My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
What a tremendous golf course the members at Merion have to enjoy on a daily basis! I loved it, and would be thrilled to play it every day. It's a test, but it's a fun test, and it gives you enough chances to score that you don't feel like you're getting beaten up and playing defensively throughout the round like some other U.S. Open courses I've seen. This is a course that will yield a good score if you execute well. After our round, we had a couple drinks and then got cleaned up in the world's best showers before coming back down to the patio for dinner. For dinner, I'd recommend going off menu and trying Merion's version of a cheese steak. You won't be disappointed. Of course, you can't visit Merion without trying the Turtle Soup (Snapper Soup) as well.
Warming up with the West Course and then making our way over for an afternoon at the East Course was just an incredible day. Thanks so much to our host for making it happen. Very appreciative!
#18, Par 4, 407 Yards
One last chance for glory at Merion, which is the also the site of the most famous photograph in golf (Ben Hogan's 1 iron). This is the main hole where playing the right set of tees is critical. It's about a 260 yard carry to the fairway from all the way back. From the middle tees, you can get it out over the quarry and have a reasonable distance in. The plaque awaits you in the middle of the fairway where Hogan hit his famous shot, but club rules prohibit you from dropping a ball and giving it a try. Without these rules, I doubt there would even be any grass around the plaque as undoubtedly everyone would give it a shot. I was thrilled to make par at Merion's finishing hole...just don't ask me to do it again!
#17, Par 3, 208 Yards
248 yards from the back tees. There's nowhere to hide on this one. You just have to stand up and execute a great golf shot to make a good score. It's a long and intimidating carry all the way to the putting surface. After your shot, you get one of the cooler walks in golf, down a winding staircase that takes you through the quarry. Quite a hole.
#16, Par 4, 408 Yards
Now to the famous Quarry Hole. After a good drive into the fairway, you face a do-or-die, heroic carry over a former stone quarry to the green. Leave it short and you might still find your ball, but you probably won't like it! The hole was built with fairway going all the way around the quarry, so there is a safe line around the trouble if you don't have the guys to pull off the carry or hit your drive into a spot where the carry isn't possible. However, the angle of approach is far more difficult from that safe line. A nasty false front needs to be negotiated on the front section of the green. A phenomenal strategic hole.
#15, Par 4, 360 Yards
My only birdie of the day came on this one. Golf House Rd forms the left border of this hole and stands waiting for your shot at the bend of its dogleg to the right. A shot over the road and O.B. is very possible and must be avoided to score well. The approach shot goes up the hill. Even before my birdie, I really loved the look of this hole. Really cool.
#14, Par 4, 390 Yards
The 13th is sort of a warm-up for the Tragedy. The 14th is when it really starts, and it's give tough golf holes until you get to enjoy your mug of beer in Merion's awesome clubhouse. The 14th bends to the left with Golf House Rd. along the left side. I waited for a car to pass before playing my shot, because who knows when you might snap hook one and ruin someone's day (as well as your own). Bunkers are on the right and thick rough on the left. This is another green that is susceptible to the grown game and run-up shot if desired.
#13, Par 3, 115 Yards
How could a 115 yard hole begin the six hole finishing stretch known as the Tragedy portion of the three-act play? Well, watch the way I played it, and you'll certainly get an idea of how it can be true. Essentially, anything other that a shot on the green is playing with fire and is a very difficult up-and-down. Phil Mickelson could attest to this too. My shot ended up buried in the face of one of the left greenside bunkers, which meant I had to play a burried shot that was about 2 feet below my feet while standing outside of the bunker. I was told that I looked like I was sitting on a toilet with my legs about 5 feet part when I tried to play the shot! Get on the green and you can make a good par and move on.
#12, Par 4, 352 Yards
We got out drive in the air on #12 and then the lightning sirens blew. We made the walk back to the clubhouse to enjoy a mug of beer and a tour through the archives before heading back out to finish our round. #12 is one of the holes that had significant narrowing of the fairway for the U.S. Open. The hole bends hard to the left and has a lot of slope that works the ball to the corner of the dogleg. The green plays uphill toward Ardmore Avenue, and is probably he most changed on the golf course in recent years. The last hole of the Comedy, so get a good score in while you can.
#11, Par 4, 350 Yards
Along with #5, this is one of the more famous holes in golf, and much of it comes from the fact that it was here that Bobby Jones closed out his match to complete the Grand Slam in 1930. A plaque honors this moment behind the 11th tee. A driver isn't necessary, but you'll want to get your shot all the way down to the bottom of the hill to avoid an awkward downhill lie into a very small target of a green, surrounded by a bunker and Cobb's Creek. For my game, the closer to the green, the better, so driver would have been the best play. A deluge of rain started for us after we teed off on this hole, so it was a test to play it strongly.
Looking back at the Tee
#10, Par 4, 293 Yards
I'm in love with good short par 4's. This is definitely one of those. Trying to drive the green is an option, but with the bunkers and tall grass that surrounds it, it doesn't come without risk. The drive goes through a narrow chute of trees. Anywhere in the fairway is a good play and leaves a short pitch into the green. As long as your shot carries to the dogleg, you'll have a good angle in. The day we played, the basket was all the way on the front of the green, which was a very playable location for anything hit out to the right. Bobby Jones and his playing competitor both made double bogeys on this hole in the championship match of the US Amateur in 1930. Avoid all the sand and tall grass and you should be able to beat Bobby's score. After teeing off, a snack bar awaits on the left side of the 10th hole.
#9, Par 3, 165 Yards
The last hole of the outward nine is a downhill par 3 with a water in the front and right of the hole. Our host told us that the small dammed off portion of the creek that acts as a small pond might have been the first man-made water hazard in golf. Not sure whether that's true or not, but it's certainly possible. Even though it's a short hole, this green is a pretty small target with few good places to miss.
#8, Par 4, 349 Yards
Again, placement off the tee is the key here. I hit what I thought was a great drive but ended up in the right rough. You can see how thick it was. In fact, the trick with Merion's rough is that there are seven different types of grass in it. So, it's a bit intentionally inconsistent, but extremely healthy and thick. Fairways are rewarded and hitting the rough is playing with fire.
#7, Par 4, 352 Yards
Who doesn't like a good comedy? The middle six holes are the second act of the three-act play that is Merion, and are known as the Comedy portion of the course, for their fun and scoreability. You have to make your scores on these holes if you want to post a good number at the East Course. Really no need to hit driver on any of these six holes, but if you can keep it straight and in play, you can do so if you wish. The best angle into the hole on seven is on the right side, but you have to hug the O.B. line to get this reward. The green goes uphill so gauge your approach distance carefully to a well-sloping green. I had to show the Virgin Mary statue that sets on the opposite side of the boundary fence. The caddies had yardage to and from this landmark.
#6, Par 4, 412 Yards
The last in the six holes of Drama, the sixth hole goes out to the Southwest corner of the property. Rough and side-hill lies await with a drive to the left while a couple bunkers wait on the left. The green will accept a well-played run-up shot, which is only appropriate for Merion's longest par 4 hole (from the middle tees--#16 and #18 are longer from the tips).
#5, Par 4, 405 Yards
Commonly thought to be one of the best holes in the world, the fifth at Merion is a bear. The fairway slopes hard from right to left, with a creek and bunkers on the left side. From there, it's a shot into a green that also slopes hard from right to left with a creek left of it, and all off of a hook like (for a right-hander). The best play is for the drive to hug as close to the creek as possible to have the best angle into the hole and the best chance to hole the green. A two-putt and a par on this green is a serious victory. In my mind, with the difficulty around the green, this was the toughest par at Merion by far.
#4, Par 5, 561 Yards
There are only two par 5's at Merion, and they're in the first four holes! So, this is your last chance to score on a three-shotter. The drive and second shots are blind. The drive needs to be aimed at the middle towers in the horizon. From there, it's probably a layup to a large green with a creek short and bunkers all around. The only problem is that the ground in the layup area slopes fairly steeply downhill toward the creek, leaving you an awkward lie into the hole. From this shot, you can land your ball well short of the pin and have it release back to the hole. Land it at least 10 yards short of the hole to get anywhere close.
#3, Par 3, 170 Yards
A very large reverse redan green, but you had better not miss it, or the up and down is not easy. The ground falls off steeply to the right of the green, and down into a deep bunker. With the size of the green, a two-putt isn't guaranteed with a green in regulation either. Going uphill, the hole played about 190 yards for us. I was thrilled to take a par on this hole after opening up double-double. It was time to start playing golf!
#2, Par 5, 526 Yards
You can bring out the driver on the second hole, but do so at your own risk. Out of bounds lines the right side of the hole, in the form of Ardmore Avenue, and it's not much more than 10-15 feet to the right of the fairway. Definitely an intimidating tee shot, but within reason, you can hit it as far left as you want...full disclosure: my ball ended up in the fifth fairway, which actually wasn't all that horrible. Certainly better to be an entire hole left, that just a bit right and O.B. If you get it in play, it's a second shot up the hill to a straight-away par 5. The green bends the slightest bit to the left with bunkers protecting all four corners. I also got my first experience with the "White faces of Merion" on this hole. With essentially all the bunkers at Merion: if you're in them, it's usually ok. If you're a few yards from them, you're probably ok. If you're a yard or so from them, you're in the tallest, nastiest grass they've got, and are pretty much dead.
#1, Par 4, 336 Yards
There are golf shots in your life that you'll never forget. My first hole-in-one, a few eagles, a few other famous shots....and the time I topped a 3 wood off the first tee at Merion. This has to be one of the more nerve-wracking shots in golf as you're teeing it up on one of the best courses in the world, all within a pretzel throw of the patio where member and guests are eating lunch. For those who don't like hitting in front of other people, this is a terror. Usually I stand up to that challenge, but not this time! Driver is definitely not required off the tee, which was probably part of my problem as I'm used to teeing it up high on the first hole. A fairway wood or iron onto the fairway is all you need to get it out onto the fairway. Left is a better miss than right. From there, it's a short shot onto a well-guarded green. There are 13 bunkers on the first hole, and avoiding them is the best method to a good start. We learned about the grain at Merion early, and it has a definite impact on putts, especially their speed when putting down-grain or against it. The grain goes toward the low-point on the property, which is the 11th green. On the first hole, this is back and to the left. You'll want to keep this in mind wherever you are on the course and the caddies are a good help.
Enough of all the background noise. It's time to focus on Merion's East Course, which sits in the Top 10 of essentially every list of the world's best golf courses. Merion Golf Club was founded in 1896, but existed under the name Merion Cricket Club. Today's golf course was first conceived in 1910, when the club hired Hugh Wilson to design a new course that would be more fitting for the day's advancements in technologies. The land he was given was made up of two former farms and an abandoned rock quarry, and only added up to 110 acres. It was a difficult task to fit a course of championship caliber into such a small, and oddly shaped, piece of land. Wilson, an amateur in golf course design, routed and built the golf course, which would open for play September 14, 1912 and was immediately called "The finest inland links in the country." The course lay as built until 1920, when Ardmore Avenue, which divides the golf course nearly in half, become a busy thoroughfare. At the time, holes 10, 11, and 12 crossed the road, but as traffic increased, the holes needed to be changed to stay on one side of the road. Another renovation was planned in 1925, to improve the bunkering on the golf course. However, Wilson died that summer of pneumonia and was unable to finish the job--enter William Flynn, and his associates Howard Toomey and Joe Valentine. Flynn laid bed sheets all over the golf course in the places he envisioned bunkers to gauge their visual effect before settling on their final location. The bunkers he built was so beautiful and unique and the time that they became known as "The white faces of Merion." The last major tweaking of the golf course was in 1929, after which the course stands essentially as it has for 85 years.
Of course, Merion is probably best known for the wicker baskets on the pins (red on the front nine--orange on the back). This is only the case on the East Course, as the West has traditional flags. Plus, if you hang around for dinner, you'll notice that the wicker baskets go away around dusk and are replaced by white flags. Apparently the wicker had a tendency to disappear overnight and end up in someone's souvenir collection. Another thing about the pins at Merion...they're incredibly heavy. Probably upwards of 10 pounds I'd estimate? It was a chore just to take them out of the hole.
The play of Merion has become known as a three-act play. The first six holes are called "Drama," the middle six "Comedy," and the closing six holes are referred to as "Tragedy." This is accurately indicative of their difficulty and the mood that the player will likely have during the three sections of the course. With a cramped L-shaped piece of land, it was impossible to avoid parallel holes in routing the course. However, the way the land flows, you really never feel as if there is a hole right next to you, and there is absolutely no boring and monotonous out-and-back feel. Quite the opposite. All the holes on the East Course stand on their own, and would likely be signature holes at most other courses in the world. However, while they stand on their own, they are a part of a beautiful symphony at Merion, with a fantastic mix of tough and not-as-tough. Long and short, wide and narrow. This is a golf course with no weakness.
And I've said nothing yet about the championship history at Merion. Bobby Jones competed in his first US Amateur and completed his Grand Slam here. Ben Hogan hit is famously photographed 1-iron shot into the 18th hole (probably the most famous golf photograph ever). Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino battled in a famous playoff after Lee Trevino tossed a rubber snake at the Golden Bear.
Merion is known as a short course, and until the 2013 U.S. Open was thought to be obsolete with the modern game. Of course, part of this obsolescence was combated by the USGA adding over 500 yards to the course with several new tee boxes (for what it's worth, you can see where these boxes were, but they aren't maintained and open for play). However, without the 500 yards, there is plenty of challenge for day-to-day play at Merion. The back tees top out at 6,592 yards, but the club knows they're tough enough that they don't want the average guest thumping his chest and testing the lady from the tips. In fact, the club will only allow play from the back tees by players with a course handicap less than 10. From the back tees, Merion plays to a Rating / Slope of 73.5 / 149. I was just barely under the course handicap requirement, but I certainly wasn't going to push to test them out. The middle tees would suit me just fine, and I never felt like I was playing a short course. From the middles, the course measures 6,159 yards, and plays to a 71.6 / 144. I'll quote these below:
Before the 2013 U.S. Open, past champions gathered in The Trophy Room for a Champions Dinner. No one else was welcome in that room
More Trophies, Photos, and Artifacts
The Archives Room with The Library right outside of it
A few words about Merion in general, and the overall experience before I get into the course itself
With the undercard complete, it was now time to make the 1.5 mile drive to the main clubhouse and Merion's East Course for the Main Event. We had a little over an hour before the first tee called our name, so we settled in, got set up with our lockers, and had lunch from the club's lunch buffet on the outdoor patio that sets a whiffle ball's toss from the first tee. After a great lunch, we loosened up on the club's brand new practice range, and rolled a couple putts before it was time to go.
With all the hype that follows courses on the Top 100 lists, there is bound to be a time that I'm disappointed. In fact, I won't name names, but it's already happened on an occasion or two. However, Merion was definitely not one of those instances. Merion is a world-class golf club, and the East Course is a world-class golf course.
My day at Merion started about seven months prior to setting foot on the grounds with inches of snow on the ground and the temperature below zero. One of my close friends I've known since kindergarten got wind of my quest to play the Top 100 and called me saying that he had a family friend who was at member at Merion, and that he might be able to set up a round for us in the summer. Of course, I was thrilled to be included. After reaching out to the member, it got even better. Not only would we be playing both courses at Merion, but he would be setting up a round for us at Aronimink too! And, with family in the Philly area, I could even make a short visit to see my nieces and nephew on the same trip.
On the big day, I couldn't have been more excited when the alarm went off. The day started with an 8:30 tee time on Merion's West Course for a warm-up round. The West plays to only 6,046 yards from the tips and a par of 70 (Rating/Slope of 69.2/122), but it has more than enough teeth and a handful of great holes to serve as a great warm-up round. Not to mention, it's one of three courses that were built by Hugh Wilson, along with the East Course and nearby Cobb's Creek. There's no fanfare at the West...and no sign either! You drive up to a parking lot that merges seamlessly into a back road, park your car, and walk up to a very small snack bar / clubhouse. You can take a cart at the West course, but it's an easy walk, and he just carried our bags. It's not a Top 100 course, but I could see the West being extremely enjoyable if I were a member. It's a fun course and free of all the stress and policies of the East Course; plus it doesn't seem to get nearly the play that the East Course gets. We were the first group out on a Friday morning at 8:30 and basically had the course to ourselves.
#9, Top 100 Courses in the World (2013)
#7, Top 100 Courses in the U.S. (2013)
#5, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2015-2016)
#2, Best in the State of Pennsylvania (2013-2014)