Monday, June 30, 2008

Merion - Drama, Comedy and Tragedy

It's not often that I re-post a course write-up. I got a chance to play Merion again earlier this year with my digital camera in tow and have posted some great new pictures with this new posting.

Shockingly, many of my readers inform me that they like my pictures more than my prose. Humbug.

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, affluent and traditional. Merion is located in the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line and plays the part well. The land that 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 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.

The 18th green as seen from the second floor locker room

What makes Merion so memorable? It is the ultimate strategic golf course. It is not a terribly long course. At Merion, you have to hit the fairways or it will be a long day. Second, you have to be on the correct side of every 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 monotony here. As if the golf course itself is not good enough (and it is) you also have the grandeur and majesty of the white pillared clubhouse and the Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan history.

Bobby Jones with his grand slam trophies at Merion

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.

Ben Hogan on Merion's 18th hole at the 1950 U.S. Open

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.

The short par three 13th hole as seen from the tee, shows off the Merion bunkers

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

Merion is also what I call a deceptively long short course. How about two par threes that can play more than 250 yards each? The third and seventeenth are long par threes with exceedingly difficult greens. Yes, the course has some short par threes and some short par fours but there are also some quite long holes mixed in. Part of the genius of architect Hugh Wilson was the mis-direction he used from the teeing grounds. The first hole is a good example as the tee point toward the left rough. The eleventh tee is pointed toward the right rough and the finishing hole directs the golfer toward the trees to the left of the fairway. Very subtle, but important. Most of Merion's greens are also set at an offset angle from the fairway, making the distance tough to judge and ensuring that missing the green is always in play.

The first tee as seen from the 18th green

No question it is one of the best opening holes in golf, along with Prestwick and The Old Course at St. Andrews. The tee box is located right next to the dark green awning next to the big tree. Since you are standing five feet from the membership having breakfast or lunch, it is a high pressure tee shot. How do you keep a short course relevant? Merion is a classic example of how. The fifth hole is a good example, a long par four with a stream all the way down the left side. This hole was designed along a side hill so the entire hole, fairway and especially the green slope from right to left. All but two perfectly struck balls will end up far left of your intended target.

The par five 4th green plays over a little brook and like many at Merion slopes back to front

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.

The green on the short but tricky par four 7th hole

The green on the 11th hole, one of golf's most historic. Jones finished the grand slam on this green

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.

13th green - short par 3 near the clubhouse

16th "Quarry" hole approach to green. Better check your knickers.

The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth play through an old quarry and are demanding finishing holes. After hitting a tee shot on sixteen to a snaking fairway that is not visible you face one of the most difficult shots on the course. There is a forced carry over the teeth of the old quarry to a diabolical green. The green is multi-tiered and slopes back to front. Being long when the pin is below you will mean an almost certain three putt. Seventeen is a long downhill, challenging par three. If there was such a thing as a par 3.5, this hole would be it. A par feels like a birdie. The drive on eighteen is back over the quarry. If you are lucky you will hit to where the famous plaque is where Hogan hit his famous one iron shot. Merion unquestionably has one of the best finishes of golf anywhere.

The sun setting on the 18th green

Golf Digest editor Jerry Tarde described Merion as a three-act play: The Drama of the first six demanding holes; the Comedy of the next seven short, precision holes; and the Tragedy of the last five punishing holes. As the players in the 2013 U.S. Open found out, Merion still has teeth even as a 'short' course. The combination of canted fairways, subtle breaking and very fast greens, forced layups on many holes and an unheralded number of long holes mixed in continue to make it relevant. it was no surprise to me that the par four fifth hole which slopes from right-to-left the entire way, played so difficult. Only one player played it under par over four rounds. Also, no surprise that the finishing hole proved difficult. No player birdied it on Saturday or Sunday.

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.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oakland Hills Country Club

The Oakland Hills Country Club, South Course (ranked #25 in the world), was originally designed by Donald Ross in 1918. Walter Hagen was the first head pro at Oakland Hills. The South Course has played host to the U.S. Open six times: 1924, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1985 and 1996. It also hosted the 2004 Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship in 1972, 1979 and again this year.

Oakland Hills represents my 75th course played out of the top 100, only 25 to go!

The Oakland Hills Clubhouse, which was modeled after Mount Vernon

Oakland Hills is located in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. The club has two courses - the South Course which hosts the championships and also a North Course across West Maple Road. Oakland Hills is similar to several other championship venues that play host to major championships: two courses, a big clubhouse and a lot of property for tents, concession stands, etc. I found it similar in this regard to Oak Hill, Winged Foot, Medinah and Baltusrol. The memorabilia in the clubhouse attest to its esteemed place in the golf world, especially the walk down the long white corridor between the grill room and the pro shop, lined with pictures and signed competitor displays.

Near the first tee of the South Course are plaques of all the players who have won championships at Oakland Hills. The most famous, of course, was Ben Hogan's victory in the 1951 U.S. Open when he famously said, "I am glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." He also said that it was "the greatest test of golf I have ever played and the toughest course." Oakland Hills was an early example of a real estate development linked to the building of golf course. When originally conceived in the early nineteen-teens lots were laid out for sale encircling the golf course.

Robert Trent Jones made significant changes to the course prior to the '51 Open and is credited with making the course a lot more strenuous. The sixth hole, seen below, is representative of what makes it a difficult course: its well placed bunkering, along with its length and tough greens. This hole also has a two-tiered green. As you would expect at a championship course of this calibre, the greens are very fast and have many challenging pin placements.

The 6th hole

I wasn't wowed by the front nine. It is a demanding set of holes of championship quality, but nothing that jumps out at you. The best hole on the front is the difficult par four fifth hole, the #1 handicap. It plays 490 yards from the championship tees to an elevated, elongated green with bunkers very close to the green surface. In my view, the course really begins on the tenth tee.

The tenth hole as seen from the tee

According to the club history, when Ross started routing the course, he started it with #10 and #11, two world-class holes. The tenth hole is a 462 yard par four where the entire fairway falls off to the right. The tee shot requires precision and all but the perfect shot will feed down the hill to the right side of the fairway, leaving a blind or semi-blind shot to the elevated green. What makes it such a tricky tee shot is that visually off the tee you have to hit it at the tree you see on the left side of the fairway. The tee box and visuals trick you into hitting it to the right side. It is very well done.

The 11th hole from the tee

The 11th hole plays parallel to the 10th in the opposite direction. The trick on the 11th hole is to favor the left side off the tee. On this hole the fairway also slopes severely left to right off the tee, where a shot that is not struck well will leave you a blind shot to a difficult green.

The 11th hole with its twisting hills

If you hit it to the correct spot over the hill, the fairway then slopes severely right to left. The effective landing area you hit into is quite narrow. In our group, all four of the golfers hit into the rough on the left. You need to take the perfect angle to hit the shot correctly. I have never seen this type of hole before: a sharp hill that is used to create two very distinct landing areas that slope off in opposite directions so abruptly.

The 11th green

There is no respite once you get to this two-tiered green. The green is highly elevated from the fairway and slopes back to front. A less-than-ideal shot will roll back perhaps fifty or sixty yards to the bottom of the fairway.

Ross used the natural contours of the land here to create two fantastic back-to-back holes that announce to the golfer that the back nine is going to beat you up if you don't bring your 'A' game.

The par three 13th

You can see the beautiful bunkering at Oakland Hills as seen on the 191 yard par three 13th hole. This plays downhill and is the shortest hole on the course, which tells you a lot about what kind of golf you will play at Oakland hills. There are par fours of 446 yards (the 4th), 490 yards (the 5th), 462 yards (the 10th) and 455 yards (the 11th). They believe in long holes at Oakland Hills. The par threes play at 198 yards (the 3rd), 257 yards (the 9th), 191 yards (the 13th) and 238 yards (the 17th). To add insult to injury, the 17th plays longer than its 238 yards since the green sits well above the tee.

The 15th hole

The back nine offers no letup at Oakland Hills. The 15th hole, a dogleg left, for example, has two huge bunkers in the middle of the fairway. You can choose to hit it left of the bunkers into a 10 yard-wide fairway or right of the bunkers into a 15 yard-wide fairway. It's no wonder that many choose to play it short and leave a significant second shot to the small elevated inverted-saucer shaped green.

The 16th hole

Sixteen is the signature hole at Oakland Hills with a second shot that plays over water.

The 16th hole

Similar to Valderrama's 17th hole, the 16th at Oakland Hills features a shaved area near the green that feeds shots hit short into the water.

Shaved area near the 16th green

The finishing hole at Oakland Hills is a 498 yard par five that the pros play as a par four. I wouldn't describe it so much as a dogleg right as I would a semi-circle. It is an interesting shaped hole that uses the hilly terrain well.

Oakland Hills doesn't feel like a Ross design in the same way Pinehurst #2 or Seminole does, probably attributable to Jones' changes. The course has a more wide open feel to it than some of the other PGA courses I have played such as Oak Hill or Winged Foot, which I like, since I'm not a fan of tight tree-lined fairways.

As Robert Trent Jones wrote after his redesign of the course and the 1951 Open, "the field was thrown into utter confusion. Golfers of reputation staggered home with rounds high in the 70's and occasionally in the 80's." After playing the course, it is not hard to see why. Hogan aptly called it "A Monster." Although a man of few words he comment to Jones' wife after the 1951 Open that, "if your husband had to play the courses he designed for a living, I'm afraid you'd be in a breadline." Touche!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Golf Freek

I am always on the lookout for new ways to gain access to a course I have not yet played. I also like to keep up on the activities of my fellow golf enthusiasts.

It was in this vein that I recently read a copy of Golf Freek by Stephen Eubanks. I was enticed by the sub-title of the book, One Mans Quest To Play As Many Rounds of Golf as Possible, For Free. The last two words in particular caught my attention. For Free. I set about reading it looking for some new tricks and some short cuts.

Bottom line, there are none. Eubanks is a golf writer and is really connected in the world of golf. A former golf professional, he is a member of eighteen golf clubs and has written twelve other golf books, including Augusta: Home of the Masters Tournament. Eubanks was also a friend of Mark McCormick, the former chairman of IMG, agent for Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, etc.

As a golf writer he gets compted, or as he explains in the book, takes "FAM" trips. "FAM" standing for familiarization trip. Or as he accurately describes them: "expensive bribe, free junkets, all expenses paid trips". This is why you will never see a negative article in a golf publication about a new course or a resort being reviewed. It would be extremely rude to insult your host after they paid for your trip and golf. Why bite the hand that feeds you?

Your trusted blogger here has never taken a "FAM" trip in his life, something I state with both pride and irritation, as it keeps my opinion pure. But who wouldn't love a free golf junket all expenses paid.

Eubanks was comped for a fabulous trip he took to Ireland to get P.R. for Doonbeg. He raves about the course and you have to wonder about his motivations. I have talked with a half dozen very well traveled golfers and they universally thought Doonbeg was over-rated and tricked up.

Overall, I liked the book. Eubanks goes to some interesting locations including China and Switzerland. The book really shines at the end when he starts to get personal about himself and pays tribute to our brave men and women in the armed forces. He visits Guantanamo Bay to play the nine hole course there and it is quite interesting. His story of the Wounded Warriors at Camp Lejeune helps keep golf and life in perspective and is well done.

Eubanks also recounts his rounds with Alice Cooper and Arnold Palmer, both of which are amusing.

The area where I strongly disagree with Eubanks is with his assessment that "the best links golf in Scotland is in Ireland and the best in England is, well, not very good". Although I would agree that Birkdale is not worthy of many of the worlds great links, Royal Liverpool and Royal St. George's are two of the unquestionable finest links courses in the world and arguably, when your throw in Sunningdale, Walton Heath, Woodhall Spa and Ganton England has better golf than both Ireland and Scotland in total. Perhaps a "FAM" trip to England would enlighten him?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Access to Top 100 Courses on eBay

Playing the top golf courses in the world just got easier. I noticed on eBay this morning an auction for a threesome to play a round a Baltimore Country Club. The seller is also auctioning off rounds at Riviera Country Club and The Olympic Club.

Click to view the auction

The seller's username is keepitontheshortgrass and his eBay store is Unique Golf Experiences. "Welcome to my eBay Store. Throughout the year you will see hard to find golf experiences. From top 100 course access to various travel packages. If there is something you do not see let me know and I will keep a look out. If it is important to you than it is important to me. Nothing is impossible."

I'm not endorsing it and I'm not affiliated with it. We'll see if this ends up being for real. I'm not sure how the seller is doing it since high end private clubs often frown on rounds being sold or auctioned off, unless it is for charity.

As Eliot Spitzer figured out, paying for something that you can get free is often fraught with hidden danger.