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Which is Better? | Merion or Pine Valley

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of LINKS.

Merion Golf Club

Its incomparable championship history and taut test of shotmaking give this year's U.S. Open site a decided edge

by Gordon Dalgleish

It takes either a brave or remarkably naive member to think he can mount a successful defense of his golf club in a faceoff with the number-one course in the world. Pine Valley has a storied and, in many respects, mythical history.

But speaking of history, my Merion has hosted four U.S. Open Championships, six U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Women’s Amateurs, one World Amateur, a Walker Cup, and numerous other significant events. It was the fitting venue for Bobby Jones to begin his illustrious career—in the 1916 U.S. Amateur (as a 14 year old!)—and to conclude it with the completion of the Grand Slam (in the 1930 Amateur, on the 11th hole). And who could forget Ben Hogan’s heroic return to competitive golf when the iconic photo of his 1-iron approach on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open hangs in clubhouses around the world?

Of course, Pine Valley has hosted two Walker Cups, along with the annual Crump Cup, plus a 1962 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. And granted, the relative merits of a golf course cannot be settled by any single virtue. But on the basis of history, Merion is clearly one-up—and that’s before considering this year’s Open.

Merion delivers unique golf experiences in many ways, beginning at the first tee. As at the first tee and 18th green of the Old Course at St. Andrews, golfers on Merion’s opening tee box consistently have an audience: sitting on the patio, they graciously cease activity as each golfer addresses his ball. At Pine Valley, golfers make a leisurely walk from the clubhouse, through the parking lot, to a secluded first tee.

The contrast of location also could not be more striking. Pine Valley lies past a turn at the ferris wheel and a railroad crossing. Set in the middle of suburbia, Merion’s location welcomes members and guests for a quick round after work. It does not require a special trip, rather integrating golf into the lifestyle of its membership. A membership, it should be noted, of passionately proud golfers who spend endless hours “at the club.” Pine Valley, on the other hand, is predominantly a national club, its members crossing the railroad tracks several times a year with their guests. Most members see one another only in passing.

The holes at Merion require thought, discipline, and exceptional ball control. At Pine Valley, the usual suggestion is to play for the middle of the green then look for the pin. This may work on its generously proportioned greens, but at Merion—where accuracy is both required and rewarded—much more precision is required.

Few clubs are more willing and excited to share their course for the enjoyment of all than Merion. We soon shall have the opportunity to witness the best players in the world be tested by it once again. If only we could subject Pine Valley to the same rigors.

Gordon Dalgleish is a member of Merion Golf Club and the Co-Founder and President of PerryGolf.

Pine Valley Golf Club

Dramatic terrain and a brilliant design combine to create an incomparable test of both talent and decision making

by Steve Smyers

I love Merion. It’s one of the game’s greatest courses with a splendid blend of long and short holes. Set on a tight piece of property, its features—narrow fairways, small bunkers and greens—fit the site perfectly. But with homes surrounding it and Ardmore Avenue running through it, the setting isn’t nearly as good as Pine Valley’s.

Pine Valley is a big site, more than 500 acres of big ridges, big ravines, a good-size lake. The bunkers, greens, and fairways are bigger, bolder, and more masculine than Merion’s. Mr. Crump’s original intent was to make the course such a test of golf that it would make Philadelphia golfers more competitive nationally. It was a wonderful mission statement and still holds true today.

When it opened in 1919, Pine Valley was far ahead of its time. Then, as now, it provided tremendous options. A great course is more about decision-making and temptation than shotmaking. Jack Nicklaus once said something to me about sucker-pin placements that I’ll never forget: He said the toughest discipline in golf is to shoot away from the target. And that’s what Pine Valley is all about: the discipline to resist temptation and shoot away from the target. Every green has a proper side, which will leave you 30- and 40-foot putts. And then the greens are so intricate that being able to control the pace is more important than reading the line: If you understand the pace, you’ll understand the line.

Pine Valley has some fantastic short holes, like No. 8, a classic drive and pitch. The fairway is extremely wide but you’ve got to position your tee shot depending on the wind, the hole location, and your ability. The putting surface is small and elevated, and the fairway slopes left to right, sometimes severely, so the ball is below your feet. It requires absolute precision with the wedge.

The long holes are equally great. One of my favorites is the 13th. Its fairway is very wide on the right-hand side. The approach is downhill about 40 feet, making it difficult to judge the distance, and the wind is usually blowing because it’s open land. There are very deep bunkers left and front of the green, but the right side allows for a running shot onto a large putting surface. That’s always my choice.

As designers, we try to create a place that feels good, which is all about the design interacting with the landscape. Pine Valley just has the right amount of topographic change for golf. It was routed by Harry Colt, who understood that the journey was important. The way Pine Valley moves golfers around these different landscapes is absolutely brilliant.                      

Pine Valley member and course designer Steve Smyers served on the USGA Executive Committee and has played in 19 USGA events.

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