When Merion Golf Club was founded in 1896, Philadelphians were more likely to play cricket than golf. They even sent touring cricket teams to England!
But it wasn’t long before the golf bug really hit home and wealthy Philadelphians decided that they needed a top-notch golf course, so they dispatched Hugh Wilson back to Scotland to check out a few decent course designs. After seven months in Britain he returned with some great ideas for the new Merion and he set about putting them into practice. In 1912, the East course at Merion was ready for play and, considering Wilson was a complete amateur architect, he managed to produce one of the greatest courses in the States.
“Merion is an inland course,” wrote Robert Trent Jones in The Complete Golfer, “but the framework of its greens with their combinations of multiform mounds, oriented with sand and sod, give it somewhat the appearance of a seaside links. It is these well-shaped, artistically appealing green areas that make Merion characteristically different from most American courses and, further, explain to a considerable extent why Merion remains a vital test of golf, whereas most other courses of its pre-World War I vintage have long since lost their snap and crackle.
Analyze Merion closely. It has something. It keeps the pressure on the tournament golfer all the way through to the home hole. It is harder on the average golfer than a course like Augusta National, but its variety of fairway contours, the angles of its green surfaces, its contiguous ‘white faces,’ and the intelligence of its routing have made for a course that age has not withered nor custom staled.”
We could write a small book about the East course at Merion. For example, this was where Bobby Jones won the US Amateur Championship to complete his 1930 Grand Slam. Jack Nicklaus scored 66, 67, 68 and 68 in his four rounds of the 1960 Eisenhower Trophy, causing an international stir.
In the Golden Bear’s book, The Greatest Game of All, he commented, “Merion’s setting is nowhere near as picturesque as the Augusta National, the most beautiful meadowland course I know, or as majestic as Pebble Beach, with its awesome cliffs and ocean headlands. It is a park-type course, set in the suburbs. It occupies pleasant rolling terrain, but it is what its designer, Hugh Wilson, did with that terrain that makes Merion exceptional. Each of the eighteen holes has its own personality. Each is interesting to play. Each requires that you use your head to get your par.”
That’s what Jack thinks and we’d so love to hear what you think about Merion’s East course, especially if you've played it since Gil Hanse's 2014 restoration.
David Rossiter plays Merion several times each year and in 2012 he commented as follows:
"I often read or hear, when someone is trying to describe the attributes of a golf course, that "I had to use every club in my bag". Nowhere is this statement is more true than at Merion. The course is made up of long holes, short holes, and medium length holes. Decisions must be made on what club to use, to strategically attack a hole, on nearly every tee.
The rough must be avoided in order to have any chance of making par on a hole. There have been many wrist sprains inflicted on golfers trying to advance their ball out of the penal Merion rough. Hit in this stuff a couple times early in a round, you'll then be standing on the tee boxes with both hands on the steering wheel, for the remainder of the day. This of course just makes matters worse, and you just can't seem to get yourself back on track, making one bogey after another.
The green complexes are just that, very complex. In a blink of an eye, you can make a huge number on any hole. The greens themselves are pitched and undulating. When Hugh Wilson made these greens, the thought of 12' on the stimpmeter was inconceivable. When Merion is hosting an event or a tournament, the greenspeeds are 12' or higher and possible hole locations are reduced dramatically.
Many have stated that the final five holes "are the finest finishing holes in golf". No one knows for sure, but I'll say that I can't wait to see the U.S. Open played there in a few years. I know that the lead will change hands on those final holes, and it will not be one of the long hitters who will win. The winner will be someone who can hit every club in his bag well."
The US Open returns to the East course at Merion Golf Club in 2013. Merion last hosted the US Open in 1981 when David Graham became the first Australian to win the US Open Championship."
Update: Justin Rose claimed his first Major title at a brutally tough Merion Golf Club in 2013 becoming the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970.
Merion East is deserving of being listed as being in the top seven golf courses in the USA and top twelve in the world. It is that special.
I think of it as the most difficult “short” course in the world given that it plays less than 6200 yards from the members’ tees as a par 70. In fact, in my opinion it is the third hardest golf course I have ever played, behind Bethpage Black and Butler National.
It is routed beautifully on a small piece of land, requiring one to cross Ardmore Avenue twice after the first hole and then to make one’s way to the thirteenth tee. The golf course designed by Hugh Wilson has been recently renovated by Gil Hanse and has definitely restored the “white faces” of Merion which are the famous raised bunkers. One notable change by the club was to make the waste area between the sixteenth fairway and green a series of bunkers allowing both a chance for recovery as well as lessening the chance of a lost ball with the added benefit of speeding up play on this difficult short par 4.
The course is built around a series of ridge/hills, which are on the rise up the second fairway, to the left side of the third green, in front of the tenth green and across the road at the back side of the fifteenth green. There is the incorporation of a former quarry on the sixteenth and seventeenth holes. These hills do not affect only the holes I listed, they affect other holes which create a series of blind shots, slopes on the fairways, valleys, and angles to the greens. Those angles require one to think one’s way around the golf course. It is a course loaded with strategy and decision-making.
The green complexes are superbly defended by bunkers or the terrain. Many of the greens are raised such as the third, the seventh, the tenth, twelfth, the fifteenth, the sixteenth and eighteenth. Several of the greens are below you such as the ninth and the seventeenth. Others play level or are slightly raised. Certain greens can be very speedy if you are above the pin or having to navigate a spine. Some of the quicker greens are the third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, eleventh, twelfth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth. Many have multiple ridges and humps or in the case of the famous fifth green, a severe tilt right to left down towards the stream.
The variety of the holes is amazing despite the only two par fives on the golf course being among the first four holes. The par 4’s are varied in look and playability and one does not recognize the last fourteen holes has eleven par fours.
The conditioning has sometimes been an issue in the past but with the new irrigation and sub-air system that is likely to never be the case again even if there is a sustained drought. The greens have been superbly rebuilt and will get even better as they mature.
It is almost impossible to list the holes I like the most because every time I get to play Merion East a hole that I did not favor becomes more interesting and challenging than I remember. Perhaps only the tenth and twelfth holes can be considered the weaker holes but that is in comparison to some very difficult par 4’s.
I recall one member saying that the course is divided into three six-hole groups named “drama, comedy and tragedy.” It is true that holes 7-12 are the scoring holes as these are the shorter par 4’s and relatively speaking, the easier par 3’s. However, the “easier” par 3’s would be difficult par 3’s on any other golf course while the par 4’s can result in a high score if one gets offline.
Every time I play Merion East I discover some new feature about the course. Usually that discovery was unintended, but nevertheless I marvel at the brilliance of the defense or the strategy required. Make no mistake, you have to think your way around this golf course, you cannot over power it no matter how long you can hit a golf ball.
One final comment, the rough at Merion East is likely the toughest I have ever played. Once in the rough, the first imperative is to get back to the fairway; being able to advance one’s ball with any length is an added bonus. However, one often fails in the recovery shot and I have seen more recovery shots from the rough remain in the rough than find the fairway. I was told that one reason is that Merion East has seven or more different types of grasses. If true, that makes sense because it has seven or more different types of par 4’s.
It is brilliant and anyone who has the opportunity to play here should drop whatever they are doing and play here.
The best course I have ever played, almost 20 years after playing Merion I still vividly remember my round at the course. The course quickly introduces you to its emphasis on precision, in accuracy both off the tee and finding the right part of the green; after slogging my way up to the second hole, and being lucky to stay out of the creek when putting from above the hole on the fantastic severely right to left sloped 5th hole/green. After finding my footing on the shorter middle section of the course, I was able to somewhat redeem myself on the tough closing stretch including the fantastic over the quarry shots on 16 and 17, and the iconic over the hill and back to the clubhouse 18th.
The best course of the over 300 courses I have played. The fairways are narrow, the rough is deep, and the greens are small, so it will test every club in your bag. Your caddy or yardage book will get a workout as there were few yardages posted when I last played it in the early 90s, and the wicker basket flag sticks don't help you gauge the wind at all. Hit it straight and have your short game working and you might be lucky enough to shoot near your handicap...maybe.
The world of golf is blessed with certain key courses that clearly resonate in the upper realm of greatness. The names Pine Valley, Cypress Point, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield and Augusta National are five that come quickly to mind. In terms of maximizing a limited acreage -- Merion Golf Club / East is pound for pound the finest I have played. A tour de force layout -- fitting exquisitely into an area barely more than 125 acres or for those in the meter world -- 50.5 hectares.
Whenever one comes to Merion / East -- you quickly sense a difference. The fabled wicker baskets adorn the top of all the hole indicators. Clearly, the East possesses a superb individual collection of holes -- but it's the overall routing which is nothing less than stellar. All aspects of the property are used for maximum impact - topped off by a finishing stretch with a rousing conclusion.
Often times -- even the great golf courses -- will have a few "transition" holes -- ones meant to serve as link between holes of stature. Merion is not completely bulletproof in this regard but the "transition" holes on the East would likely be standouts at just about any other acclaimed course. Keep in mind, the renowned bunkers -- the famed "white faces of Merion," as called by amateur golf standout Chick Evans, are always looming to ensnare the hapless play.
Merion / East has hosted five US Opens -- the most recent coming in 2013 won by Englishman Justin Rose with a one-over-par total of 281. A number of other key USGA Championships have been held there over the many years as well as various international team matches.
It's been said the East Course is really a three-act layout. I concur with that assessment. The first six holes are well done -- beginning with what is one of the finest opening holes in golf in America. You tee off literally on top of the serving area by the clubhouse. It can be totally intimidating to attempt one's first shot of the day as members and guests hover within a few club lengths of where you stand as they munch on food and enjoy cold libations.
The hole plays less than 360 yards and dog-legs right. Strong players may think seriously in attempting to cut the corner but the net gain is minimal for the risk you're facing. The hole is reminiscent of Riviera's 10th -- but is just a bit longer. The prudent play is to keep your tee ball to the left center of the fairway -- providing a direct line into the green. What should be no more than simple four can easily result in bogey or worse by players seeking too much risk for so little gain.
When you cross Ardmore Avenue the golfer faces a formidable par-5 at the 2nd hole. Ably defended by out-of-bounds to the right and rough pinching in from the left there's just a bit of a turn in the fairway so the player able to work a right-to-left ball flight will benefit. The hole climbs uphill -- reachable by strong players but the green is well protected by flanking bunkers and a narrow opening in the front.
The 3rd was extended -- unnecessarily in my mind to a length of 256 yards -- and is better played at the 220-yard distance. The green is one of the best on the East because of a slope from back left to front right. Miss left and you'll be lucky to escape with a bogey. When the hole is extended to the max it becomes a test of unrelenting endurance.
The 4th is one of the finest 600+ holes I have played. The tee extension has added to the menace of bunkers on both sides of the fairway. Again, there's movement in the fairway -- this time from right-to-left. A stream crosses in front of the green and unless a player has the last name of Johnson or Watson -- as in Dustin and Bubba - it's a clear three-shot for all.
The 5th is often underserved by its position on the scorecard. The hole comes early in the round and if it were one of the final holes of any course it would be even more noted. The length has been pushed to over 500 yards. The brilliance of the hole stems from the terrain -- sliding noticeably from right-to-left. There is a creek that parallels the left side so any ball pulled or overly hooked can easily reach it. The key is coming near enough to the creek because balls in that area gain a more level lie for their approach. The green is another dynamic site -- also moving from right-to-left. For players intent on attempting to use the ground to feed the ball -- it is absolutely essential not to get hung up on the right side because the speed level from that position is the equivalent of the men's downhill in the Winter Olympics. The 5th is one of those long par-4 holes that is so clear in its requirements -- no artifice is present. You get the picture right away -- like facing an honest judge -- no bribes will be accepted on this hole.
The 6th concludes the "first act" of Merion East and it's a long par-4 of nearly 490 yards ably protected by a false front simply rejecting all but the surest of approaches. When you leave the 6th green you will feel as if you've been in a tussle and wonder what comes next.
Unlike other courses which would likely just add more of the same in their offerings -- Merion East provides a counterpoint "second act" of holes that are truly inspiring. From the 7th through the 12th Merion East shows a seductive side -- holes that suggest birdie -- but mask as much venom as any rattle snake for those lacking mental acuity.
The 7th and 8th are both well under 400 yards but the movement of the fairways and how each green is positioned call upon a deft touch with a short iron approach. Simply put -- you snooze you lose at either hole.
The 9th, like the 3rd was extended in recent times -- now playing to a max of 236 yards and it pushes the margin of fairness to the maximum. The green is kidney-shaped and has several key pin placements which are ably defended. At the alternate tee box of 195 yards the hole is much better overall.
When you make the turn for the 10th -- you encounter a par-4 of 303 yards. The hole begins from an elevate tee and turns abruptly left in the last 15-20 yards. The smart play is avoid the bait in going for the green -- staying to the right side opens up the green for an easier pitch and possible birdie.
At the par-4 11th you reach the hole where Bobby Jones completed his famous "Grand Slam" in 1930 when winning the US Amateur. The hole is a another outstanding example that excellent architecture is not about always powering golf shots. You begin from a slightly elevate tee -- the hole descends into a tight landing area. Hitting the fairway is central because Cobbs Creek provides a water barrier guarding the entire right side of the green. There's also a neat back left placement which is often used. The 12th concludes the "second act" and it's been improved over the years. Shaping the tee shot left-to-right pays dividends. The green is also a terror for those missing left -- sloped treacherously from that side.
Once the 12th is finished -- players cross back over Ardmore Avenue for the "final act." The 13th is nothing but a short iron or wedge at 115 yards but ask Phil Mickelson when he airmailed the green in the final round of the '13 US Open because it played a huge role in derailing his attempt to win the lone major he has not won. Still, the 13th provides the last real good opportunity for birdie.
The final five holes feature four par-4's and one menacing par-3. The 14th has been extended to 476 yards and is one of the more demanding of tee shots - turning left in the drive zone. If you don't hit the fairway -- the likelihood in getting home on your second is highly unlikely.
The 15th is smartly designed by Wilson -- this time turning right in the drive zone -- out-of-bounds lurking ever so close and well in play for those who fail to execute. In addition, the green is extremely sloped and a quick three-putt is certainly in play.
The final trio of holes at Merion / East begins with the Quarry Hole -- the 16th at 430 yards. The fairway ends at roughly just over 300 yards and strong players will likely opt to hit less than driver. The semi-blind approach features a large green with fall-offs to the sides.
At the 17th -- the hole has been extended to a max of 245 yards. The play commences from an elevated tee to a green that appears to be tiny in the distance. The green is split between a front and rear area. If the pin is in the extreme back it takes a monumental pinpoint shot to carry the requisite distance.
The concluding hole at Merion / East is world renown because of the famed Hy Peskin photo of Ben Hogan's 1-iron approach to the 72nd hole of the 1950 US Open. That image is etched into golf lore -- a synergy between great hole and legendary icon. Like a few others on the East the hole has been extended to just over 520 yards -- no misprint!
The carry over the adjoining quarry area is in excess of 240 yard and is further complicated by the tilt of the fairway which slopes from right-to-left. Complicating matters is a demanding green -- which only accepts the finest of plays -- an approach hit with too much gusto will surely roll over the back into some serious rough. Anyone watching Rose play the final hole in the '13 US Open will marvel at both his laser-like tee shot followed by a gifted 4-iron which enabled him to finish with a par and hoist the trophy for his first major.
My only real criticism of the course is the desire to have rough so long and dense to the point in which recovery shots are extremely limited. Unfortunately, this is not a trait relegated to the East alone -- a number of top tier links courses have followed suit as well as American counterparts of note. I have come to the conclusion that courses inserting heavy dense rough only takes away from the actual merits of the design. Such a heavy dosage only adds an unnecessary crutch. Merion East does not need any helpful hand.
It is hard to say if another US Open will come back to Merion. The cramped grounds forced galleries to be kept to a maximum of 18,000. For those fortunate to wiggle an invitation it will be a day you'll long remember. Whether the course is among the world's top 10 is a hot debate for sure. However, given the land limitations -- the 18-holes provided is truly amazing. To say Merion East is hallowed ground may be sacrilegious but for golfers blessed to play will be quick to say "Amen" when holing out at the final hole.
by M. James Ward
Merion has left an indelible stamp on my memory. After playing it once I could describe every hole in detail. The shape, terrain, bunkers, doglegs, green contours, etc. At Pebble Beach you sort of feel compelled to like the course because it is so pretty and everybody raves about. But, if you're being honest with yourself, aside from the eighteenth hole, can you visually remember all of the holes at Pebble? I'll bet you can't. What makes Merion so memorable? It is the ultimate strategic golf course. It is not a terribly long course but you have to hit the fairways or it will be a long day. In addition, you have to be on the correct side of every fairway in order to have a decent shot at the green. And finally, you have to be on the correct part of the green or you're in three-putt territory – on every green. Also, the shot variety is really good as are the changes in direction, doglegs and uphill/downhill shots. No monotony here. As if the golf course itself is not good enough (and it is) you also have the grandeur and majesty of the white-pillared clubhouse and the Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan history.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Merion has a rich history of which few courses can be compared, full of many truly amazing moments. One such moment was Bobby Jones closing out the Grand Slam on the 11th hole in 1930 with an 8 and 7 win over Eugene Homans. Another historical one was Ben Hogan’s famous 1 iron into the 18th green from 200 yds out into the wind to force a playoff and eventual US Open win in 1950. A miraculous win, consolidating his comeback from a head on collision that shattered his pelvis and nearly killed him only 16 months prior to this. A moment forever captivated in that wonderful picture nearly all golfers have seen. More recently by Justine Rose’s heralded performance in the 2013 US Open.
The clubhouse is an understated, classic and stylish building where every effort has been made to make it as comfortable and cozy as possible. A tour nearly equates on that of walking through a golf museum and evokes awe and emotion for the experience at hand. A pre or post round lunch on the large terrace adjacent to the first tee gives you a feeling you are right in the middle of the action, rightly so, as you truly are and I can honestly say I’m thankful this one time for not being a lefty as they would need to peer directly into the faces on the terrace not but a few feet away.
As for the course, Merion exceeded every expectation I personally had and restored my waning faith in parkland golf and its ability to produce unique experiences. No two holes even similar with an exciting mix of short and long par 3’s, 4’s and 5’s. The green complexes are masterpieces and in retrospect it’s very easy to understand why pros often struggle over 2-3 foot putts here. I don’t recall a single straight, flat putt on the course. Greens were slow on our day for Merion standards, yet still proved faster than I would be capable of mastering. Slow being 10 or 11 on the stimp. The breaks were already quite substantial and tough to judge. 5 x 3 putts later I still didn’t have it figured out, putting being my strong point and favorite aspect of the game. I reckon it would take several plays to start to figure out the greens as they were like none I’ve seen. More than once I found myself putting with the hole behind me or with my shoulders perpendicular to the hole. Definitely awe inspiring!
There are just too many great holes at Merion to list and describe in detail, perhaps as many as 18 as hard as it is for me to believe I’m writing that. Some of my favorite holes were: #5 with creek running up the left hand side and a green severely sloping right to left. The short par 4’s 7,8 and 10. The amazing short par 3 #13 ideally placed in front of the clubhouse and heavily guarded by slopes and bunkers. Finally, the closing stretch from 14-18, some of the toughest and most intimidating holes in golf. 14, a long uphill dogleg left playing straight into the wind. 15 a medium length uphill dog leg right with OB left, 16 a long par 4 with a forced carry on the approach over a canyon to a crazy two tiered green, 17 a 208 yd par 3 with another crazy two tiered green sloping away left to right at the back and finally 18 requiring a long drive over and out of this canyon which is semi blind leaving a very tricky approach to a crowned green. It’s as solid a finish as will ever be designed in my opinion.
Merion may just squeeze its way into the World Top 10 but as a complete experience it’s easily a top 5 in my book.
Number 1’s tee box is so close to the outdoor dining-room patio that you feel like you have to watch your follow through so as not to hit anyone with your club. Number 3 is a long par 3, a terrific reproduction of a redan hole. A stream runs through the property and Hugh Wilson makes excellent strategic use of it. It comes into play in the darndest places. Back by the clubhouse, Number 13 is a 120-yard par 3. That seems short, especially for a championship course, but it requires a deadly accurate tee shot.
I have only played Merion once, and I hope to play it again some day. If I could play only a handful of places in the world for the rest of my life one would be Merion and the other would be Cypress Point. Larry Berle.
We first did the Myrtle Beach Trip and then moved here, playing Pine Valley first. It was good to play the 2 course because they are so good but so different from each other that you need to play them more than once to admire and experience the difference. It was a very special day, we arrived pretty early although the tee time was around 10am. We had the chance of a great tour around the Club House (The Bobby Jones Room on the first floor is something so special!!), had some breakfast at the members restaurant and then moved to the proshop to buy every possible souvenir, except the basket that cannot be bought but yes you can buy the flag with the classic logo. We teed off with the same Argentine member who invited us to Pine Valley, a 70 year-old 3-handicapper that can still play very good golf. We had the rematch of the Pine Valley game and this time won 2&1. I played some of the best golf of the year, scoring 73 with 3 birdies, driving the green on 10 and smashing a driver towards 130 yards on 18th. Is it enough? No!! I want to go back and play it again...
What can I say about the course from a player point of view? It is a beautiful parkland, with every hole different from each other and where you will need all the clubs on the bag. You will face 2 early par 5s and that might be the only weak point on the course, as there are no par 5s on the back 9. Par 4s are of all type: drivable (10th), short and tricky (7th-11th-12th), long and tough (5th-6th-14th-18th) and those who look easy but can be a killer (1st-15th-16th). And all four par 3s are as good as you can imagine, even the very short 13th where Phil Mickelson lost the Open hitting a thin shot to the back of the bunker at the end of the green. The course had been aereated a couple of days before we played but it was nothing, we could experience in full size the site of a US OPen, you can see that the course has "one extra gear" even though it is short compared maybe to Bethpage, Pinehurst, Oakmont or Oak Hill.
After the round we had lunch at the terrace and the experience was complete, feeling like a member for at least one day and with the sure chance that we will be back soon. And it was also special to walk the course with good caddies, watching the spots where we saw great shots on TV and finally have our "Hogan photo". If I can say one more thing, I wish to say that the shots Justin Rose hit on 17th and 18th were very tough and that shows how good these guys are!! Click here to read Javier's article in full.