Merion Golf Club (East) – Played 2016
- Rankings: Golf Digest #6, Golf Magazine #7
- Location: 450 Ardmore Avenue, Ardmore, Pennsylvania
- Year: 1912
- Architect: Hugh I. Wilson
- Course Access: Private
- Walking Rules: Walking Only, Caddies Available
Score Card Information:
- Back: 6,541 yards, Par 70 , 73.4 Rating/146 Slope
- Middle: 6,126 yards, Par 70 (Men’s), 74 (Women’s), 71.3 Rating/144 Slope (Men’s), 77.4 Rating/151 Slope (Women’s)
- Forward: 5,746 yards, Par 70 (Men’s), 74 (Women’s), 69.5 Rating/136 Slope (Men’s), 75.2 Rating/147 Slope (Women’s)
“Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.” That is the quote from none other than Jack Nicklaus. To say I was giddy to play this course would be a monumental understatement.
Luckily, I was able to connect with a member as Merion is not keen on unaccompanied guest play. I am not aware of a way to play it without a member. In addition to my luck in finding a member, my host was a wealth of knowledge on the club and it’s history. I will sprinkle as much of his wisdom throughout this post as I can. I wish I could’ve taken notes.
The club was known as Merion Cricket Club until 1941. It was originally founded in 1896 at the original golf course in nearby Haverford. In 1910, the members decided to build a new course and the East was completed in 1912. The West was finished two years later. It was quite a feat to build two courses in that time frame with no modern machinery. Amazingly, the East course is routed over just 126 acres. For comparison, Augusta National is 365 acres.
Merion is quirky is a good way. One of the things that makes it different is the wicker basket used on each hole. Each pin on the East only is topped with a wicker basket. Though never verified, the story goes that Hugh Wilson saw English sheep herders stored their lunch in wicker baskets at the top of their staffs. While visible when playing the course, they do not give the golfer any idea of wind direction. Until 1980, the baskets were made on site. Apparently, now a woman in my home state of South Carolina makes the baskets. Her name and location are purposely kept anonymous. The golf course assistant superintendents collect the wickers every night, so they will not be stolen.
The championship history at Merion is astounding. It has hosted 18 USGA events including five U.S. Opens. Bobby Jones played his first major here and closed out his Grand Slam here in 1930 (more on that later). Ben Hogan won a year after almost dying on that lonesome road in a horrific car crash. Lee Trevino beat none other than Jack Nicklaus here in an 18 hole playoff where he scared him with the rubber snake on the first tee! In the 2013 US Open, my host relayed that only three players played as many as five practice rounds. Those three were Justin Rose, Jason Day, and Phil Mickelson. Yeah they all finished in the top three! In addition to a trophy, anyone winning a USGA event supposedly receives a wicker basket.
Below is the clubhouse as seen from the putting green. In 1992 the club was designated a national historic landmark.
Below is the classic locker room with two stories. Notice the metal lockers that give it that old school feel. I will also give a plug to the showers a la my friend Graylyn at graylynloomis.com. These things looked old-school, but had so much water pressure. It was one of the best showers of my life!
A few bits about the course from my host before we get started. He mentioned to me to think about what the course architect was trying to achieve while we played the holes. That is great advice that I will take with me going forward. Sometimes you can get too focused on score instead of enjoying the walk.
Next, he mentioned that the course is broken up into drama, comedy, and tragedy. The first 6 are the drama with the only two par fives on the course. The next 7 are the comedy due to the tight confines where you almost feel that you can’t make a full bore swing. The last 5 are the tragedy which features big, brawny holes where you need to grip it and rip it. Merion never lets you feel comfortable like many great championship courses.
Alright, I’ve kept you waiting long enough. Let’s do it! We played the back tees.
Hole 1 – 350 yards – Par 4
The first hole is not overly taxing off the tee, especially if you aren’t teeing off during lunch time. The tables you see just to the left are where everyone sits. If you tee off midday you need to hit one straight! I just hit an easy three wood here for position.
I first want to give you a look from the US Open tee. This is one tough shot.
I pulled my second into the rough. You learn quickly that the rough is a no-go at Merion. It wasn’t even that thick for us, but was still very difficult. You can barely make out the wicker basket behind the large front bunker.
The tees were moved up on this hole so it didn’t play the yardage. It did play slightly longer when I was there due to the air and temperature. The front bunker is a difficult place to be. Anything short makes for a tough par.
This is just a beast of a hole, but the funny thing is you don’t need to hit driver. You are so much better off getting it in the fairway. I took three wood right over the center bunker.
This third shot is so good. It plays off a downhill lie and there is trouble everywhere. The creek and coffin bunkers are short. Then there is plenty of sand and deep rough all around. This is one green where the grain really affected putting as my caddie highlighted.
My host told me that Tom Doak called this the only perfect par 4 in the world. It is hard to argue with him. It requires a solid tee shot, preferably a draw.
Unfortunately, the second shot is blurry. What you can see though is the massive sloping from right to left. I hit my second shot to just left of the large bunker you see on the right and I ended up 15 feet left of the pin! The pin was on the left side of the green.
The sixth is no slouch and paired with the 5th makes for a brutal two-hole stretch. You want to hit it slightly right of the far bunker in the center.
This hole may not be as long as the previous two, but it is no less difficult. You will see what I mean. A straight one at the green in the distance is all you need here.
This tee shot plays with our mind visually. You cannot see where the ball will land, but you want to thread it between the two bunkers in the distance.
This shot is so tough, but in a good way. It is not long, but requires precision. The front bunker is a formidable defense. You can add to that the shallow green. This is a tough pin to get to as well.
Standing on this tee it felt like there wasn’t very much room to land the ball. You really want to focus on your aim here. The water is only in play for very poorly struck shots.
My host mentioned that all the pros went for this green. We both agreed that was not the play. After hitting one in the fairway, Phil Mickelson holed out his second shot for eagle! As you can see below, you hit through a tiny chute. Hitting the fairway is imperative here.
This green has that hourglass shape to it. This pin is a sucker pin for sure. There is nowhere to miss back there. If you lay up to the proper spot in the fairway though you have a nice look at the green. Simple, fair, and difficult all at the same time.
This hole has some history associated with it to say the least (see below). Seven weeks later Bobby Jones would retire at 28! Those were different times.
I loved the setting of this green next to the creek. It just seemed to fit perfectly. The only issue here is that this area of the course is subject to flooding. This is also a difficult shot if you have to play off of a downhill lie.
It was about this point where I said to myself for the 10th time that this course is so awesome! This tee shot is only tight at the beginning, but once you get past the trees it opens up. A drive just right of the bunker is a good play.
The second is a shorter shot, but plays uphill to the green. I don’t need to tell you to avoid the front bunker. If my memory serves, the USGA softened the slopes on this green to make it easier for the pros.
I remembered this hole well from the Open telecast. It is so short, but so tough. If you miss the green you are staring 4 in the face.
Here is a little closer look. Our caddie said to not even look at the pin. The line here is 15 yards left of it. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of the green, but I can tell you there wasn’t much room up there.
This shot begins the tragedy portion of the 18. You need some good swings coming in. This one has O.B. all down the left. This one is pretty simple. You just need one in the fairway, preferably on the left side.
While it’s not long, there is plenty of trouble here. The road along the entire left side is O.B., but with the air on this day it wasn’t really in play. We had to worry more about the bunkers on the right. Take a deep breath and swing smooth.
This is another uphill approach shot. There isn’t a lot of room up there so as is common around here you need precision. You can’t see all of the bunkers guarding the green. There is one to the left of the flag.
The famous quarry hole is upon us! From here you want to go over the right tee marker ahead. There is a decent amount of fairway out there even though it doesn’t look like it.
You walk through the quarry to get to the green. It was really cool. It is thinned out enough where you can play some shots out of here. I thought that was a nice touch. The shots are tough, but you at least may get an attempt.
This hole is a brute. There is no other way to say it. At my host’s suggestion we played it from the US Open tees. This was a full three wood for me and it looks like there is nowhere but the green to land the ball. Talk about pressure.
This was one of my favorite greens on the course. The slope in front of the flag is massive. The contouring continues throughout the whole putting surface. You have to focus for any putt on this green.
Merion makes you work for it on the final hole. We had the wind slightly into us making this long hole even longer. A slight draw up the middle works best.
Quite simply, Merion is the best golf course I have played to this point. It is charmingly quirky, difficult, and fair. If you hit good shots here you will be rewarded. There is nothing tricked up about it whatsoever. It is good, solid golf from start to finish that tests you on the entire bag. I can’t explain how much I loved this course. I hope that showed through in the tour.