When I was in college, I took a lot of literature classes. I studied novelists and playwrights from Shakespeare to Sophocles ... drama in all its forms. I knew the lessons I learned from the likes of Aeschylus, Joyce and Dostoevsky would serve me well as a writer. I never expected they'd apply on the golf course ... though I have had rounds I slogged through like "Crime and Punishment." Then I was invited to play Merion Golf Club's famed East course in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
The East course at Merion, which currently ranks No. 6 on Golf Digest's list of the Top 100 courses in America and No. 8 on Golf Magazine's list of the same, has often been described as a golf course in three acts. Writers have called holes 1-6 the Drama, 7-12 the Comedy and 13-18 the Tragedy. The student of the classics in me wants to point out the imperfections in the comparison ... that comedies and tragedies were both genres of Greek drama and that the third genre was actually called Satyr Plays. But I'll set aside my compulsion to get the literary metaphor straight because I can understand what those writers were trying to accomplish.
What first-time golf course architect Hugh Wilson accomplished on this relatively small piece of land, and the way the course has stood the test of time against the best players in the world for more than a century, is certainly worthy of theatrical references like drama, comedy and tragedy. But a case could be made that Satyr Plays might be a more fitting description of certain holes at Merion, as Satyr Plays were written by the Greeks to be performed between acts in order to make fun of the plight of the characters in Greek tragedies. I certainly felt like some of the holes at Merion were designed to poke fun at my plight as we played the course during my recent visit!
Despite the fact that the East course kicked my butt, the opportunity to visit Merion and to tee it up on one of the best, most-historic courses in the United States was an absolute treat. I'd connected last fall with the club's historian, John Capers III, and he was kind enough to offer me a historical tour of the clubhouse and its archives. John and I are both members of the Golf Heritage Society, a wonderful organization made up of folks who are passionate about the game and its history. I visited with John in October, and he spent about two-and-a-half hours showing me around the club and sharing with me both its most incredible historical artifacts and colorful stories.
And Merion does have incredible history. No other club has hosted more USGA championships. Merion has hosted five U.S. Opens, six U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Womens Amateurs, the Curtis Cup and the Walker Cup, as well as numerous other championships. It is the club where Bobby Jones, Jr. played in his first U.S. Amateur in 1916 and where he completed the Grand Slam in 1930. It's the course where Ben Hogan struck his famous 1-iron on the 18th hole, setting up a par that got him into a playoff before eventually winning the 1950 U.S. Open as he made his comeback from a terrible car accident a year earlier.
During my visit last October, John graciously invited me to come back in the spring and to bring a couple of friends for another tour and a round of golf, and I was beyond delighted that we were able to schedule a time with him in late April.
Our visit began once again in the library and archives room, where John showed us some of Merion's treasures. The archives contain thousands of items donated by members, competitors and others, as well as select items acquired by generous members who understand the importance of gathering and preserving the club's history in a singular repository.
Amont the items pictured above are a few flag sticks adorned with Merion's famous wicker baskets. The baskets are a feature unique to the club, introduced by course superintendent William Flynn shortly after the club opened. There are a number of theories about where the idea came from and why the club would use baskets instead of flags, like most courses. I'm not sure anybody knows the real reason the club adopted the baskets, but I do know that playing on a very windy day, the absence of flags on each hole was particularly noticeable.
Among the archives are paintings, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, tickets from past U.S. Opens, competitor badges, golf clubs and more. John is always on the lookout for the next item that belongs in the archives. In fact, during my visit we ran into a young man named Ben Levine on the driving range. Ben works at Merion, and I happen to know him from a Facebook golf group to which we both belong. As he, John and I talked for a few minutes, I mentioned a particularly well written piece Ben had shared within our Facebook group after he was given an opportunity to play the course last November. John asked to see it, and shortly after Ben sent it to him, John entered it into the archives.
One of the most wonderful pieces in the archives is Lloyd Mangrum's scorecard from the 1950 U.S. Open playoff. The card itself is a remarkable artifact from one of the most well-known national championships, but it's made more remarkable by the fact that when you flip it over you find that it is signed on the other side by champion golfer Ben Hogan, himself.
Visiting the archives at Merion, it's easy to understand just what was at stake when the clubhouse at Oakland Hills burned to the ground earlier this year. And John shared with us that there have been fresh talks among the members at Merion about what more the club could do to protect and preserve the pieces in its vast collection.
One of the most impressive places in the Merion clubhouse is the Trophy Room, which features a collection of full-sized and scaled replicas of eight different national and international trophies. They represent six tournaments that have been played at the club -- the World Amateur Team Championship, U.S. Women's Amateur Championship, U.S. Amateur Championship, U.S. Open, Walker Cup, Curtis Cup and U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. The central trophy case also includes the British Open and British Amateur trophies as a tribute to Bobby Jones, Jr.'s 1930 Grand Slam victories.
After a tour of the archives and the clubhouse and a wonderful lunch on the veranda, we were set to tee off for an afternoon round on what turned out to be an incredibly windy day. Gusts blew hard at over 40 miles per throughout the afternoon, challenging our caddies to come up with yardages and club recommendations ... and giving us plenty of excuses for the numbers on our scorecards.
We played the course from the middle tees, which measure 6,103 yards, and my buddy John Davis -- a Captain in the Army who plays off a mid-single-digit handicap -- called it the toughest 6,100-yard course he's ever played. It's remarkable that even for the U.S. Open the course does not stretch to 7,000 yards or more. But, as the best players in the world would attest after the 2013 national championship, the course didn't need to be any longer to give them all the challenge they could handle, as the championship was one by Justin Rose with a winning score of one-over-par. All distances mentioned throughout the rest of this post, unless otherwise specified, will be from the middle tees.
Hole 1 - Par 4 - 335 Yards
The first hole on the East course at Merion is a dogleg-right with deep bunkers guarding both sides of the fairway. If you thought you were going to ease into your round, you were wrong. Miss the fairway and big numbers quickly become possible.
I was fortunate to hit a nice, straight drive, right down the middle, setting up an approach from just about 75 yards to a green that slopes from back to front. We quickly learned that finding a green in regulation this day was not going to be enough to guarantee a par. They weren't even rolling as fast as usual due to a lot of recent rain, but the slope, subtle undulations and pin positions made for a very challenging day with the flat stick.
Hole 2 - Par 5 - 526 Yards
No. 2 is the first of the course's two par-5s, playing uphill with out-of-bounds and Ardmore Ave. to the right. Bunkers on the left pinch the fairway in and force players to hit their tee shots farther right than most of us are likely comfortable aiming.
The second shot plays uphill again, and the combination of bunkers and the crowned green make the putting surface look awfully small. It would take a big swing to reach this green in two, and the reward is likely not worth the risk with deep bunkers left and right of this green and the potential for a wayward-hit ball to cross out of bounds to the right.
Laying up to 100 yards or so offers a better sightline for your approach and opens up a view to much more of the green. Play it safely to here with your second shot, and birdie becomes a distinct possibility. Still, given the slope of this green, not even a par is assured until your ball is safely resting in the bottom of the cup.
Hole 3 - Par 3 - 170 Yards
The third hole is a terrific, tough par-3. It measures 170 from the middle tees, but the wind on this particular day had our caddies recommending we play it more like a 200- or even 210-yard shot. When the U.S. Open was played here in 2013, the tees were stretched so far back that Tiger Woods jokingly called No. 3 "a drivable par-4." This hole may have one of the largest greens on the course -- measuring 49 yards deep -- but getting there in regulation (or even in two) is no easy feat, especially on a really windy day!
Hole 4 - Par 5 - 557 Yards
On the 4th tee, our host pointed out to us one of the genius qualities of Hugh Wilson's design -- the fact that on many holes, the tee boxes do not align with the ideal angles to reach the fairways on the course. Often times, he told us, the tee box will angle left while the fairway angles right, or vice-versa. The 4th was a prime example of that.
I hit what I thought was a very good tee shot on 4 only to find I was still quite short of the cross bunkers and had virtually no chance to reach the green despite the fact that it sits so much lower than the landing area for the drive.
The approach shot into this green offers a pretty -- and pretty intimidating -- look at one of the green complexes that make Merion so great. That green looks huge from 110 yards out, but it is severely sloped from back to front and surrounded by bunkers that are just beckoning to any ball that isn't going to find the heart of the green.
Hole 5 - Par 4 - 394 Yards
The 5th hole is one of my favorites. A narrow stream meanders across the hole in front of the tee box and then down the left side of the hole. It shouldn't be that difficult to avoid, but balls seem to be attracted to it off the tee, and the contours of this hole actively seem to throw poorly played balls left and into the water the closer you get to the green.
Still, playing into the wind, I found myself 180 out from the flag, and my caddie suggested I play it like a 205-yard shot. I wound up putting that just over the back of the green, but that wasn't a terrible place to be.
Turns out, the really tough place to be on No. 5 is anywhere right of the green. This picture really doesn't do the slope of this putting surface justice. When one member of our group pitched his ball just onto the right edge, probably 30 feet above the hole, it finished rolling probably 60 feet or more below the hole. When another putted from probably 30 feet or so below the hole but left his ball six or seven feet short, it made a U-turn and rolled nearly all the way back to him. If ever there were going to be talk of tragedy during this round, it would have been on this green! Then again, it may have been comedy.
Hole 6 - Par 4 - 412 Yards
The 6th hole is another great example of the tee box aiming you left and the fairway angling right. The two big fairway bunkers left and the one bunker right of the fairway make this tee shot more intimidating than it needs to be. Anything hit right of the pink tree in the distance should carry the bunker on the right and easily find the fairway.
I noticed these gnarled trees right of the tee on 6 and just loved them. There were others shaped similarly on the course, but these two really stood out to me -- like a bit of whimsy in the midst of battle.
Speaking of battle -- notice the large out-of-bounds stakes beyond the bunker right on the hole. They're about the diameter of telephone poles. I joked with our host that they looked less like out-of-bounds stakes and more like grave markers for all the competitors who have come to Merion through the years with high hopes of hoisting a trophy only to have their dreams crushed by the defenses of the course.
The approach on 6 demonstrates part of what makes this course so great. The bunkers front left and right are threatening, but there is plenty of room in between to play a low-running shot into this green if you don't feel it prudent to try to fly your ball all the way to the green.
Hole 7 - Par 4 - 354 Yards
As we made our way from the 6th green to the 7th tee, our host told us that he had good news and bad news for us. The good news was that the next seven holes were going to be shorter than the first six. The bad news was that they were also going to get narrower. And boy was he not kidding.
The drive on 7 plays to a narrow fairway with OB right and a significan slope from right to left. It's a tough hole on which to hold the fairway. And the approach plays to an elevated green with extremely deep bunkers left ... not at all what you want to see when you're playing from a hook lie.
As our host demonstrated, a good drive and a well-struck high ball into this green can set you up for a birdie. Maybe my friends and I will try that the next time we have an opportunity to play here! But from what I could see, this green had four tiers and ridges running every which way; it was a not-so-gentle reminder that on a course like Merion, it takes a lot of play to really ever feel like you know where and how to play your ball.
Hole 8 - Par 4 - 337 Yards
The 8th hole plays out to the right off the tee, in the direction of the out-of-bounds down the right-hand side of the hole. It's deceptive in that the smart play is down the left side, in the direction of the far fairway bunker. OB is closer than it seems down the right side, as John D. and I both discovered, much to our chagrin.
The 8th green is slightly elevated and well-protected by bunkers front and right of it. Don't play long in the hopes of avoiding the sand, though, as any ball beyond the green will face a steep drop-off, making it near-impossible to get up-and-down.
I just love the contours of the land that makes up the green complexes at Merion -- the mounds, the bunkers, the high walls and the plunging drop-offs that put an absolute premium on the short game.
Hole 9 - Par 3 - 176 Yards
Hole No. 9 is a fun mid-length par-3 that plays downhill and over a pond.
The pond isn't particularly large, but it combines with five deep bunkers to protect this kidney-shaped green. Find the putting surface off the tee, and par is a very likely score. Miss it, and par is going to be reserved for only the best recovery shots.
Hole 10 - Par 4 - 288 Yards
I played the 10th hole terribly, but I love it nonetheless. After leaving the 9th green, you climb a long set of stairs to an elevated tee. The picture above doesn't do the elevation justice. From the tee, the hole looks longer than it really is; the fairway appears to be so far away. In truth, this is the shortest par-4 on the course. Big hitters might even go for the green if they can hit a high draw and avoid the bunkers and trees that guard the left side of the hole. Hit a good tee shot here, and reward yourself with a PB&J and Bacon sandwich from the halfway house tucked off to the left before climbing the hill to finish the hole.
The approach on 10 requires a high ball and a soft landing if the pin is back-left. Anything short of the green will find its way into the large, deep bunker front-left of the green. And long is no good, either. There is plenty of room to bail to the right side of the green ... provided your ego can accept not even challenging for birdie on a sub-300-yard par-4.
Hole 11 - Par 4 - 345 Yards
The 11th hole is one of the most-scenic on the course, playing downhill and across Cobbs Creek. The smart play off the tee is likely something less than driver as the fairway ends at about 260 yards, playing even shorter with the elevation change from the tee down into the valley.
Just behind the tee box, players will find this marker acknowledging that the 11th is the hole where Bobby Jones closed out his match play victory 8&7 over Eugene Homans in the 1930 U.S. Amateur championship, becoming the only golfer to win the pre-Masters-era Grand Slam. Interestingly, at the start of the 1930 season, Jones placed a $1,200 bet on himself to accomplish the Grand Slam at odds of 50-1. He collected $60,000 when he actually did it.
From the fairway, the approach shot needs to cross Cobbs Creek to an elevated, crowned green tucked tightly between the water front and right and a deep bunker to the left.
This is one of the prettiest and most peaceful spots on the course. The sound of the water gurgling as it flows along and around the green makes for quite the idyllic setting. I'm not sure a player can truly appreciate that, though, until after he's putted out on the 11th green.
Hole 12 - Par 4 - 340 Yards
No. 12 is a dogleg right, and the tee shot presents a classic risk-reward challenge. Play it safe with a fairway wood straight out at the bunkers, and you'll have a wedge or short-iron into the narrow, elevated, severely sloped green. Or, cut a driver around the trees on the right, and potentially leave yourself little more than a short pitch up the hill and a possible birdie opportunity.
I played my tee shot a bit too aggressively and overcut my drive, winding up in the right rough. Not a terrible place to be early in the season, before the rough has really grown up, but it would be jail in mid-summer. Still, even with the favorable rough conditions, I was unable to turn this into a scoring opportunity. In fact, the steep slope of the green proved too great a challenge for me, and from just 60 yards in off the tee I wound up barely escaping with a double bogey. Ouch.
I found myself taking quite a few pictures on the back nine looking back at holes from the green after putting out, immediately asking myself how I might play the hole differently if I had it to do over again.
Hole 13 - Par 3 - 117 Yards
The 13th hole played as the second-shortest hole ever in a U.S. Open when competitors teed up from just 98 yards away during the third round of the 2013 national championship. Fans may remember that the 13th was the beginning of the end for Phil Mickelson's chance to finally win the U.S. Open that year. He came to the 13th at even par (the winning score was +1), but the man who has arguably been the best wedge player of the last 20+ years couldn't decide on the right club and flew the green, leaving himself in terrible position. He was forced to settle for a bogey that took him to +1 for the tournament. Two more bogeys and an inability to make any birdies as he played the final five holes left Mickelson with yet another heartbreaking runner-up finish at the Major he so desperately wanted to win.
As we played it, the hole was playing just about 110 yards into a stiff wind. The pin was tucked behind the huge bunker that fronts the green, the lip of which actually rises well above the lowest level of the green, where the hole was cut. I can't imagine there is any way to get the ball close to this hole location except, perhaps, to hit a wedge in long and spin it back to the hole. Anything short of the hole, I imagine, would kick forward and potentially through the green, which happens to be the smallest on the course. Any tee shot that finds the putting surface is a win, in and of itself, on this tough little beast of a par-3. And par is an excellent score here; just ask Phil.
Hole 14 - Par 4 - 380 Yards
When we reached the 14th tee, our host told us, "I've got more good news and more bad news for you. The good news is that the short, tight-driving holes are behind us. The bad news is that the rest of the holes are the hardest holes on the course." No wonder writers have called the final act of Merion's three-act structure "The Tragedy." And boy did they live up to their reputation.
We teed off on 14 into strong winds that took the bend in the fairway and even the bunker in the elbow completely out of play for all of us. I was happy to find the fairway but couldn't get home in two, cranking a 4-iron from 185 into the wind and just barely reaching a greenside bunker front-left.
I love these pictures looking back at the holes because they give you a better sense of just how perfect the greens at Merion are. Even water-soaked from heavy rain throughout the month and running a bit slower than usual, the greens were quick and true, and they looked almost like carpet; they were beautiful. I really can't say enough about how well-conditioned the course is.
Hole 15 - Par 4 - 361 Yards
The tee shot on No. 15 is one of those shots that I think probably requires at least a couple of times around the course to figure out. It takes a drive of about 230 yards to clear the first fairway bunker and 260 to clear the second, playing to a sliver of fairway in the hopes of setting up a short-iron or wedge into the green. Anything right of the bunkers can be dead in the rough and risks tree trouble on the approach to the green. And anything left of the fairway is OB. The smart play may be a fairway wood or hybrid to the widest part of the fairway, short of the bunkers. That leaves players with a shot of 150 yards or more into the green but takes most trouble off the tee out of play.
The 15th green is narrow up front, pinched by large, deep bunkers that make it a challenge to play a low, running shot into this green. That argues for the riskier tee shot strategy in order to set up the opportunity to hit a high ball in, especially to hard-to-reach pin positions on the back half of this green, while the safer tee ball creates more risk for the second shot, forcing players to approach this green with a mid- or long-iron instead of a wedge or short-iron.
Hole 16 - Par 4 - 398 Yards
If the 11th hole was the most idyllic on the course, the 16th is all about rugged adventure. Nicknamed "The Quarry Hole," No. 16 plays out toward and then across the remnants of an old abandoned quarry. The fairway angles to the right, and players may want to hit something less than driver here if accuracy with the big stick is a problem for them. Fairway bunkers guard both the left and right sides, but can be hard to see from farther back on the elevated tee.
Players who find one of the fairway bunkers are almost certain to have to settle for bogey or worse, laying up their second shot short of the quarry.
The approach plays across the quarry, and the closer one gets to the area, the clearer it becomes that it is to be avoded at all costs. Full of rocks, sandy pits, awkward and uneven lies, and high natural grasses, nobody wants to play out of the quarry. For those whose approach shots clear the quarry, they'll find a green guarded by a set of four small bunkers right of the putting surface and a false-front that will reject any ball that doesn't reach far enough onto this two-tier green.
Hole 17 - Par 3 - 208 Yards
No. 17 plays downhill into a basin that, from the tee, suggests this green should be easier to hit than others on the course ... as if balls should just collect to it, particularly from the left. But nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact, the green on 17 is designed to repel balls that don't reach deep enough onto the putting surface. Five bunkers and thick, gnarly rough gather up balls hit even slightly offline. And the distance of the hole makes it difficult to play a long enough club to reach the hole and still hold the green. Par on 17 is an excellent score. And bogey really isn't that bad, either, for those of us who aren't playing for a trophy or a check.
Hole 18 - Par 4 - 405 Yards
by the time you reach the 18th tee at Merion, you feel both a sense of elation and like you've been pretty well abused up by the course. Still, there's one more hole to play, and it's a doozy! From the tee, players see more of the rock wall that makes up part of the quarry below the 17th tee than they see of their own fairway. The angle of the tee aims players down the left side of 18, which is potential death. Our host, fortunately, told us to play the ball right of the flagpole in the distance. I was delighted that I hit it exactly where John told us to, and I was rewarded with a ball well-positioned on the left-side of the fairway.
My drive on 18 left me with only about 150 yards into the green -- a mere 8-iron. When the famous photo of Hogan was taken, he played a 1-iron from about 213 yards; granted, he teed off from much farther back on 18 than I had. In any event, I had to stop and take a photo of the plaque where Hogan hit the historic shot, immortalized in the photo below, taken by photographer Hy Peskin.
Interesting story that Merion club historian John Capers III shared with us ... in 1950, the USGA allowed only 14 clubs to be carried during a round of golf (same as today), but the PGA allowed 15 because the sandwedge had been invented by a PGA professional, and the PGA didn't want to tell folks that they would have to take another club out of their bag if they wanted to play the new wedge. After a practice round, and faced with the reality that he needed to remove a club from his bag to comply with USGA rules in order to play in the U.S. Open, Hogan opted to remove his 7-iron for the tournament. Asked about the decision afterward, he said that after playing a practice round, he had determined that there aren't any 7-iron shots at Merion. That turned out not to be the case for me, as I played every club in my bag during my recent visit, but it worked out alright for Ben.
The wind was at our backs playing into 18, and I was very happy that my 3/4 8-iron held the green. I couldn't do anything but laugh when my lag putt on this right-to-left-sloping green settled just a couple feet past the hole, stopped, and then -- when the wind gusted -- began to roll again and wound up about 20 feet below the hole.
Under the conditions, I felt like I left a lot of shots on the course but also felt just fine about the 94 that I carded. Merion flat-out kicked my butt, and I've got no shame about that. If it's the only chance I ever get to play the course, I'll have no regrets.
Getting the opportunity to play this storied course with one of my best friends (Gregg, who I've mentioned in other blogs) and a couple of other great guys made it a fantastically fun day. Having the chance to spend so much time with John Capers III -- hearing his stories, soaking in the history of the club about which he is so passionate -- made it a truly special experience.
Merion is a course that demands more of a golfer than most; that's what makes it such a wonderful and enduring championship venue. But moer than that, it's a place where people who love the game come together to celebrate and comiserate their best and worst shots on a course that is as connected to the rich history of golf as any other on U.S. soil. I can't thank John enough for his gracious invitation and for allowing me to bring along a couple of friends to share the experience. I hope he enjoyed the day with us even half as much as we enjoyed the day with him
Next month, Merion will once again host the Curtis Cup. And the USGA recently announced that Merion will host the U.S. Amateur again in 2026, the U.S. Open again in 2030 and 2050, and the U.S. Women's Open again in 2034 and 2046. After experiencing the course for myself -- and having played other U.S. Open venues through the years including Oakmont, Pebble Beach and Bethpage Black -- I couldn't be more excited to tune in.