Friday, February 10, 2006

Merion - The Vatican of Golf

Most major cities have their well healed suburbs - in New York Greenwich and Darien. In Chicago, the communities along the North Shore of Lake Michigan. In Philadelphia, the affluent leafy suburbs are known as The Main line. Named after the train line west of the city, the Main Line is old world, understated and rich. Merion is located in the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line and plays the part well. The land the course and clubhouse are on trace their title back to William Penn.

Memory is not one of my strengths. One minute after meeting someone I don't remember their name. Many times I have had to look at the bag tag of the member I'm playing with every three holes to remember his name and not make a complete fool of myself. And, I have gotten very good at not saying names. "Nice shot" instead of "Nice Shot, Dave", in case his name is in fact Bob.

There is, however a part of my memory that works very well when it sees greatness. I have found that the mark of a truly great course is how well you remember it both immediately after a round and six months later. Using this measure Merion is a truly great course. After playing it once I could describe every hole in detail. The shape, terrain, bunkers, doglegs, green contours, etc. At Pebble Beach you sort of feel compelled to like the course because it is so pretty and everybody raves about. But, if you're being honest with yourself, aside from the 18th hole, can you visually remember all 18 holes at Pebble? I'll bet you can't. Merion is seared into my memory. So far this has happened to me on only three courses in the world: Merion, The National Golf Links of America and Cruden Bay.

What makes Merion so memorable? It is the ultimate strategic golf course. It is not a terribly long course. First, you have to hit the fairways or it will be a long day. Second, you have to be on the correct side of the fairway in order to have a decent shot at the green. And finally, you have to be on the correct part of the green or you're in three putt territory. On every green. Also, the shot variety is really good as are the changes in direction, doglegs and uphill/downhill shots. No monotomy here. As if the golf course itself is not good enough (and it is) you also have the grandeur and majesty of the clubhouse and the Bobby Jones history. When you play the 11th hole, where Jones won the Grand Slam, you have chills up and down your spine. I have, on the half dozen times I've been fortunate enough to play.

If there was ever a course that new equipment has destroyed it is Merion. It is too bad that the U.S.G.A and R. & A. have let the situation get out of hand and length is now the primary driver of competitive golf. It would be a shame if this course is lost from major competition forever. I consider Merion to be the spirtual home of golf in the U.S. due to its greatness, its history, its association with Bobby Jones and the architecture of the course and the clubhouse.

This is the first course Bobby played a major on (the 1916 Amateur), the first course he won a major on (the 1924 Amateur) and the last course he played competitive golf on (the 1930 Amateur), completing the fourth leg of the Grand Slam at Merion in September 1930. Also, the photograph which is the golfing equivalent of the sailor on VJ day kissing a woman in Times Square was taken at Merion.

Taken by Life Magazine photographer, Hy Peskin, it shows Ben Hogan hitting a one iron on the 18th hole in the 1950 U.S. Open. It is an iconic picture of this great player at one of the most historic of courses in a perfect finish position. Hogan almost stopped playing during this final round because he was in such a state of fatigue recovering from a near fatal car accident the year before. Hogan hit the one iron onto the green and made a par to qualify for a three man playoff the next day which he would go on to win. It is one of the most heroic finishes of all time.

Merion has many unique characteristics: the red wicker baskets as flags, the bunkers with clumps of grass in the middle (known as the white faces of Merion) and the scene around the first tee. You tee off right next to the outside patio with members and guests about five feet away from the tee box. It is one of the best opening holes in golf. The view in all directions is impressive, the clubhouse building with its white-washed stone and porch, the green awnings, the mature trees, the wicker baskets. Merion also still has what has unfortunately become a rare entity in American golf: Experienced caddies, and lots of them. The clubhouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the golfing equivalent of St. Peter's. Also, like the Vatican, Merion upholds the traditional and the conservative in the game and in many ways is truer to the traditions than the governing bodies because they don't have to compromise with the equipment manufacturers.

In the clubhouse and on the course at Merion you naturally speak in hushed tones and in a respectful manner. In sounds absurd but it is close to a religious experience. If you get invited to play Merion, by all means make the pilgrimage.

Merion's web site:


Anonymous said...

This is probably the only course that has been in and never left the top 10 in the US except Pine Valley. I drove up just to look at it after the 1981 Open. How can a course shorter than 6,500 yards be that hard. The short stretch, 7 through 13 is what does it but what a bunch of great short holes.7 and 8 are 350, 10 is 300. Be aggressive on that one but don't miss left and don't miss long (ob) on your second. The 11th is 370 but the second to an elevated firm green surrounded by water. 12 isn'tlong either but sometimes I walk off gloating because I only needed three putts! 13 is 125 surrounded by sand. The flashed up bunker in front is magnificent. Then hold onto you hat for that finish! The new lenghtened course makes 5, already one of the toughest holes in golf, from 425 to 505! Eighteen already had a tough forced carry, ob left at 465. Now it is 505! Three people boke par in the qualifier for the US Amatuer in 2005(?). They each shot one under, 69. That course will hold it's own for the Open in 2013.

BT said...

On different visits to Philadelphia, I have had the good fortune to play Merion multiple times. One of my nicest memories is of playing with a friend of mine that had played in a previous U.S. Open at Merion. It was with pleasure that I would tell the two junior members we were paired with of a shot my friend had played during the Open, and then watch with great interest in how they paid attention to his shot making and the line of questioning they had for him for that particular hole.

Like many other experiences of playing the greatest courses in America, the Golf Professional, Scott Nye, could not have been more accommodating. Scott is a fine gentleman who seems to serve his membership with grace and humility.

While the golf course is fantastic, with its mixture of short and long holes, water features that seem to fit naturally into the landscape and greens that can be very daunting if you find yourself on the wrong side, it is the clanking of silver on china that resonates in my memory. See, the outside dining area at Merion is so close to the first tee, that you can hear a member squeeze lemon into their iced tea. In addition, the "dinner plate" shower heads are a must to use if given the opportunity to visit the club.

Congratulations to the members of Merion on maintaining a true bastion of American golf.

逆円助 said...