior events. Bernardsville was a three-hour drive from home and family friends lived close by. Reaching the quarterfinals there, against the best juniors in the country, reaffirmed my belief that a girl from a small town could live out her dream of becoming the best in the world.
The Curtis Cup, won by the U.S. when Merion hosted in 1954, was also a game-changer for me. I was shocked to be named to the American team in 1986. I didn't think I was on the USGA's radar despite being low amateur at the 1984 U.S. Women's Open. Our team was thoroughly trounced by the team from Great Britain and Ireland at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan. I vividly remember the empty feeling as we stood at the closing ceremony while the American flag was taken down in a losing effort. That feeling fueled my passion and pride for the Solheim Cup as I became a professional and part of the history of that competition. It fuels my passion and pride as an assistant captain to Meg Mallon for this year's Solheim Cup, but first, we have a U.S. Open this week at Merion ... and you can thank the women of Merion for this championship.