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Merion Golf Club (East)

The history and character of Merion is synonymous with the record number of USGA events it has hosted

By: James W. Finegan

Appeared in May/June 2007 LINKS

Of the four greatest figures in the annals of American golf—Bob Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods—Jones and Hogan each enjoyed his single most important and satisfying victory at Merion Golf Club. And it was the insightful Pete Dye who wrote on the eve of the 1981 U.S. Open: “Merion was not great because history was made here. History was made here because Merion is great.”

Merion has hosted more U.S. Golf Association events—17 of them—than any club in America. In fact, these championships and international competitions have shaped much of Merion’s personality and history. It’s impossible to bring up Merion and not think of Jones’ Grand Slam, Hogan’s 1-iron and Lee Trevino’s rubber snake.

More recently, Merion has been linked to the USGA not for the championships it has hosted but for the ones it hasn’t. For years after the 1981 Open, when it played at 6,544 yards, Merion was the prime example of a great course that both the modern game and the modern business of golf had outgrown. Not only did it not have the length to challenge the best players in the world, Merion occupies just 127 acres, leaving very little room for large galleries and the hospitality tents that are as much a part of the Open as narrow fairways and thick rough.

But with the recent lengthening of the course to 6,846 yards—still short by today’s standards—and the purchase of land adjacent to the course, Merion passed a trial test in the form of the 2005 U.S. Amateur, and the USGA has awarded it the 2013 Open.

That will be the 19th time the USGA will have tapped Merion—it also will host the 2009 Walker Cup—since golf came to the club in 1895. That’s when a group of members from Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, just outside Philadelphia, took up golf. But in 15 years, the much livelier Haskell ball made the layout obsolete. The board of governors decided to build a new course two miles away, in Ardmore, under the direction of member Hugh Wilson.

Though an accomplished golfer, Wilson had no experience in course design. However, he had just spent seven months studying firsthand the outstanding links of Scotland and England. Moreover, he was blessed with a top-notch crew led by William Flynn, Howard Toomey and Joe Valentine, an Italian immigrant who could communicate with the mostly Italian workers.
Following the opening of the East course in 1912, Wilson fashioned the West course two years later, giving Merion the distinction at the time of the only club in America with two 18-hole courses.

In 1916 the East course hosted the U.S. Amateur. Chicago’s Charles “Chick” Evans came to Merion on the wings of his U.S. Open victory at Minikahda two months earlier. In the final he met defending champion Bob Gardner, also a member of Chicago Golf Club. The occasion was without precedent: clubmates, one the U.S. Open champion, the other the U.S. Amateur winner, facing each other in the Amateur final.

Evans won, becoming the first to capture the Amateur and the Open in the same year. The only other player to achieve this extraordinary double also competed in the 1916 Amateur. Fourteen-year-old Bobby Jones astonished the golf world by carding the low score of 74 on the West course to earn a match-play berth, then gained the third round before losing to Gardner.

When Jones returned to Merion for the 1924 U.S. Amateur, he won every match effortlessly, downing Francis Ouimet, 11 & 10, in the semifinal, and George Von Elm, 9 & 8, in the final.

In 1930, having won the British Amateur, British Open and U.S. Open, Jones came to Merion confident of winning the U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam. “I knew,” he would write, “that no American golf course could be more to my liking than Merion.” Of course, he again won easily and not two months later, announced his retirement. Jones’ career had commenced as a lad of 14 at Merion, and 14 years later that is where it ended in sublime triumph, with no more worlds to conquer.9thSixty-four players, including Phil Mickelson and Jay Sigel, gained match-play spots in the 1989 Amateur. But it was a couple of unknowns who vied for the crown: 21-year-old Chris Patton, a 300-pound South Carolinian, and Tennessee’s 32-year-old Danny Green, an optical technician. Neither had ever competed in the Amateur.

Patton, an amiable young giant, held a 3-up lead at the luncheon break, when he telephoned the family farm.

“How’re ya doin’, son?” his mother asked.

“Guess you could say I’m winnin’, Mom. Dad there?”

“Nope. He’s gone fishin’.”

On the second 18, Green never got closer than 2 down, and Patton won, 3 & 1.

In 2005 Edoardo Molinari, a 24-year-old engineering student from Turin, became the first Italian citizen to win the U.S. Amateur. The recently lengthened course stood up well: In stroke-play qualifying, the low score was 69 and the scoring average was 78.16. Every hole, including the 303-yard 10th and 120-yard 13th, played over par.

Merion has been the venue for four U.S. Women’s Amateurs. Two of them, in 1904 and 1909, were at the Haverford course. In the 1909 final, Dorothy Iona Campbell of North Berwick, Scotland, defeated Merion’s finest female player, Nonna Barlow.

When the club hosted the women again in 1926, it was on the East course. Philadelphians earned seven of the 32 match-play berths, one of them going to Mrs. G. Henry (Helen) Stetson, who later wrote about her caddie: “Roy showed some lack of confidence in me when he asked if I thought I could qualify for the matches. I told him to be quiet and carry the clubs.” Roy’s petite employer defeated Mrs. Wright D. Goss for the title. Another local player, Dorothy Germain Porter, captured Merion’s fourth Women’s Amateur, in 1949.

The routing of the East course has remained unchanged for decades. There is balance, diversity and an overall elevation change of about 55 feet. No two holes are even remotely alike. There are boundaries on both sides of play—on the first nine, usually on the right, on the second nine, usually on the left. There is a mix of short and long holes—five par 4s measure less than 400 yards, while two stretch more than 500. In addition, the par 3s range from 120 to 246 yards. The greens come in all shapes, sizes and settings. And every green except the 1st, 12th and 18th is visible from its tee.

Is Merion East perfect? Very possibly. It is also rigorously testing. Which is to say there is not once when you can open the shoulders, let out the shaft and fire away, confident that you will have a reasonable chance of playing the next shot. Always there is pressure on the golf swing—always.

Nicklaus once said, “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.”
In 1934 Merion hosted its first U.S. Open, won by California’s Olin Dutra, who edged Gene Sarazen by a stroke. Nobody noticed that a 21-year-old named Ben Hogan, playing in his first U.S. Open, shot 79–79 to miss the cut.

Held during the depths of the Depression, the 1934 Open lost money, at a time when membership was falling. By 1940 Merion Cricket Club was running $19,000 in the red. Many members believed its chances of survival would improve by splitting into separate clubs. The tennis and squash players continued as Merion Cricket Club; on March 1, 1942, the golfers voted into existence Merion Golf Club.

The U.S. Open returned in 1950. Ben Hogan, 16 months after a near-fatal auto
accident, vowed that he was ready to compete on his battered legs over 72 holes, the final 36 on a single pressure-filled day. With nine holes remaining, Hogan found himself in the lead. But after a bogey on the 17th, the cushion was gone. And he had trudged nearly nine miles on those fragile legs since breakfast.

Following a perfect drive on the up-down-up 18th, he pulled his 1-iron out of the bag and made the swing immortalized by photographer Hy Peskin. The ball landed on the front left of the green. The weary Hogan took plenty of time on the 40-foot lag putt and very little time holing the four-footer to tie George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum. The next day, now revived, Hogan shot 69 in the playoff to win.

“Merion meant the most,” Hogan said, “because I proved I could still win.”

Merion’s next two Opens also held drama. In 1971, prior to teeing off against Nicklaus in the playoff, Trevino tried to ease the tension by pulling a rubber snake out of his bag before becoming the only player to beat Nicklaus in a major championship playoff. The win also was the first of Trevino’s three consecutive national championships that summer, along with the Canadian and British Opens.

Ten years later, David Graham rallied from three strokes behind George Burns to win by three with a 67 that was almost certainly the finest competitive round ever played on the East course.

Merion also hosted two international events, the 1954 Curtis Cup and the 1960 World Amateur Team Championship. In ’54 the British women used the larger American ball, but as one of their supporters said, “They could better have used the Americans’ putting stroke!” A rash of three-putting on the first day doomed the visitors, who lost 6 to 3.

Thirty-two countries competed in the 1960 team event that the U.S. won by 42 strokes. Nicklaus put on one of the most remarkable performances of his life: His 269, the best individual total, was 18 strokes lower than the 287 returned by Hogan in the 1950 Open, when the course played substantively harder (but not by 18 shots).

And so Merion looks ahead to its future USGA events—the 2009 Walker Cup and the 2013 Open. Considering the deeply felt traditions of hospitality and camaraderie on Ardmore Avenue, both occasions should be corkers.   

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