Merion is a place of storied golf history and one steeped in tradition. There is much to be said about cherishing the traditions that define where you have been and who you are. While it is nice to have clubhouses and courses that are updated or modernized, Merion proves that somethings shouldn’t be changed just because they're old. Much of the clubhouse at Merion seems to be the same as it always was. The men’s locker room still has metal lockers, no mahogany or rich cherry wood, just metal. And they seem to do just fine. Merion has red wicker baskets rather than flags on the pins marking the holes. Another tradition at Merion is to sit on the veranda while having a meal and watch the golfers tee off on the first hole. This is how my afternoon with Malcomn began.
Malcolmn, an active golfer, was our host for the day. I was introduced to him by Pastor Herb Lusk, a former Philadelphia Eagles football player who left the game during his prime to start a ministry in the Philadelphia area. I was introduced to Pastor Lusk by a friend who is affectionately known around the world as “Billy from Philly.” Billy is a fellow Black Jacket member. After the introduction, it turned out that Pastor Lusk and I know several of the same people who were associated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in the Philadelphia area in the early eighties. I was president of my high school chapter of FCA and worked as a field associate for FCA in the Washington, DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia areas during my college years.
Malcolmn and I chatted over a light lunch on the veranda and watched as groups teed off. Following lunch, we were joined by Jim Maxim and Jim Brown. No not the famous running back, just another of the three Jim’s that would tee off with Malcomn on this nice sunny afternoon in suburban Philadelphia. We all converged at the practice range to warm up for our round. Following our warm up, it was our time to be watched as others dined on the veranda. I felt almost as much pressure to hit a good tee shot as I did when I was preparing to hit my first drive at Augusta National.
Malcolmn, Jim M and Jim B, all hit their drives into the fairway. The pressure had just increased. Could I handle the pressure of a gallery of diners on the veranda and three drives in the fairway? The answer was not flattering. My drive was the longest of the four, but the least accurate as it landed in a bunker just off the right side of the fairway.
We played from the white middle tees which measured slightly longer than 6100 yards with a rating of 71.3 and a slope of 144. The 6100 yards may appear to be short, but it is not. The course plays to a 70 par with only two par fives. Both of which are on the first nine.
The first hole at Merion is a short 340 yard par 4 with a dogleg of about 45 degrees to the right. The fairway is lined with several bunkers on the left and the right. My ball rested on the sand 95 yards from a back right pin.
The green on the first hole is also well guarded by bunkers, one of which runs along the complete right side of the green. This made going for the pin from the fairway bunker a risky endeavor. I decided to play it safe. Rather than shooting at the flag, I decided to aim for the front of the green and take my chances with a two putt for par. I didn’t want to end up in another bunker.
I caught the ball slightly thin. The ball caught the top of the bunker and rolled back into the sand. So much for the conservative approach. Lying two in the bunker, it was now time for that second golfer in my line up to emerge. You know, the guy that we all have inside us that shows up on the driving range or after we hit a bad shot. I knew he could hit a sand wedge 95 yards out of the bunker and over the green side bunker onto the green. On que he hit the most perfect of golf shots. The ball landed on the green just 7 feet from the pin. How could this golfer and the one who hit the first bunker shot dwell in the same body? Well I didn’t need him for the seven foot putt. That one was handled by the first golfer in my line up for an opening hole par.
The second hole at Merion is a short par 5 of 515 yards. Earlier in the day, I had arrived at Merion and driven along Ardmore Avenue to get to the practice range. I noticed a hole to my left that seemed very close to the street. The second hole was that hole. Now I was thinking about how the slightest of slices could hit a passing car. With that thought in my head, I hit my drive over the fence that lined the right side of the fairway.
Fortunately, there were no cars passing. Unfortunately, over the fence and across the street is out of bounds. Once again, I needed the second golfer in my line up. One que, he arrived and hit my second drive into the fairway. From there I made what would have been a bogey had I hit the ball that well on my first drive. But with loss of distance and a stroke penalty for hitting the ball out of bounds, it was a triple bogey. The dreaded snowman in the middle of the summer.
The third hole is a par three that plays 168 yards. The green is well guarded by bunkers; three bunkers on the left, one large bunker on the right and two bunkers in the back. The pin was at the front right of the green. I hit a good shoot that hit the right slope of the green and bounced into the right bunker. Just a foot or two to the left, I would have been putting for a birdie. Instead, it took me two shots to get out of the deep bunker, I then chip on and one putted for a double bogey.
The fourth hole is the second and the longest of the two par fives on the course. It plays 560 yards from the middle tees. I hit my ball to the left rough, popped up my second shot, hit a good third shot and got on the green with my fourth shot. Up to this point I have not mentioned my caddie for the day. Primarily because up until this point, I’d played so poorly that by the time I was on the green, I had short putts that I could easily read for myself.
My caddie was a young high school kid who lived in the neighborhood around Merion. He was following another of the Merion traditions. Like his father before him, he has caddied during the summers at Merion. He knew the course and the greens well. On this, the fifth hole on the Merion East Course, he gave me the perfect read for my par putt. The putt looked good all the way and until it stopped just short of the hole, I thought I’d finally made my second par. I had not, but the bogey was a simple tap in and I could now rest easy that I was not going to have a round of golf filled with triple and double bogeys.
The fifth hole on the Merion East course is a 400 yard par 4. There are a few small bunkers sprinkled along the way from the tee box to the green, but few actual come into play. I hit my drive to the rough on the right side of the fairway. My second shot hooked into the creek that ran along the left side of the fairway. I took a drop and hit my fourth shot onto the green. Emmitt provided me with another good read. I again left the putt just short of the hole and tapped in for another double bogey, my last one the front nine. While I double bogeyed the hole, I was starting to settle down and get into a rhythm with my swing.
The sixth hole is another long par four which plays 415 yards. I finally hit a fairway, but missed the green on my approach shot, chipped on and one putted for that elusive second par.
The seventh and eight holes are both short par fours. The seventh hole plays 350 yards. I hit my drive to the left rough, missed the green on my approach shot, then pitched on to 15 feet from the flag. Another good read from Emmett and another putt that was right on line but short. I tapped in for a bogey.
On the eight hole which plays 340 yards, I hit my ball to what was marked as a lateral hazard on the right. It took us a while to find it, but we did find it just about a foot from a chain link fence. I decided to chip out rather than take a drop. With my ball so close to the fence, I knew I wouldn’t be able to advance the ball very far, but I could at least get to the fairway and have a clean shot to the green. My chip did get to the fairway, but my approach shot landed just short of the green. I chipped on to 8 feet and 1 putted for another bogey.
The front nine of the Merion East course finishes with a 160 yard par 3. The green is protected by a stream on the front and by bunkers all around it. I hit my tee shot over the stream, but just off the right front of the green. I chipped on to five feet, but missed the par putt and settled for bogey. The front nine of Merion got the best of me after the opening hole par. I shot a 47.
As always, the start of the back nine brought hopes of a fresh start and a better performance. The 10th hole is a very short hole that bends right to left as the fairway approaches the green. The tee shot is made a little daunting by the narrow chute created by trees on the left and right just in front of the tee box.
I hit my drive to the right fairway, but it trickled just into the rough. I lost concentration during my swing on my approach shot and shanked the ball. I hit my third shot onto the green to 20 feet and two putted for a bogey.
On the walk from the 10th green on the Merion East Course to the 11th hole tee box there is a rock with a plaque that commemorates Bobby Jones' completion of the Grand Slam. It was on the 11th hole in 1930 that he won the U.S. Amateur Championship to complete the feat. Malcomn took this moment to tell me of another tradition at Merion related to this achievement by Bobby Jones. Each year, on September 30th, after a tournament hosted by the club, the members adorn tuxedos and walk across Ardmore Avenue to the rock and toast Bobby Jones and his achievement of the Grand Slam on the 11th hole.
This hole, the 11th one on the East Course at Merion plays only 350 yards from the middle tees. There are bunkers short of the fairway on both the right and the left. The ones on the left are larger and more numerous. There are two trees at the end of the fairway that stand as sentries for the green. There is also a creek that cuts left to right at forty five degrees from the end of the fairway on the left to in front of the green and along the right side.
I hit my drive to the right rough about 150 yards from the pin. The tree that stands guard on the right side of the green, stood between me and the flag. I hit a fade around the tree and onto the green with my approach shot.
Unfortunately, it took three putts for me to cover the 30 feet between where my ball landed and the hole.
On the 12th hole, I got a little lucky with my drive. The hole plays 351 years. I hit my drive low and short. The luck occurred when my ball hit short of the creek that cuts through the rough between the tee box and fair way, but hopped over it into the rough on the other side.
I took advantage of the generosity of the spirits of the legends that roam the East Course at Merion and faded a six iron on the green to 15 feet short of the pin. My putt was online to the hole, but stopped short by a foot. I made the short putt for par.
The thirteenth hole is the shortest of the par threes on the course. It measures a mere 115 yards to the center. It has a very small round green that is well protected by bunkers all around it. Miss the green short, the ball is in the bunker. Miss the green to the right, the ball is in the bunker. Miss the green to the left, the ball is in the bunker. Miss the green long, the ball is in the bunker. On this day, the flag was up front on the green, just over the front bunker. I hit my tee shot right over the flag to about 20 feet past it. My putt looked good all the way, good line, good speed, but just slightly off. I tapped in for par.
The fourteenth hole was a disaster for me. I hit my drive to the fairway to about 200 yards out. The hole was playing about 425 yards. I hit my approach shot well, but it landed in the left green side bunker. My bunker shot sailed over the green and rolled behind a tall bush. I attempted to hit over the bush, but didn’t get to the green. I picked up and recorded a double bogey on my scorecard.
On the fifteenth hole I hit my drive to the fairway bunker. The hole is a short hole at only 360 yards. The hole is laid out with a slight dogleg to the right. There is absolutely no place to miss along the left side of the fairway. The fairway pushes against the cart part with the backyards of homes beyond that. The right side of the fairway is lined with several bunkers. My ball rolled into the second bunker putting me about 140 yards from the middle of the green.
My sand shot to the green landed in the left fairway about 10 yards short of the front pin position on the green. I pitched on and two putted for a bogey.
The sixteenth hole was another disaster. I hit my drive into a bunker on the right side of the fairway. The fifteen hole is the only hole on the course that I didn't like. There is what I can only describe as an elevated wall of stone that makes the shot to the green a blind shot. The fairway stops before the wall and continues atop of it. The best I could do after hitting my drive into the bunker was to pitch out to the left side of the fairway. My ball carried too far into the rough. I then attempted an ill-fated shot up and over the wall of stone, and around the trees atop the wall. I didn’t quite make it, but somehow, I found my ball in the junk on top of the stone wall. I hit onto the green and two putted for a double bogey.
I didn’t fair much better on the long par 3 seventeenth hole. The hole is 205 yards, but plays to a downhill green. I hit my first tee shot thin and low. It landed in the high fescue about 60-70 yards short of the green. I hit a provisional just in case we couldn't find the ball. As usual, that second golfer in me hit the perfect shot that landed on the green. We couldn’t find my first ball. I two putted the second ball for a double bogey.
The finishing hole at Merion is the scene of one of the most heralded shots in the history of golf. In the 1950 US Open, after recovering from an automobile accident that by all accounts should have taken his life, Ben Hogan hit a drive to the middle of the fairway. From there he hit a perfect shot with his 1 iron to the green. The 1 iron is club that Lee Trevino famously said that you could use to protect yourself from lightening on the golf course because even God can’t hit it. Well Ben Hogan did and it allowed him to force a playoff which he then prevailed in to win the US Open.
My drive on the eighteenth and final hole at Merion sailed down the middle of the fairway, landed a few feet beyond the plaque that marks the spot from which Ben Hogan hit his shot, hopped six inches and stopped. It was such a surreal feeling to stand on almost the same spot to hit my approach shot. My game is slightly different than that of Mr. Hogan. So I do not carry a 1 iron in my bag. But I do carry a 3 hybrid. The photographs of me hitting my approach shot is not as classic as the one Mr. Lin took of Mr. Hogan. The US Open wason the line. There was no gallery lining the fairways, and I didn’t hit the green. The photos will not be posted on almost every clubhouse wall as the one of Mr. Hogan usually is, but I present them here for your enjoyment.
My ball landed in the rough, short of the green. I pitched on and one putted to end my round at Merion in the manner in which I started it – with a par. My final score at Merion was a 90.
Following our round. Malcolmn, Jim M, Jim B and I sat on the veranda and toasted to a wonderful day of golf and freindship on a course with so much history and so many storied traditions. We also talked about family, about God, and about life.
I’d like to thank Billy from Philly for the introduction to Pastor Herb Lusk and Pastor Lusk for the introduction to Malcolmn. And I certainly want to thank Malcolmn for being such a great host at Merion.
Next up, the Lower and Upper Courses at Baltusrol.