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.


Unknown said...

"But, if you're being honest with yourself, aside from the 18th hole, can you visually remember all 18 holes at Pebble"

I have never had the opportunity to play Merion; and I am sure it is an awesome golf course, but more memorable than Pebble? The above comment is laughable. Is Pebble as well laid out as Merion, maybe/maybe not but to say that the only hole you can visually remember is 18, WTF????

How about the 7th, most famous short par 3 in the US, how about the 2nd shot at 8, Jack Nicklaus favorite shot in all of golf. Oh yea I am sure there is nothing memorable about 9 or 10 either; they are only 450+ par 4's with a 60 ft cliff bordering the entire right side; what about 17, home to probably 2 of the 5 most famous shots in golf history (Nicklaus 1 iron, Watson's chip in). I would say that to an architecture buff like yourself, or even myself, that Merion may actually be a better golf course but put any 10+ handicap on both Merion and Pebble and let's see which one they like the best. I think 90% would take Pebble.

Top 100 Golfer said...

Kenny - NOT!

Anonymous said...


From this near-10 handicapper, Merion is far superior. Pebble does have great holes as you've mentioned. However, one of the take aways was the $1,000 plus day it costs, the rushing around the course by the caddies and player assistants and the over-the-top real estate that lines the course. Bandon blows PB away -- in fact, Spyglass is better than PB. For pure golf, Merion is the easy choice.


Anonymous said...


enjoyed the write up of Merion. I played there just over a month ago for the 2nd time and agree totally with the view that it is the spiritual home of american golf.

don't know if you were aware of it, but I had a similar blog to yours (though not as successful in the course playing stakes!) called the london golfer. Just wanted to let you know I've changed location and redesigned it at . Check it out if you have a spare minute from jetting around playing golf!


John Gorman said...

Merion rocks.

Was scheduled to play there a second time in May, but it fell through. I hope I get the chance again soon. Great blog.

Anonymous said...

mr. top 100

It's interesting to hear you say roughly the same things about two different courses but have two different opinions about the challange the courses present.

In both your write-ups on Merion and Oakmont - you stressed the importance of being accurate and placing the shot in the fairway (on the correct side) and on the green (in the perfect spot) and staying out of the rough.

Yet it seems you had totally different experiences. Was Merion just easier than Oakmont?

Top 100 Golfer said...

ryno - totally different experiences. Merion is much more of a short makers course. Oakmont is a course that requires brute strength and the ability to hit the ball long, in addition to wicked greens. It is undoubtely one of the top five most difficult courses in the world. Merion is more of a finesse course and rewards shot placement more than Oakmont does.

Cpoint#1 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cpoint#1 said...

Ok I play Merion next week, so I'll post a follow up to this but I have played Oakmont. "Merion rewards shot placement more than Oakmont does". Oakmont is longer and brute, but shot placement above all else is everything at Oakmont. Deeper fairway bunkers than in Scotland, numerous greens that slope from front to back. If you get out of position at Oakmont it becomes very difficult to even make a double bogey and I'm a +2 handicap. Hardest course in the country.

Cpoint#1 said...

I played Merion 2 weeks ago, and it was absolutely awesome. My favorite holes were 5,16,17 and 18. Architecturally the course is an absolute masterpiece, every hole is different and unique. It is very challenging but it's definitely not as hard as Oakmont. I felt like when I hit a bad shot at Merion I could at least come away with bogey, you don't get that assurance at Oakmont I assure you... The sandwich buffet between rounds was pretty solid and touring the clubhouse and seeing the Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan memorabilia was awesome. They actually have an archives room in the clubhouse that is climate controlled. It contains special memorabilia and there are only two keys to gain access into this room. I didn't gain access but I peaked through the window at the door and they had artifacts dating back to the Bobby Jones era. The clubhouse actually contains no autographed memorabilia from Hogan or Jones in the clubhouse which I found surprising. Although they did have all 4 of Bobby Jones grand slam trophies in the dining room.

Cpoint#1 said...

I also played Pinehurst #2 recently, which I must say is the most overrated course in America. Completely bland tee to green, they have the most ridiculous greens ever and it has a very tourist feel to the entire place. Not even close to some of the other top courses I've played which include Pebble, Southern Hill, Oakmont and Merion. Top 100 Golfer, I'm surprised you'd want to go back to play there because I won't be.

BogeyFred said...

I have played some of the courses on your list and would like to play a few of the others. How did you manage to play the very private courses like Sand HIlls and Shinnecock HIlls?

bchild said...

From a 2 handicapper. I had the privilege of playing 2 rounds @ Merion a few weeks back. What a treat! 15-18 stand apart from any set of golf holes in the world. Although, I really enjoyed 5 & 6. Not a difficult golf course, but certainly one of the (if not THE) best course i've ever played in my life. I give thanks that I have a member always willing to host me when i'm in the Philly area.

Anonymous said...

i can visually picture every hole at pebble and i havnt even played it

Unknown said...

I was invited to play Merion and was very excited for the opportunity. I played the East Course 3 days in a row and while I enjoyed having a chance to play a top golf course, it was simply the most overrated course I have ever played in my life. We actually made the mistake of going to the wrong tee box twice, as some of the holes are a shooting gallery. I have been invited back several times to play, and won't consider it, and keep making excuses. The only conclusion I can come to is that there must be some stuffed shirts from the USGA that belong there. The course shouldn't be in the top 1000 in the US. And I am a low handicapper and shot well, so don't think it is sour grapes. I also have played Pebble a few times, I find your comments about it laughable.

King Ward said...

To Cpoint#1

Have you played Pinehurst #2 since Crenshaw and Coors got finished with their restoration?

VikingJim60 said...

Finally had the chance to play Merion today and it was a thrill. I've been fortunate to play some of the great, classic US courses, and would rank this in the same category as San Fran GC, Shinnecock, Pine Valley, and Cypress. It is a top 10 course, by any measure. TRULY special. I wouldn't put it in the same bucket as Pebble. I think it is unfair to both courses--just feels like they are different breeds. Both phenomenal, but in different ways and for different reasons. Merion is now prepped for next year's Open. I played Olympic this time last year, and came away from there saying that it was going to be a special Open. I feel that next year will be the same, but in a completely different way. Merion is going to require precision shot making, with incredible touch and positioning on the greens. The way the fairways and lines move, and the flow of the course is going to bring a lot of drama and excitement. So many great holes. 3, 5, 11, 17, 18. I actually had to say 'no' to previous invitations, but I can tell you I will never do that again.

Cpoint#1 said...

I actually played Galloway National, Rolling Green and Merion again last week. A few interesting notes about the course change for the US Open.

1. They narrowed and moved the fairway on 2 to the right. You feel like you have to challenge the ob to hit the middle of the fairway, literally.

2. Right of the fairway on 6 they removed a hundred trees for merchandise tents and media. It doesn't effect the playability of the hole but I was shocked the membership at Merion would allow such a drastic move.

3. We played 9 from 240 into the wind so it was all the 3 wood I have. Not a fan of hitting a wood into that hole but its a great par 3 if they play it at 200-220.

4. They moved the fairway on 11 substantially to the left. If you're on the left side of the fairway you now have to contend with an overhanging tree.

5. They basically redid the 12th green. It's not as severe of a slope from back left to front right.

6. 14 they are using the putting green as the tee box making it about 500 yds long.

7. Our caddy said they strongly considered moving 17 back to 270... it's staying at 250 and those who've played there know its one of the toughest par 3's in the world.

8. 18 has been lengthened to 520. The tee is basically on the driving range now

Overall I'm not really a fan of what the usga is changing. Merion is such a great course I really prefer it to be as untouched as possible.

Anonymous said...

Have you played Philadelphia Cricket Club? How would you say this club compares, both the Wissahickon and/or Militia Hill course?

Unknown said...

First of all, I've read through the blog and love it. I'd hope that you continue to update it as you play certain courses again and again... perspectives change as you well know. My question is how you feel about playing without any distance guidance? I can certainly do just fine without a range finder but no distance markers in the fairways? Must be some amazing caddies!

Top 100 Golfer said...

Alan - Thanks for the comment. Playing without yardage markers, gps or range finders is fantastic. Like at Pine Valley and Ganton, its a feel game. You do indeed rely on fabulous caddies to guide you. Most of us can't hit to within a yard of where we are aiming so it takes the game back to pick the target and hit the ball. And it promotes fast play, rather than paralysis by analysis. John