Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, PA
Tee Time: July 28, 2015, 9:36, 90 F, sunny
Designer: Hugh Wilson, 1911
Playing Partners: Robin Baggett, Larry McNabb, my dad
Tees: Middle, Par 70 (71.3 rating/144 slope/6,126 yards)
Course Handicap: 10 (8.2 index)
Stats: 79 (44-35); 34 putts; 6/14 fairways; 9/18 greens
I had the extremely good fortune of getting to play Merion Golf Club’s East Course in Ardmore, Pennsylvania to get to 23 states completed. Known for its unmatched collection of great golf holes, several memorable US Opens and those wicker-basket flagsticks, I looked forward to this on my calendar for three months. Christmas came early. A couple of things about the club first. This is the first club I have been to with this much history. Built in 1896, the heritage and tradition run deep. Caddies are mandatory, there aren’t any yardage markers. No golf carts. No hats indoors. The course is always kept in championship condition. Slick greens, long rough and narrow fairways. Pace of play isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a requirement. Members who don’t complete rounds in under 4 hours get reprimanded and repeat offenders are temporarily benched. They honor the rules here. Not even a breakfast ball. I have a few friends who would struggle with that one. And really, if you’re going to knock it around at a place as esteemed and historic as this, the letter of the law is the only way to go. The club works hard to keep Merion the same as it played when it first opened, and it’s awesome to think you’re experiencing the course just as Bobby Jones did. Fortunately, they don’t go completely old-school and make you play with wooden woods and feather-stuffed balls.
The best thing they made me do was leave my cell phone in the car so I had nothing distracting me from the experience. The men’s locker room has an air of antiquity that’s like walking back in time a few decades. Located upstairs where the heat gathers, it has metal lockers probably from 1965 that look like they were once used by at Philadelphia Eagles training camps. And the post round shower, which you will need if playing in the summer, is as refreshing as a Costa Rican waterfall. Trust me. On the short drive to the practice range, around 8am, we noticed the flagsticks were adorned with actual flags and not the wicker baskets. Turns out they have to bring them in every night before sundown due to thieves running out and taking these unique souvenirs. They replace them as play progresses in the morning. I hadn’t thought about stealing a flagstick, as cool as they are, and when when the idea entered my head I realized it wouldn’t fit in my travel bag. Would’ve looked pretty sweet in my garden, though. The other thing about the wicker flagsticks is that the poles are noticeably thicker than your standard flagstick. I hit one dead center with a chip and it had no room to drop into the cup. Oh well, I’m clearly over it.
The opening 1st is one of the easier holes on the course. A 339-yard par 4, it plays a bit uphill and the green is right of the landing area. From the fairway it’s not a tough wedge into a receptive green. Always nice not to start leaking bogeys on the first hole. That can be done at the 2nd, a 515-yard uphill par 5 that plays 550. A fairway as wide as a football field generously awaits your tee shot. A layup leaves a short iron in. Stay in the short grass and there’s nothing to fear. That goes for the whole course. This rough here is gnarly. Balls settle down and take more forearm strength than I currently have to thrash it out of there. A deep rough lie is an automatic 100 yards off your shot. The par-3 3rd is a long carry to a large green with as much break as any at Merion. Especially that back left pin position they had today atop the shelf. Apparently there is an old farmhouse buried in the low spot between the tee and the green.
Not only is the par-5 4th a monster, at 559 yards, it requires strategy. A creek runs across the front of the green, which is also guarded by one of those high-lipped bunkers. If these two par 5s beat you up, and I’m betting they will, you’re in luck. The remaining 13 holes have no 5s to offer. The 1-handicap hole on the course is the long, 404-yard 5th. There is a creek that runs along the entire left side of the fairway to the green. Everything kicks that way. The 6th is 413 yards and plays slightly uphill to a large, flat green.
The middle third of holes at Merion, 7 through 12, are nicknamed “the Comedy” due to their overall lack of length. This also means the final third would earn the nickname of “the Tragedy”. Something to look forward to. The 7th is a short, 220-yard shot off the tee and from there plays to an elevated green. I found one of those many, many deep greenside bunkers. I wasn’t angry; the sand is as white, fluffy and perfect as Utah powder and you can play any shot you want from them. The 8th is similar in length to 7, at 348 yards, but instead of up, you go down. The approach is to a smaller green that is well guarded by a deep bunker to the front. Any downhill putts should be avoided. The greatest view at Merion is atop the par-3 9th tee. It’s a spectacular downhill shot of 160 yards over a two-lane creek (think one creek, a space, and then another creek, like a double rainbow). The large green is also well-guarded on the left by mounds of fescue and sand traps.
The back nine opens with a long hike to the tee box of the 291-yard 10th. It plays a bit like a mirror of the 1st, with the green hard to the left of the landing area. The 11th is one of many historical sites at Merion. It was at this 348-yard par 4 in 1930 that Bobby Jones clinched the US Amateur 8 and 7 to complete the Grand Slam of the day: US Open and British Opens and the US and British Amateurs. It’s also the prettiest hole on the golf course. From the crest of the fairway, you look down to the green guarded to the right by the creek that meanders from the left of the fairway across and up to the right. It’s an intimidating approach to an elevated, firm green.
“The Comedy” closes with the 351-yard sharp dogleg-right 12th. Anything 250 yards out and avoiding the trouble on the outer corner to the left is good to leave 125 yards or less to approach an elevated green. Then it’s across the street to the tiny 13th, at just 115 yards. You may recall this as the hole Phil Mickelson air-mailed a wedge into the crowd and made a bogey on his way to losing the 2013 championship. I knocked it to 10 feet and made birdie, just like I would’ve done with thousands in the gallery cheering me. That’s just a given.
The 14th is a short hike up past the clubhouse to a tough 396-yard par 4. This is where the holes get longer again. “The Tragedy.” The hole is a dogleg left with a blind approach to a large, flat green. The stunning 15th is a 358-yard dogleg to the right and uphill. The tee shot has about 200 or so yards to carry the fescue and sand at the corner. Anything past that and right will leave a short 100-yard wedge into the green. The 16th is a tough par 4 that tees off down to the fairway before hitting up to a large, back-to-front sloping green. The approach requires a carry of all the trouble that runs in front and to the right of the green as you play up out of an old quarry. From the left, the angle is cut off by a giant tree (over 50 feet tall) that swats back approach shots like Dikembe Mutombo. The knee-buckling 17th is a 205-yard par 3 to a large green. Surrounding the green is trouble on all sides, with acres of that ball swallowing fescue all around, along with dangerous small bunkers. It sure felt rewarding to put a good swing on my shot and carve one toward the pin. It landed hole high before running just off the back, but it felt like my best swing of the day.
It’s amazing to think about the history at this course. Walking down from the first tee, feeling loose and free (my caddy had my bag so I was unburdened), it struck me right away. I looked over to Mr. McNabb walking next to me and said, “Just think of all the people who have walked these same steps. Golf legends going back over 100 years. And here we are.” It is a treat just for the history and atmosphere. The fact that the golf course is the nicest design I’ve played on, it’s ranked the #5 golf course in America by Golf Digest, is merely a bonus. This is a pilgrammage. Just look at the notable moments here. Sergio hit three balls O.B. at 15 in 2013, a hole I nearly birdied. Ben Hogan’s 1-iron in 1950. Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930. Phil Mickelson’s back nine meltdown in ’13. Graig Mantle’s back nine 35 in 2015.
#18, Par 4, 407 yards, 2-handicap, My Score: 5
How can this not be my favorite? As a big fan of history, both American and golf, this is the site of one of the most famous moments in golf history. Its a blind tee shot, using the American flag waving in the distance as your target. From there I walked past the Ben Hogan plaque, which marked the spot from where the “nickname” flushed a 1-iron from 213 yards onto the green to win the US Open in 1950. As you can tell from all the divots directly next to the plaque, this shot is oft-imitated, never duplicated. I’m sure Ben Hogan hit the ball further than me in his day, but I was 50 yards past the plaque on a sidehill lie hitting uphill. He laid up with a 3-wood to that flat spot the best stance on the fairway to give himself the best chance at a great shot. The man knew how to get aorund a course in a smart way. Also, he didn’t have cavity back irons with low centers of gravity to land a soft-core engineered golf ball on the green. The man striped a 1-iron so purely his balata ball held that sun-baked turtleshell green. It’s amazing to think about.
Layout: A+; there isn’t even a mediocre hole here, they’re all spectacular. I could write 1000 words on each one, but that would interest only me, so you get the cliffnotes
Amenities: A; that overhead rain shower was exactly what I needed after that round out in 90 degree weather. The patio is also a great spot to hang out and have a drink while watching groups go off the first tee. A range that’s as good as any with lots of room to practice all parts of your game.
Staff: A; there’s staff to wait on everything. I asked if they had towels and the locker room attendant responded, “This is Merion, sir, we have everything” He’s right. And the caddies are awesome. I had Larue on my bag, and all I had to do was swing the club. He gave great reads, lines and stories as we talked about the most recent US Open (awesome) and Tim Tebow’s chances of starting for the Eagles (not so awesome) I may never play without a caddie again, it was such a different experience
Difficulty: A+; like all these old courses in the I-95 region, the fairways are narrow, the greens slope and the rough is thick. But if you can stay out of the rough good scores are available. The areas around the green are pretty harsh too, with overgrown fescue and deep bunkers with high lips. When the winning US Open score is +1, you know you’re in for a rough round.
Scenery: B; it’s set in an old neighborhood and at times you can hear the light rail rumble by. Not much to see other than the stunning views of the golf course as you walk, which is not a bad thing
Value: n/a; I have to thank Robin Baggett, former Cal Poly Mustang catcher, for taking Mr. McNabb, my dad and I out for this round. Previously the only other time I’d met Mr. Baggett was when he landed a helicopter onto the Cal Poly Baseball field named for him to throw out the first pitch back when I was working for the athletic department in college. That chopper was pretty sweet, but this was much better.
Overall GPA: 4.0 (A); if you get the chance, do whatever it takes to get here for a tee time. Skip children’s birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I’ll have to sit back and think about it, but this is definitely in my top 3 all time now.