Shockingly, many of my readers inform me that they like my pictures more than my prose. Humbug.
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 something memorable. 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 eighteenth hole, can you visually remember all of the 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.
If there was ever a course that new equipment risks destroying, 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 spiritual 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. Merion's east course was designed in 1912 by Hugh Wilson, a Princeton graduate and captain of their golf team. The club traces its roots back to 1896 as you will see on the club's logo and evolved from the Merion Cricket Club.
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 classic photograph which is the golfing equivalent of the ironic shot of the sailor on V.J. 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 eighteenth 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 its green-and-white striped awning, 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. The wicker baskets are red on the front nine and orange on the back nine.
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 golf's governing bodies because they don't have to compromise with the equipment manufacturers. In addition to no pin flags, there are no yardage markers, no range finders allowed and no golf carts.
In the clubhouse and on the course at Merion you naturally speak in hushed tones and in a respectful manner. It sounds absurd but it is close to a religious experience.
Looking back from the first tee at Merion
The fourth hole (above) is a downhill par five that requires a precision shot, normally from a downhill lie, to a well bunkered green over a creek. Merion also features a half-dozen or so blind shots including this tee shot. The world-class eleventh also features a tee shot where you don't see your ball land either, as does the challenging sixteenth hole which begins the plan through the quarry.
When you play the eleventh hole, where Jones finished his match in the 1930 Amateur to win 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. Like most holes at Merion, there is just no margin for error on approach shots to the green. Dan Jenkins describes the shot into the eleventh green with absolute clarity as, "There is hardly any shot that will do except the perfect one." The hole is under 380 yards in length, so likely you will only be hitting a wedge, however, the combination of the small green, the water on three sides and the historic setting make it a nerve-wracking shot.
Merion is one of my personal top five places to play golf. If you get invited to play Merion, by all means make the pilgrimage.