Merion Golf Club . . . so much history has happened here that a book could be written on that alone. With a current count of 17 USGA events having been contested over Merion’s East Course that is more than any other course in the United States. Bobby Jones’ first major was the 1916 US Amateur played here, he won the US Amateur here in 1924 and of course his historic US Amateur win for the Grand Slam in 1930. Ben Hogan executed a miraculous comeback to the game here at the 1950 US Open after a near death automobile accident just 1 year earlier. Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus in a dramatic 18 hole play off to become the US Open champion in 1971. As much great history as there is, the story is far from finished for Merion. The USGA will be coming back to Merion for the Walker Cup in 2009 and the US Open will return in 2013.
Until 1941 when the club changed it’s name to the current version the club was known as the Merion Cricket Club. There are two courses here, the West and the more famous East. The club was originally founded in 1896 and played on the original golf course in neighboring Haverford. In 1910 the members decided to build a new course and tapped member Hugh Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, for the job. Under Wilson’s watchful eye the East Course was built first and opened in 1912 with the West Course following two years later in 1914. That is a pretty incredible turn around time for getting courses built considering that it was done without the help of modern machinery in those days. Another amazing feat is that the East Course covers just 126 acres which is nothing compared to other golf courses. Augusta National covers almost triple that acreage at 365. If you want to get a chance at playing a Hugh Wilson course you have very few options. The only other courses he designed besides Merion’s East and West are Cobb’s Creek and the last 4 holes of Pine Valley.
Merion is one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the country being situated on Philadelphia’s “Main Line” and having a membership made up of Philadelphia’s elite and some of the area’s most powerful business leaders. It is a tough place to play for non-members. There is no having your club pro call to arrange unaccompanied play. All guests must be accompanied by a member and the membership count is right around 500. Luckily for me, my father lived in Philadelphia for 10 years and has several friends who were members. He made a phone call and quickly was able to secure a member that was willing to host me. Of course Dad took the opportunity to join in on the fun as did my brother.
Finally the day arrived and we were on our way. Driving up Ardmore Ave I began to get giddy as we drove past several golf holes. I started to think they were part of Merion, but when I saw the flags instead of baskets marking the holes I thought it must be some other fantastic course. I later found out that the baskets are only used on Merion’s East Course and the holes we passed coming in were indeed part of Merion’s West Course. Using baskets atop the flag sticks instead of flags is something that Hugh Wilson brought back from Scotland with him. It makes it impossible to judge wind by looking at a flag and is just another unique touch that makes Merion’s East Course special. Below is a photo of one of the baskets.
Shortly after seeing the flagsticks on the other course we started seeing the baskets and knew we were close. We pulled into the driveway to the clubhouse and passed an menacing looking par 3 hole on the right . . . This day could be interesting.
After we parked our car we went to the locker room where the attendant put us in a locker while we waited for our host. Ironically the locker he gave us belonged to one of the other members that my Dad knew! The locker room didn’t look like it had changed much since Bobby first played there as a 14 year old in 1916. It had that same great antique feel that all the best golf clubs have in their locker rooms.
Once we had our shoes changed the locker room attendant took a few minutes to show us around the clubhouse. He took us to to see all the club artifacts including the money sheet from the 1950 US Open, scorecards from many historic rounds and of course the Grand Slam trophy case.
With our clubhouse tour over we went outside and met up with our host and caddies and got ready for our round. Our caddies, Jim and Trevor, were great and between the two of them they had 18 years of experience at Merion. The East Course is a walking only course by the way . . . as it should be. Personally, I detest carts and riding this course would be a sin in the order of not taking your sunglasses off to view the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Unless, of course, there is a medical reason for riding.
The practice tee requires a short ride in a golf cart and today there was an outing on the West Course so carts were scarce. We ended up not hitting any warm up balls and just spent a little time getting a feel for the greens. Luckily for us we were not teeing off during lunch time. The first tee is amazingly close to the patio where lunch is served. So close in fact that our host said that when a group is teeing off, especially from the back tees, all diners have their eyes on the golfers in case they need to dive for cover from a ball pulled slightly left – something he has been witness to before! It can certainly make for a nerve wracking first tee shot when a gallery of 50-60 people are watching to make sure you don’t hit them. You can see in the photo just how close the tables are to the tees. The tips are not visible being outside the left edge of the photo and the white middle tees can be just seen at the edge of the tree’s shadow. The club rule at Merion is that you must have a course handicap below 10 in order to play the back tees. The par is 70 on this course and the back plays a mere 6482 yards with a rating and slope of 72.4/142 and the middle are 6103 with a rating and slope of 70.8/141. As we would soon find out a course does not need to be long to be difficult.
The first hole from the middle tee is a short 333 yard dogleg right. Below is the approach shot to the green.
The 2nd hole pictured below is one of only two par 5s on the course. Ardmore Avenue runs down the right hand side, plays 518 yards from the middle tee and is very much uphill. Everyone in the group took a turn at hitting a ball off the course and into the nearby yards at some point in the round and 2 of our players did it on this hole.
Below is the 2nd shot coming up the fairway. That’s my brother getting ready to take his second shot. As I mentioned before it is pretty significantly uphill.
Below is my brother’s caddie, Trevor, retrieving the second shot he was hitting in the photo above from across the road in a nearby house’s yard. Oops.
The photo below is about where the 3rd shot would be played from. I yanked my 2nd shot left and and played my 3rd shot from an absolutely buried lie in the rough. The rough at Merion is famous for being difficult. We were lucky on this day and much of the rough was only 2-3 inches instead of its normal 5 inches.
The 3rd hole pictured below is an excellent Redan hole and plays 168 yards from the middle tees.
My tee shot came up short and the photo below is the shot I had to get onto the green. Almost a blind shot.
The 4th hole,in the photo below, is the last of the par 5s on this course and it is a great one. It plays 560 yards from the middle tees. The tee shot is mostly blind and a little intimidating. I stroked a nice utility club off the tee to the middle of the fairway. I only hit driver on 5 holes at this course. With a few exceptions all a player really needs off the tee on this course is 200-225 yards.
Below is the 2nd shot on the 4th hole which is blind again. You have to carry the bunker and then you’ll have a downhill shot at the green. I hit another utility club and was sitting in the middle of the fairway for my 3rd shot.
The picture below is roughly where the 3rd shot will be played from after a short layup. You can see the bunkers surrounding the green in this photo, but you cannot really see the creek that also runs right in front of it.
The 5th hole (below) is a long par 4 that plays 410 yards from the middle tees and the entire hole falls down towards the creek on the creek that runs down the left hand side.
Here is a photo of the 5th green. This picture does not do justice to the severe slope from right to left. I ended up way over on the right hand side above the green and hit a perfect little flop shot that landed on the fringe at the top of the green and rolled all the way down to the other side resulting in a 3 putt for me. The greens here are FAST. Our host said that they were not near as fast as they normally are.
The 6th hole pictured below is another long par 4 at 410 yards from the middle tees. I managed to find the fairway with my driver here again. The rough was so thick that on these long par 4s you have little chance of getting there in 2 if you are not in the fairway.
Below is a shot of the 6th green from the 7th tee.
The 7th hole (photo below taken from the tee) is a roller coaster. It only plays 343 yards from the middle tees and a well hit drive will disappear down the hill leave a second shot from the bottom of the hill back up to the green.
Here is the approach at the 7th green. Make sure you hit enough club to cover the uphill. You should get used to this because there are a lot of elevated greens here.
As you can see in the photo below the 7th green runs from back to front. When the basket is at the back as it was today you have to make sure you hit enough club to get all the way back there because you won’t get much run once the ball lands. Our host’s ball ended up on the front of the green but he made a fantastic putt that left him a tap in.
The 8th hole is yet another blind tee shot as you can see in the photo below. This one plays 342 yards from the middle tees.
In the photo below taken from the 8th fairway you can see the approach shot plays downhill to what is a sloped green from back to front. If the green is not elevated on this course than it must be downhill!!!
Below you can see the slope of the 8th green. I love these greens on classic courses where the breaks are subtle and the greens don’t have a bunch of mounds on them like some of the modern architects like to do.
The 9th hole is a fantastic par 3. It plays 170 yards downhill. As you can see in the photo below the basket is in a slightly tricky spot. I’m guessing this will be the Sunday location at the 2013 U.S. Open.
After the 9th hole we climbed the long set of stairs to the 10th tee box. This is a short par 4 playing only 294 yards from the middle tees. I hit a nice utility club off the tee here and was left with only 60 yards to the basket. I’m sure that for the US Open in 2013 the hole will be drivable for the pros. If they miss, they’re going to end up in deep rough, so this hole will surely provide some great theater.
The photo below shows roughly where an approach shot should be hit from. You can see the terrible rough and the bunker off to the left. This is where someone attempting to drive the green will end up if they are short . . . not good.
Here is the 10th green, though its not a very good picture. In 1930 when Bobby Jones won the US Amateur and the Grand Slam here at Merion both he and his opponent double bogeyed this hole. The score card in the clubhouse shows Jones’ comment of “ha ha” next to the hole. Even the greats can put up a high score on a short par 4! I was happy to walk off the green with a lower score than Bobby had!
After the 10th hole you can get a cool drink and a bite to eat. Below is a photo halfway hut.
Now on to the 11th hole and the most famous hole in tournament golf. This one plays 349 yards from the middle tees. This is the hole on which a putt was conceded to Bobby Jones making him the first and only (to date) Grand Slam winner in the history of the game. There is a plaque on a rock (see below photo) between the 10th green and 11th tee box commemorating the momentous occasion.
The hole goes out and then down a hill, so again, a well struck drive will disappear down the hill.
My drive ended up in the rough and my caddy advised me to pitch out to the fairway as the green is pretty small and there is plenty of trouble to be found in the creek that runs around the green as you can see in the photo below.
There were no putts conceded for any trophies on the 11th green in our group. It was so cool to be there where that historic moment took place that I forgot to take a picture of the green itself!!!
After the 11th hole we took the quick walk over to the 12 tee box. Again, this hole is a short par 4 at just 334 yards from the middle tee, so it only took about 200 yards to carry the creek.
Below is photo of what the approach looks like on this hole.
The photo below is of the green complex at the 12th hole.
After the 12th hole we crossed back over Ardmore Avenue and towards the clubhouse to play the short, but diabolical, 13th hole, a par 3. The scorecard says it plays 121 yards, but with the tee location and wind it was playing 105 yards today. Our group managed to make a mockery of what is listed on the scorecard as the easiest hole on the course. I think I was the low man on the hole with a bogey. You really cant tell it from the photo below, but the green is completely surrounded by DEEP bunkers. If you dont hit the green here its a tough par save.
The 14th hole (pictured below) starts on the other side of the clubhouse and is a par 4 dogleg left playing 387 yards from the middle tees.
The 15th hole is a dogleg right that is 353 yards and starts what has often been called the 4 most difficult finishing holes in golf. Again, the approach plays to an elevated green. There were not many flat spots on this course which adds to the difficultly for sure.
The picture below is where my first drive landed. It was my turn to hit a ball off the course on this hole. I overestimated the distance to carry the bunker and decided to play the safe shot to the middle of the fairway. I ended up hitting it right through the fairway across the road and into this yard . . . the dreaded safe shot. I’m just glad there was no gallery in those chairs. Oddly enough I did notice that while we all hit our approach shots there was a car that stopped in the middle of the road and watch each of us hit our ball.
Below is a photo of around where the 2nd shot would be played from
The 16th hole starts the quarry holes at Merion. Its a little deceiving from the tee box as you can see in the photo below. I thought we were going up to the right, but you want to hit your ball straight out there and the 2nd shot is all carry over the quarry. This par 4 is 407 yards from the middle tee.
Here is the carry for the 2nd shot.
Below is where my ball ended up after my 2nd shot. I managed to make it 15 and half holes before I tangled with the really long rough at Merion. Fortunately my club pro had instructed me on reading the grain of the rough before I left and this swing was with the grain, so I managed to pop it out onto the green.
The 17th hole pictured below from the tee box is a long par 3 over the quarry that plays 208 yards from the middle tees. There is a collection area just short of the green which is exactly where I ended up.
As you can see in the photo below the green is multi-tiered. The basket seemed to be hanging precariously on the edge of the tier so if you tried to get too cute you would be chipping again and if you ran it by the hole you’d be putting back up the hill.
Below is a look back towards the tee box from the 17th green.
The 18th hole is a par 4 playing 411 yards. This is where the famous photo of Ben Hogans 1 iron shot to set up the tie and force the playoff at the 1950 US Open was taken. That famous photo is below.
There is a plaque in the fairway marking the spot where it was hit from. I was in the rough just to the left of that spot and I hit a utility club that still ended up 15 yards short of the green. It was a pretty impressive shot for Hogan. Below is the Hogan plaque.
Finally we reached the 18th green and the end of our journey. 18th green is in the photo below.
What a great golf course and what a great experience. I was happy with the way I played and nearly broke 90. With a course handicap of 18 here I was told not to expect to even break 100 so I was happy as can be.
After we finished we went to the patio to have a drink and I have to share one last photo that shows exacly how close the tee box is to the tables where people are eating. See below. Talk about a pressure tee shot!!!
Merion Golf Club’s East Course is simply amazing. It is hard believe that a course that is not long by todays standards can be so difficult. Every single hole was a unique adventure and this course is truly one of the games treasures. I have a feeling there is much more history to be made at Merion.