Three years ago on the Monday of U.S. Open week, the skies opened up over the Ardmore section of Haverford Township and any fading hope that Merion Golf Club’s historic East Course was going to play the way the USGA had hoped it would for the 2013 National Open was gone.
The fast and firm golf course the USGA envisioned was on display on the Monday of Open week in 2016, although this time it was the top amateur golfers from the Philadelphia area challenging the venerable Hugh Wilson design in qualifying for match play in the 116th BMW Philadelphia Amateur.
And throw in those gusty winds that tortured the best senior professionals on the planet all weekend in the Constellation Senior Players Championship at nearby Philadelphia Cricket Club and you had one gnarly Merion East.
And while I never wandered over to Gladwyne to check it out, Philadelphia Country Club wasn’t exactly a pushover either.
After watching two-time Philly Amateur champion Michael McDermott, playing on his home course, and 2014 Philly Amateur champion Jeff Osberg play the last six holes of their morning round at Merion (more on those two later), I settled in for almost the entire round (I only missed their first hole, the 11th at Merion) of a group that included defending champion Cole Berman, the former Haverford School standout and Georgetown junior, Conrad Von Borsig, the 2009 Philly Amateur champion and former Strath Haven standout, and P.J. Acierno, who starred scholastically at La Salle and will be a redshirt senior in the fall at La Salle University.
Berman, who plays out of the Cricket Club, appears to be ready for the defense of his Philly Amateur title. He’s coming off a solid sophomore season at Georgetown during which helped the Hoyas win the Big East title with a lineup of all underclassmen and earn a berth in the NCAA regional at the Vanderbilt Legends Club in Franklin, Tenn.
He began his day Monday with a 5-over 76 at Philadelphia Country Club and when I picked him on the 12th hole at Merion he had already birdied the short par-4 11th, hitting a pitching wedge to three feet and dropping the putt.
He would make only two mistakes all day and Merion being Merion, it made him pay. His approach at the par-4 14th lodged itself in the deep grass above the right greenside bunker, it took him three swipes to get it on the green and resulted in a triple-bogey seven. The other mistake was yanking his tee shot on his last hole of the day, the short, par-4 10th, into the deep, deep rough on the left side of the hole. The result was a double-bogey six.
He ended up with a 5-over 75, giving him a 36-hole total of 10-over 151 and tied for 18th, more than good enough to snag one of the 32 berths in match play, which gets under way Tuesday, all at Merion.
“I feel very good about my game,” Berman said. “Match play is when the tournament really starts. When you have a bad hole in match play, all you lose is the hole and you move on.”
And for a good part of Berman’s afternoon round, he displayed what a tough match-play player he will be. After chipping in from over the 18th for what turned out to be his only other birdie of the day, Berman was masterful over Merion’s front nine.
“I hit every green in regulation on the front nine,” Berman said. “I hit a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. And I had two three-putts.”
He hit it 15 feet at one and his birdie try just slid by. He was 12 feet at two and just missed. He made a nice two-putt from 45 feet at three. He couldn’t get a 20-foot birdie try at four to fall. He three-putted from 15 feet at the impossible fifth, getting a little greedy with the birdie try. Not sure how his 15-footer at six didn’t fall. Ditto the seven-foot birdie putt at seven. He three-putted the eighth from 28 feet. And he left his 30-footer at nine two feet short in the jaws.
That little run will leave him at least 1- or 2-up in match play heading to the 10th tee.
“We played two of the hardest courses in the Philadelphia area and Merion was especially tough with it playing fast and firm and with the wind blowing,” Berman said. “There’s just no room for error here. There are no breaks, no let-up. You’re grinding the whole time.”
The other two members of the threesome did not live to play another day.
Von Borsig, who joined Berman in the deep stable of talent at the Cricket Club this year, hit some tremendous shots at Merion, but several three-putts and an indecisive approach at the eighth that resulted in a triple-bogey seven led to a 79 at Merion after a 77 at Philly. His 156 total missed the playoff for the final two spots in match play by two shots.
Acierno, who plays out of Lu Lu Country Club, struggled a little at Philly, carding a 9-over 80, but a solid 75 at Merion left him one shot out of the playoff.
Von Borsig and Acierno provided some high entertainment on the par-5 second hole at Merion. After hitting it down the middle Von Borsig bombed it on the green in two, a tough target to hit with what looked like a 3-wood, and made a two-putt birdie.
Acierno, apparently determined not to hit it onto Ardmore Avenue to the right, launched his tee shot into the fescue to the left of the creek that runs up the left side of No. 5. He played a shot up above the trap on the right side of five, hoisted a wedge to the back fringe and two-putted for an all-world par.
At the end of the morning round I got to watch a group that included three former champions in McDermott (2008, 20013), Huntingdon Valley Country Club’s Osberg (2014) and Little Mill Country Club’s Michael Hyland (2000, 2011) play the final six holes of their morning round at Merion.
They are absolute masters at getting a number when they really need it. None played spectacularly well at Merion, McDermott and Hyland posting 75s and Osberg a shot back at 76. But McDermott went over to Philly and matched par with a 71 to finish in a tie for third at 5-over 146, Osberg also matched par with a 71 to finish tied for fifth at 6-over 147, and Hyland carded a 2-over 73 to finish tied for eighth at 7-over 148.
The battle for the qualifying medal came down to a couple former Temple teammates as Patrick Ross of Huntsville Golf Club, playing in one of the last groups of the day at Merion, carded a 3-over 73 at the East for a 2-over 143 total that was two shots clear of Matt Teesdale of Commonwealth National Golf Club. Teesdale’s 71 at Merion tied him for the best round of the day at a course that hosted the U.S. Open four other times before the squishy 2013 affair. He opened with a 74 at Philly for a 4-over 145 total.
Such is the regard with which Merion is held that Ross delayed the start of his professional golf career to get a shot at the East Course this week.
“After this week, I’m going to turn professional and play in the Vermont Open next week,” Ross said. “I waited for this because, obviously it’s Merion.”
Yardley Country Club’s Christopher Ault, who has been an explosive player since his high school days at Pennsbury a decade or so ago, followed up a morning 79 at Merion with the best round of the day, a 4-under 67 at Philly that earned him a share of third place with McDermott at 5-over 146.
Aronimink Golf Club’s Michael Davis, the former Malvern Prep standout and Princeton junior who was runnerup to his old Inter-Ac League rival Berman at Llanerch a year ago, added a 74 in the afternoon at Merion to his 73 in the morning at Philly to finish in a tie for fifth at 148. Overbrook Golf Club’s James Kania Jr., runnerup to Von Borsig in the Philly Amateur at Stonewall in 2009, made match play with a 75 at Merion and a 77 at Philly for a 152 total that left him tied for 22nd.
Llanerch Country Club’s Stephen Seiden, always quick to remind you he has a real job as a pharmacist, followed up a 73 at Merion with a 75 at Philly and finished in a tie for eighth at 148. Aronimink’s Cory Siegfried, the 2010 Pennsylvania Amateur champion, also had a solid 73 at Merion along with a 77 at Philly to finish tied for 12th at 150.
Carey Bina, the former Radnor High standout, backed up a 74 at Merion with a 78 at Philly to finish tied for 22nd at 152.
Among the near-miss group at 155 were Overbrook’s Ray Thompson (78 Merion, 77 Philly), who reached the semifinals two years ago at age 62, Aronimink’s Joseph Fabrizio Jr. (79 Merion, 76 Philly), and reigning three-time GAP Super-Senior Player of the Year Don Donatoni (78 Merion, 77 Philly) out of White Manor Country Club.
Meanwhile a couple of kids who just finished their freshman year of high school, Radnor High’s David Colleran Jr. of Overbrook Golf Club and Episcopal Academy’s Michael Zeng of Applecross Country Club, deserve some props for sticking it out on a couple of big-boy courses. Colleran opened with an 84 at Philly and added an 88 at Merion to finish at 172 and Zeng opened with an 85 at Merion and added a 92 at Philly for a 177 total. They are already better players for the experience.
Saint Joseph’s sophomore Ross Pilliod, representing the Stonewall caddyshack and Gilbertsville Golf Club, didn’t embarrass himself with a pair of 80s and a 160 total
And it wouldn’t be a BMW Philadelphia Amateur qualifying day without a little 6-for-2 playoff for the final two berths in match play with dusk descending on the East Course.
Starting on the little par-3 13th that cost Phil Mickelson the 2013 Open, Lu Lu Country Club’s Glen Smeraglio, who qualified for both the U.S. Senior Amateur and the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2015, Biderman Golf Club’s William Jeremiah and the Cricket Club’s John Brennan made birdie twos and moved on to the par-4 14th.
Brennan had a tough time extricating himself from a bunker on the right side of the 14th and it cost him the final match-play spot. Still, Jeremiah had to drop a three-footer for bogey to finally settle the issue after the ageless Smeraglio tapped in for a three-putt bogey.
It was a long, long day, but well worth watching some really good players playing my favorite golf course in the world.