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 and rich. 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 greatness. 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 18th hole, can you visually remember all 18 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.

18th green from the 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 clubhouse and the Bobby Jones history.

Bobby Jones with his grand slam trophies

If there was ever a course that new equipment has destroyed, 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. Hopefully, the rule making bodies will make changes prior to the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

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.

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 sailor on V.J. day kissing a woman in Times Square was taken at Merion.

Ben Hogan on Merion's 18th hole

Taken by Life Magazine photographer, Hy Peskin, it shows Ben Hogan hitting a one iron on the 18th 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.

13th hole closeup

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 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. 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 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 first tee as seen from the 18th green

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.

4th green

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.

7th green

11th hole green

When you play the 11th 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 11th green with absolute clarity as, "There is hardly any shot that will do except the perfect one."

13th green - short par 3 near the clubhouse

16th "Quarry" hole approach to green

The 16th, 17th and 18th play through an old quarry and are demanding finishing holes.

Sun setting on the 18th green

The finest American golf writer ever, Herbert Warren Wind, 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.

If you get invited to play Merion, by all means make the pilgrimage.

Merion's Web Site

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