Throughout my golf writing career, which is rapidly approaching 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time taking the opportunity to see the best golf courses. In fact, I’ve traveled all over the world to do that — but few places are cooler than Merion, which hosts this week’s U.S. Open.
I’ve had the good fortune to go to Merion twice in fact, both times about 10 years ago. The first time I played it was in late October, while the second visit, the following year, was in June. Both times I was staggered by just how good the course was — especially on a small site. On many courses on limited land you feel like a scene from Apocalypse Now — meaning you spend the whole time screaming, “incoming,” and covering your head from someone’s mishit. Not the case with Merion. It is seemingly the perfect routing, where Hugh Wilson dreamed up every kind of whole and slotted it in a site that is 175 acres, or less than half the typical U.S. Open site (and that includes more than just the course, which I can’t image is on more than 120 acres.)
What makes Merion so special that the U.S.G.A. decided to chance taking its prize tournament to a course that barely plays 7,000 yards, and which will play shorter because of the rain? It is the mix of holes — a stunning group that are among the best anywhere. In fact, I have a good friend, someone who has played most of the Top 100 in the world, who argues Merion is the best course on the planet. Let’s put it this way — it would be on my short list, up there with Cypress Point, Shinnecock Hills, the Old Course and Pine Valley.
When I first arrived at Merion I was stunned by how close the first tee is to the clubhouse. It is part of Merion’s charm, but you tee up on the first hole only a couple of yards from people eating in the clubhouse. It puts some pressure on the tee shot — more than a lot of people who don’t play competitive golf have ever experienced. From there the course crosses a road and becomes an exceedingly handsome, clever and intelligent mix of holes that snake near each other, but never actually interact. In other words, somehow Wilson managed to find a routing where the holes slide next to one another, but you don’t have any of the back-and-forth routing that you find on lesser courses.
Though it may not show up this week, but Merion’s greens are staggeringly good. It didn’t take long on my first time around to notice it — I still remember playing the 5th hole, a 418-yard par four with a sloping fairway that kicks everything towards a pond and hitting my approach to the back right with a front left pin. I was pretty happy with myself until I recognized there was basically no way to stop the ball anywhere near the flag — it would not stop rolling until it found slightly longer grass and I was chipping.
While I think Merion’s opening nine is brilliant, most of the history occurred on the back nine — that’s where Jones won the Grand Slam (the 11th hole) and Hogan won the Open with a 1-iron (or 2-iron depending on who you believe). This stretch includes the amazing 11th hole (the one they are concerned about potentially flooding this week) before the course once again crosses the road for the amazing 127-yard par three (which will be interesting to watch this weekend if the course is soft).
The final holes at Merion have few peers in the world of golf. You’ll hear a lot about 16-18 this week, and rightfully so. Those holes, surrounding and playing into a long abandoned quarry, are staggering. But the holes leading up to them — 15-16 that skirt along some very lovely homes on the west side of the property — are both magnificent, wonderful two-shot holes that are also tough as nails. It all contributes to Merion having one of the best finishing stretches in the game.
And yes, the 18th, where Hogan hit his 1-iron, isn’t quite the same beast it once was. I recall hitting a mid-iron into the green, though there’s been a back tee added since that point. Nonetheless, the green, perched back near the clubhouse, is tremendous and is also one of the great stages in the game. It would be amazing if the tournament comes down to the final hole.
I have great affection for Merion — it is one of those courses worthy of long study, especially for those modern architects who think a hole in their routing can be fixed with a bulldozer and some clumsy shaping. It is also proof that you don’t need 250 acres to find genius. Wilson did it at Merion — and even if the score is -20 this week, the game is better for having returned to one of its true gems.
Note: For those interested, here’s a short feature on Wilson, the architect whose one real stroke of genius was Merion. The NY Times has a very cool piece on why Merion uses wicker baskets instead of flags.